Every year since 1972, the Rainbow Family has held unofficial gatherings in national forests dedicated to peaceful, communal living. The hazard and the glory of such radical tolerance is that everyone is allowed inside.
20-year-old Joseph Bryan Capstraw—who is charged with first-degree murder for savagely beating to death 18-year-old Amber Robinson who he met at the gathering, cops say—represented the hazard.
The Rainbow Family is an unorganized collective of misfits that sprang out of 1960s hippie culture. Rainbows, as they are called, often travel in caravans and intermittently meet up for happenings, both small and large. Roughly 4,500 people showed up for this year’s annual gathering in the Chattahoochee National Forest in north Georgia, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
That is where Capstraw—who had previously been living on the streets of Florida, according to WTLV-TV in Jacksonville—met Robinson.
Capstraw’s relationship to Robinson is unclear, but as the gathering ended around July 5, they decided to travel together. They hitchhiked north, up Interstate 65 through Tennessee and into Kentucky.
A man from Elizabethtown, Kentucky picked them up somewhere south of town, a police officer told Oxygen.com. He even invited them to stay in his home for the night “out of the kindness of his heart,” said John Thomas of the Elizabethtown Police Department.
The man apparently left later that evening. He was still not back home, when around 2 a.m. a neighbor called cops about a suspicious person in the area, according to a criminal complaint obtained by Oxygen.com.
Cops found him outside the house, bloody and asking to be taken to a hospital. He said, “I killed her,” and then led them inside the house, the complaint states.
What first responders found inside is still troubling them, officer Thomas said. Robinson had been severely beaten in the face and had strangulation marks on her neck, according to the complaint.
“The attack was so brutal, her face was totally destroyed,” he said. “I've never seen anything like it in 10 years of law enforcement.”
Aside from admitting to the attack, Capstraw could shed little light on the events, cops say. He told them that he and the woman had gotten into a verbal fight and then he blacked out. When he came to he found the woman dead and his hands with multiple injuries, the complaint states.
Cops identified Robinson as the victim Thursday after an extensive social media outreach campaign to people who had attended the festival, Thomas said. The condition of her body made the process more difficult, he added.
Robinson was originally from Florida, but it is still unknown where she was living prior to the gathering, Thomas said.
Capstraw had other brushes with violence. He was charged with attempted murder in May of last year for cutting another homeless man on the chest and neck in Jacksonville, according to court documents obtained by WTLV-TV. Witnesses said Capstraw acted in self-defense and a court found him not guilty.
The majority of infractions at any given Rainbow gathering are minor. Cops arrested 28 people and issued 900 citations at this year’s gathering, according to WSB-TV in Atlanta. But chaotic undercurrents have also darkened the vibes in recent years.
A 20-year-old is still missing after this year’s festival, according to WXIA-TV in Atlanta. At the 2014 gathering in Utah, a woman the Rainbows nicknamed “Hitler” allegedly stabbed a man, according to KSTU-TV in Salt Lake City. And at the 2015 gathering in Florida, a man who was angry that people were burning tires shot two men, killing one known as “Smiley,” according to the Apalachicola Times.
"There's been a crystal meth problem, a crack problem, a homeless problem," Michael Niman, who has written about the Rainbow Family, told Vice in 2014. Niman stressed that reports of violence at the gatherings have been exaggerated. But, he said, "You'll start seeing kids from nearby cities—they have no place else to go, so they'll show up at the Rainbow Gatherings."
[Photos: Courtesy of Haley Gilreath and Elizabethtown Police Department]