The Rainbow Family of Living Light is supposed to be a chosen family for travelers who believe in peace, love and anti-capitalism. Maybe by default, it’s also a family for people who don’t have one.
That was the case for Amber Robinson and Joseph Capstraw, who both grew up in foster families, according to cops and friends.
Capstraw, 20, was a train hopper with a history of violence, who had been hanging around other Rainbows for years and went by the name “Shaggy.” Robinson, 18, was a free spirit, who wrote poems and loved to be outdoors. She couldn’t wait to start traveling. She thought a Rainbow was exactly who she was supposed to be.
But life on the road manifested more danger than her trusting nature led her to suspect. And in a world where people favor "rainbow names" over "government names," a person's history is not easy to trace. Even still, some Rainbows knew of Capstraw's rough past. But Robinson did not, and when she chose him as her traveling companion, she had no idea it might somehow lead to her murder.
Jakob Brandow met her as they were finishing high school and instantly felt connected to her, as most people did, he said. She had big eyes and listened intently.
“Anything you brought up with her would turn into a conversation,” he said. “She was really genuinely interested in what people had to say and who they were.”
She and Brandow met as part of the very small alternative set at Santa Rosa High School in Milton, Florida, near the Alabama line. Robinson was bouncing from couch to couch and ended up staying with Brandow for a few days, against his parents’ wishes. They sat on his back porch and had deep talks. They took mushrooms together, watched documentaries and stared at the lake behind his house. Brandow felt a romantic tension growing between them, he said, but Robinson had a boyfriend at the time.
In the few months he knew her, Brandow says she was always interested in using the Rainbow Family network as a way to travel. Her older sister had been traveling alone for a year, she told him, and everything was going well for her.
But Robinson’s trusting nature gave Brandow cause to fear for her safety as a solo traveler. She always tried to reassure him.
“That’s what the Rainbow is for,” he recalls her saying. “Once I get with the Rainbows they have places where only girls can stay. I’ll be fine.”
“I’m gonna buy you a big-ass knife,” he told her jokingly. “You already attract so many creepy dudes, as it is.”
Before she hit the road in mid-June, Brandow bought her a pair of Vans instead of a knife. Another friend outfitted her with a tent and some camping gear. Robinson made a farewell dinner for the three of them.
Brandow was considering joining her on the road in the coming weeks. But for the moment, he hugged her goodbye. “I remember saying something stupid like, ‘You do better than me out there, alright,’” he said.
Isabellè Stevenson met Joseph Capstraw at a party in St. Augustine, Florida about six years ago. Capstraw looked like he was in a dark place and she took pity on him. “I saw him going around the party and treating people like shit,” she said. “I thought maybe he needs someone to talk to, so I went and talked to him.”
They were both on acid, she recalls. She talked to Capstraw for a long time that night and eventually they hooked up. It led to a three-year relationship, Stevenson’s first. But for a three-year relationship, Stevenson knew very little of Capstraw, who she called Shaggy.
“I called him Shaggy, because that’s all I was allowed to call him,” said Stevenson, who was 17 at the time. “He didn’t really let me know his real name and once I did, I wasn’t allowed to say it.”
He didn’t like to open up about many things, she said. When it came to his family and his past, she knew there had been lots of trouble, addiction and some abuse.
Capstraw would have been about 14 years old when they met, but even at that point he lived outside a lot of the time, she said. He was among the faction of Rainbow Family known as Train Jumpers or Crust Punks—people who travel in boxcars and often have an anarchistic mindset. When he wasn’t staying with Stevenson or near a bridge in town, he might be at one of the various flophouses known to Rainbow Family members. He often played street music for money.
“Shaggy was the first person to introduce me to the Rainbow Family,” she said. “I loved the vibes, because they are all being themselves and there’s no reason to fake anything. They welcome you as you are.”
Capstraw evangelized the virtues of Rainbow Family to others too. A photographer named Haley Gilreath asked him what Rainbow meant to him at the 2018 national gathering in Georgia. “He talked about it being welcoming and all inclusive and not turning him away, but making him feel at home, instead,” she said. “Shaggy was warm and polite, like most of the people I met there.”
Quickly though, Stevenson began to see troubling cracks form in Capstraw’s dark, mysterious-guy façade. “When he drank, he was mean and abusive. It was like a switch flipped in his head, like you were looking at the devil himself,” she said. But she tried hard to sympathize, because he told her that his mother had been an alcoholic who abused him.
“We’re hurt by other people and we can’t handle it. We go numb and we keep hurting others,” she said. “It’s a ripple effect.”
As the relationship continued, Capstraw began to hit her, she said. Eventually, he allegedly moved onto choking her during arguments. “Not like light choking,” she said. “Like 'I want to kill you' choking.”
As Amber Robinson prepared for her first time on the road, she made several posts to different Rainbow groups reaching out for support and advice. She planned to travel to Nashville on June 19 and hoped to find somewhere to stay or someone to give her a ride.
“I’m just scared of being alone in a place I’m not familiar with, as this is my first time traveling on my own,” she posted to the Rainbow Family Sister Circle group.
