Rumor stemming from Burning Man suicide untrue, officials say

Bay Area Reporter/September 20, 2007

Nevada law enforcement officials and Burning Man organizers this week disputed a widely reported rumor stemming from a suicide at the annual festival in the Black Rock Desert last month.

Press reports and blog postings that stated that friends and members of the Comfort & Joy camp thought the hanging body of a young man was an "art piece," are untrue, according to Sheriff Ron Skinner of Pershing County, Nevada, and Andie Grace, spokeswoman for Burning Man.

The man was identified by authorities as Jermaine D. Barley, 22, of Fort Collins, Colorado. He committed suicide in a tent at Comfort & Joy, one of the queer camps at Burning Man, on August 30, according to Skinner.

The Bay Area Reporter reported Barley's suicide earlier this month, though at the time officials would not release his identity. The article cited the San Francisco Chronicle's reported accounts of the incident. Nevada authorities would not provide information to the B.A.R. beyond confirming that the incident took place, and Comfort & Joy organizers did not respond to messages by press time.

Kitten Calfee, founder and organizer of Comfort & Joy, told the B.A.R. on September 6 after he returned from the festival that there was "nothing unusual" happening at the camp early on the morning of August 30, when he was saying goodbye to guests. About a half hour to 45 minutes later, while he was getting ready for the day, camp members notified him that there was a body in the public dome. He told them to get rangers immediately.

"If he hung for any period of time it was because he hadn't been discovered," said Calfee.

Skinner agreed. He told the B.A.R. on Tuesday "we don't believe that anyone else was in the tent for sometime later."

"It was all handled very quickly," said Grace.

It is unclear why Barley committed suicide or chose the Comfort & Joy camp. According to Calfee, Barley wasn't a member of the camp. The sheriff's department is still conducting an investigation and is waiting for the Washoe County medical examiner's report that is expected to be released within the next two weeks.

"We were just a physical environment that he happened to walk into," said Calfee. "He chose to leave the planet on his own."

Calfee said that Barley used the leopard print rope from the chandelier in the tent and a lectern that was being used for "Leopardy," a Jeopardy parody show with questions about Burning Man, to hang himself early in the morning.

Calfee told the B.A.R. that he was impressed with the speed with which rangers and Burning Man officials responded. Calfee said rangers arrived quickly and that Burning Man organizers immediately sent a team of five or six psychologists to Comfort & Joy to talk with camp members about the incident.

Calfee said that the camp reopened after officials cleared the area. Camp members decided not to dismantle the tent.

"We wanted to keep people positive," said Calfee, which is one of the reasons why he created Comfort & Joy.

Rumors about past suicides at Burning Man that were also being posted on blogs are untrue, according to Grace. Barley's suicide was the first in the 21-year history of the event, she said.

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