The Sad Tale Of Kai The Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker

The one-time internet star—now accused of murder—has spent three years behind bars awaiting trial. Here's his story

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Jul 14, 2016 at 10:49 AM ET

He hasn’t surfed or strummed a guitar in more than three years. The legions of fans that were once drawn to his sauntering spirit have largely vanished. And he may very well spend the rest of his life behind bars.

But the man known as “Kai the Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker” has no regrets about the viral event that launched him on a breathtaking, and ultimately fateful, trajectory—one that would cast the now-27-year-old from a freewheeling drifter, to a folk hero for the digital age, and finally to an accused murderer in a matter of months.

“I got to tell everybody that they deserve respect and are lovable, and that they’re worthwhile,” he said by phone from New Jersey’s Union County Jail before launching into an unprompted discussion on how the ancient Greeks used four distinct words to talk about love. Eventually, Kai circled back to the moment that changed his life completely. “It had a profound effect on millions of people.”

Kai, whose real name is Caleb Lawrence McGillvary, earned internet acclaim—and his enduring moniker—after he clobbered a rampaging madman with an axe in California and delivered an epic narrative of the incident to a local television reporter. Just weeks later, still coasting on the publicity, his fortunes changed drastically: he was charged with the murder of an elderly attorney on the opposite end of the country—an act he claimed he committed in self defense. That was in May 2013. But his case has still not gone to trial. And his once-loyal followers are slowly tuning out.

Frustrated and fading from memory, he’s now speaking publicly for the first time. In an exclusive interview with Vocativ, the Sublime-loving skateboarder maintained his innocence and offered a glimpse into his a life as an inmate. Since landing in jail, Kai’s studied religion and attempted suicide. He’s penned lawsuits, poetry and songs. He’s struggled to keep his spirit alive.

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But most of all, Kai’s tried to fight back against what he believes is an overt effort by law enforcement to keep him behind bars. “They’re going to do everything fucking thing that they can to discredit me, to make me feel like shit,” he said. “They have no desire to see justice in this.”

Kai’s saga marks one of the more bizarre twists in the world of internet-ordained celebrity, and serves as a king bummer of a case study in viral fame gone wrong. Millions have lauded the unscripted acts of everyday people like Antoine Dodson, who uttered the famous words “Hide your kids, hide your wife,” or Charles Ramsey, the Cleveland man who dropped his Big Mac to rescue a woman that had been held in captivity for a decade. While some of these uncommon heroes try to cash-in on their brief brush with fame, most ease back into their un-extraordinary lives. Few have gone on to face a murder rap and life in prison.

The star turn for Kai came in February 2013 during a surfing and hitchhiking stint through California. A driver with whom he had caught a ride suddenly went berserk outside of Fresno and intentionally plowed his car into a utility worker. The 290-pound maniac then tried to smother a female bystander with a bear hug. That’s when Kai, who was 24 at the time, grabbed a hatchet he had tucked away in his backpack and clobbered the driver repeatedly.

“A guy that big can snap a woman’s neck like a pencil stick,” Kai told a local Fox News affiliate. “So I fucking ran up behind him with a hatchet. Smash, smash, SUH-MASH!” His 5-minute performance was hilariously unhinged, uplifting, and heroic—a heady concoction. Millions gaped at the clip published to YouTube as national media celebrated the hatchet-wielding hitchhiker.

For the next four months, Kai rode a righteous wave of internet fame. He landed an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. He crisscrossed the country to stay with strangers who opened their homes to the curious drifter, who is originally from Canada. (Full disclosure: Kai asked to sleep on my couch in Brooklyn when I was a reporter with the New York Daily News. My now-wife and our roommate at the time said he couldn’t.)

But the good times came to a sudden end that May when Kai was accused of beating a 73-year-old lawyer to death in New Jersey during an alleged sexual encounter. While he hinted that he had been drugged and raped by the victim, Joseph Galfy Jr., a grand jury indicted Kai for murder in November. He has been in jail ever since.

“Looking back, obviously that guy was a fucking predator,” Kai told Vocativ. “I should have never gone to Jersey with him.” 

Kai said that he had met the attorney in New York’s Times Square on the afternoon of May 11, a Saturday, after spending the previous night sleeping in the Port Authority bus terminal. Galfy, a partner at a small law firm, struck up a conversation with him, he said. And when he learned that the long-haired drifter was making his way to New Jersey, the lawyer—who was unaware of Kai’s hatchet episode—offered him a ride and a place to crash at his home in Clark, around 13 miles south of Newark.

At Galfy’s ranch-style brick home, where the man lived alone, Kai said he drank a few beers and was given food, including hamburgers, that he believes were drugged—an account he also gave to police in a recorded statement after he was arrested. In his interview with Vocativ, Kai insisted that has never had sex for money. Galfy was no exception. “That’s disrespectful to even imply that about me,” he said. “Did you see pictures of the guy?”

Kai said he passed out after eating. He later came to on the floor of a dark room.

“I was under the influence of god knows what and there is, for all intents and purposes, a naked man over the top of me sexually assaulting me,” he said. “I fought tooth and nail. On the street, like, don’t get me wrong, I’m a nice guy and stuff. But if you’re sleeping underneath a train bridge and you wake up in a situation like that, you gotta fight for your life. It’s just a fact for survival on the streets.”