After Nashville, she wanted to head to the Rainbow Family’s annual gathering in Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia. The gathering has been held each year since 1972 in a different national forest and this year’s drew roughly 4,500 people, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
By June 18, she was getting excited. “I can’t wait to meet so many amazing people at Rainbow, I’m excited to come home,” she posted in the general Rainbow Family group.
It’s unclear when exactly Robinson and Capstraw met. It might have been at the gathering, as cops believe, or a couple of days before at a bus stop. They were both carrying instruments and shared a musical connection, on top of their links to the Rainbow Family. Capstraw played the guitar and Robinson played the ukulele.
Robinson—who was an advocate for mind-altering drugs that grow in the earth—had just written a song called, “I just wish I was a mushroom.”
“Here there is no room to relax, so I’ll go somewhere warmer where// I can be myself,” the song goes. “Help me and I’ll help you, as the fungus do// Finally free to live how I want to.”
Capstraw sang in a high, melancholy voice, as can be seen in Facebook videos. One photo from the gathering shows him playing a stringed instrument like a banjo. A yin-yang tattoo is visible on the outside of his strumming hand. A peace sign of roughly the same size adorned the other.
The gathering is punctuated by hard partying, nature ceremonies, drug use and drum circles, according to online accounts and participants. It's unclear how much time Robinson spent with Capstraw there.
She texted a friend that the gathering was “awesome.” “I got real dirty in the woods and swam in a waterfall naked,” she said.
She acted with exuberance and joy. A random stranger named Amber reported that Robinson ran up to her out of nowhere. “Are you Amber?” she asked. “My name’s Amber too!” she said and gave the stranger a big hug.
That was likely the same day Robinson and Capstraw left the festival together, according to the other Amber’s Facebook post. It’s unclear if Robinson had any idea about the violence in Capstraw’s past at the time, but by that point at least some Rainbow Family members had reason to suspect he might be capable of hurting someone.
In May 2017, Capstraw got into a brawl in Jacksonville, cutting another homeless man on the chest and neck. He ran away and buried the knife afterwards, cops say, according to WTLV-TV in Jacksonville. Prosecutors charged him with attempted murder. But witnesses testified that he wielded the knife in self-defense and he was acquitted.
Once Robinson and Capstraw left the festival around June 25, Robinson seemed to be excited about finding a new lifestyle with her “road dog Shaggy,” as she referred to him in a text.
“I made 80 bucks with Shaggy playing the uke and singing last night,” she texted her good friend Jakob Brandow. “Made enough for a nice motel.”
They left Nashville and headed for Kentucky. A like-minded couple picked them up outside a Wal-Mart and took them to their home in Elizabethtown. Police have not released their identities.
Robinson cleaned the house and Capstraw helped with clearing some fallen trees, according to Robinson’s texts. The couple was paying them a small amount so they’d be able to afford bus tickets, she told Brandow.
At some point, Robinson got the idea to separate from Capstraw. She told Brandow she planned on going to Texas and then California, but that she would go alone. “I’m gonna try and get a modeling job in L.A.,” she told him.
On July 3, she seemed to be taking stock. “I miss you best friend… and I’ve walked three states already on foot in the shoes you gave me,” she wrote. “You’re the only person I think about when I think about feeling cared about and not alone.”
He wrote back: “I replay some of the things you tell me in my head everyday, even without seeing you you’re still with me too.”
“Dude, I’ve literally tried to fall in love and I can’t. I think my heart is defective,” she replied. “All I care about is getting to Cali and growing.”
Capstraw and Robinson apparently stayed with the couple three more days. Then on the night of the July 6, the couple left Capstraw and Robinson alone in the house. Only Capstraw is alive to tell what happened next.
He told cops that they got into a disagreement about the owners of the house. Capstraw told cops Robinson said something “nasty” about one them. He replied it wasn’t a very loving thing to say and then things escalated, he told the cops.
After that, Capstraw said he blacked out and awoke to find his tattooed hands bloodied and damaged. Robinson’s face was so badly damaged that cops had to use dental records to identify her.
Capstraw is charged with first-degree murder. When cops found him outside of the house, he said, “I killed her,” according to a police report. He pleaded not guilty to the charge earlier this week, according to the News-Enterprise in Elizabethtown.
Jakob Brandow had considered going to the festival with Robinson; he’s haunted now about whether it might have somehow changed the outcome.
But more than blaming himself, Brandow wonders whether the Rainbow Family could have done more to protect Robinson. Facebook groups like Dark Side of the Rainbow Family and the Rainbow Family Sister Circle exist to help protect single travelers, but Brandow believes they failed.
“I'm trying to put the focus on Rainbow” he said. “People knew about what this guy was like and they didn’t do anything.”
Many others have taken to social media to defend the Rainbow Family. “The rainbow gathering is not a bad place,” one friend of Robinson’s wrote. “You liberated her and made her truly feel free. The fact that a monster ended her life shortly after she experienced such joy is heartbreaking.”
Since Robinson’s death, one Rainbow Family member has recorded her song about wanting to be a mushroom and posted it in the group. “Three days ago I wanted to be a mushroom,” the lyrics say. “Now I’m thinking being human is pretty okay too.”
[Photos: Facebook, Haley Gilreath, and Jakob Brandow]
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