Kai said he struck Galfy in self defense and then bolted. He said he did not learn of the lawyer’s death, who died of blunt force trauma, until after he was arrested.

“Do I feel bad that he’s dead? It’s a human life, [so] I mean yeah,” Kai said in our conversation at the end of June. “Do I feel bad that he raped me? I feel embarrassed, like I think it’s disgusting. I feel all sorts of emotions and stuff that I wouldn’t wish on anyone else.”

Authorities have cast the incident in a different light. Following Kai’s arrest on May 16, then-Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow told reporters that Galfy’s death “was thought out.” Romankow also described Kai’s claims of being drugged and raped as “pretty much self-serving,” though the prosecutor did say that the encounter between Galfy and Kai appeared sexual in nature.

“They lied to the media and said he was found in his bed. They lied to the media and said it was a romp,” Kai said. “That’s fucking disgusting. Do you know how many hot chicks—never mind. Even if I was gay, do you know how many hot guys wanted to fuck me after that shit in California? I’m not even being vain. It’s just a fact, like—no offense, but he [Galfy] was not a looker.”

 A spokesman for the Union County Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment on the case for this story.

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During his years in jail, Kai has devoured law books and obsessively picked apart the details of the investigation surrounding his case. He claims that authorities destroyed evidence that would prove Galfy drugged and raped him. Kai also says that investigators did not examine him for sexual assault, even after he gave his official statement to police.

These and a number of other allegations are outlined in a hand-written federal lawsuit that Kai filed, a copy of which has been published by a Facebook group maintained by one of his supporters. The Facebook page also contains a trove of other documents related to Kai’s case, including lab and police reports as well as a copy of the grand jury transcript. The suit, which names 19 defendants, claims authorities violated his right to due process of law through destruction of evidence and the failure to collect evidence.

“The only way to prevent them from continuing on this egregious pattern of injustice is by making it as public as possible,” said Kai, who sought to dismiss his public defender, Peter Liguori, earlier this year. His case has since been reassigned.

“The investigation by law enforcement doesn’t seem to be thorough,” John Cito, Kai’s new public defender, told Vocativ in a brief telephone interview. Cito, who said he received the case less than two months ago, declined to comment further.

Kai said that he’s paid a steep price for waging a legal battle from inside his cell. He claims that the jail’s corrections officers  have thrown away books donated to him on cross examination, rules of procedure, and federal civil rules, and that he is no longer permitted to use the jail’s law library. Since February of this year, he has been held in an isolation cell for 23 hours a day—punishment, he claims, for aggressively pursuing his exoneration.

Kai also admitted that while in jail he’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, an assessment he views with great skepticism. Though he had taken Zoloft, an antidepressent, for several months behind bars, he said that once authorities learned of his lawsuits he was forced to take a host of other medications used in treating bipolar patients, including Tegretol, Risperdal, and Depakote. Kai said he stopped taking those drugs in February, around the same he was placed in isolation.

Calls to Ronald Charles, the director of Union County Correctional Services, went unanswered. A Union County spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

These days, Kai begins most mornings inside his cell with a series of sun salutations, burpees, and other calisthenics, he said. When inspired, he will write songs and poems, some of which he’s performed in recorded phone calls with supporters. A small radio allows him to stay connected to the outside world. There’s also plenty of time for Kai to look inwardly—he said he’s worked to develop a daily meditation practice in jail.

“I started opening up my psyche to different possibilities of existence and stuff, and meditating on different ways I could perceive the world,” he said. “I found in changing my perceptions I was actually able to kind of overcome some of the stressors of jail, if you will.”

Still, the challenges persist. Kai misses surfing, skateboarding, and playing the guitar. Adjusting to the conditions of life behind bars has, at times, been tumultuous for the man who once considered himself “home free” in the world. Just months after his arrest, Kai tried to commit suicide.

“I really felt down and out to the point where I was just, I just wanted to die,” he said. “So I cut my carotid artery.” 

Time has also taken its toll on one of his greatest sources of strength: his die-hard fans. Kai’s most ardent supporters once held fundraisers for his legal defense, plastered “Free Kai” posters around cities, and flew from around the world to visit him in jail. One Facebook group, which became the de-facto pocket of the internet, boasted more than 10,000 followers. Then, in early April of this year, the group suddenly vanished online.

“Everyone wanted to move on with their lives,” said Terry Ratliff, who launched the now-defunct “Kai the Hitchhiker Legal Support Page,” in a phone interview. Ratliff, who also recorded a number of songs and shout-outs performed by Kai in jail, added that members of the group had been targeted by online trolls who had relentlessly harassed and attacked them.

Kai’s new legal support group, which he’s used to publish the copies of court and police records, has just over 170 followers.

“I have nothing negative to say about Kai,” said Ratliff, who is not involved with the new page. “If he’s innocent, I hope the dude gets his life back.”

At this time, Kai believes his prospects look grim. He does not mince words about his eventual day in court. “It’s not going to be a trial at all,” he said. “It’s going to be a fucking lynching.”