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Public Health

Thrasher Owner Reveals Why Skating Legend’s Killer Was Kept Secret

Written by David SjostedtPublished Jan. 25, 2023 • 5:00am
Thrasher magazine owner, Tony Vitello, looks over the walls of Jake Phelps' old office on Dec. 21, 2022. | Brian Feulner for The Standard

English

Owner of Thrasher Magazine Tony Vitello knows better than anyone the life struggles of Jake Phelps, the skateboarding legend profiled in Monday’s Standard story uncovering a string of unpublicized fentanyl deaths in the world of skateboarding.

Vitello, who inherited the magazine from his father, Fausto Vitello, grew up idolizing Phelps before eventually becoming his boss. They spent years running the magazine together, and Vitello said he still feels guilty about covering up Phelps’ addiction. 

Vitello kept news of Phelps’ fentanyl overdose out of the pages of their magazine, instead producing a brief hero’s obituary without announcing the cause of death, and later releasing an entire issue devoted to Phelps’ exploits.

The Standard’s epilogue to Phelps’ remarkable life has unleashed a flood of emotion from Phelps’ friends and fans, and from the people outside the skating community whose loved ones have also been killed by fentanyl. Both groups have expressed hope for an end to the secrecy that can surround overdose deaths.

Skateboarder Jake Phelps skates a halfpipe at the Hunters Point ramp in San Francisco in 1986. | Courtesy Bryce Kanights and Thrasher Magazine

Beyond his role as the figurehead and face of Thrasher, Vitello recalled Phelps as the embodiment of the magazine’s 1990s motto “skate and destroy,” meant to admonish readers to never do anything halfway.

In a September interview, Vitello described to The Standard why the magazine didn’t publish Phelps’ cause of death, and how living in San Francisco may have contributed to his addiction. 

Vitello said he first heard of Phelps’ death while in Texas at one of Thrasher’s skate events, recalling that he had a bad feeling immediately after Phelps’ girlfriend called saying she hadn’t heard from him. Next came the heartbreaking work of informing Phelps’ family, friends and eventually the fans. 

Vitello: There was some concern about Jake’s parent’s reaction to how he passed. And my position was—and has always been—that his family’s word is the word I go by. And that’s why we’re here in this interview today because Marie [Phelps] told me that she wants to talk about it and that she thinks it’s important to talk about.

I’ll go out and say it: It was hard for me because I had been covering up Jake’s behavior and drug use for a while. 

Vitello described going to great lengths to hide Phelps’ addiction from the world and to keep Phelps from hurting others in the process. 

Tony Vitello, the owner of Thrasher Magazine, poses at its offices in San Francisco on Dec. 21, 2022. | Brian Feulner for The Standard

While filming for Thrasher’s King of the Road, a Vice-produced video series that follows a group of skaters on a road trip, Vitello recalls Phelps showing up one day particularly intoxicated. Vitello said he threatened to end the production if the video director didn’t agree to delete the tapes.  

Vitello: I told them, “I don’t care how juicy this is; this ain’t going to be shown anywhere. If you don’t give me your word then this whole thing is done.”

I felt bad for Jake because I knew that that wasn’t a fair representation of the brilliant person that he was. I knew he felt shame, and I wanted to protect him from that. I always wanted people to see the Jake I held on a pedestal.

But at the same time, I can’t totally dodge the idea that I had somebody that was working for me that was a danger not only to himself but to other people. 

Vitello said that the situation eventually got dangerous. He recalls taking Phelps’ car keys and threatening to fire the longtime editor-in-chief if he was caught driving again. He said that Phelps would go through phases of sobriety, but that a mixture of physical and mental pain ultimately got the best of him. 

Vitello: Pain was an obvious part of it. Jake loved skateboarding so much and needed to be on his skateboard all the time.

One of the things I got from Jake was that you get older and skateboarding stays the same age. 

There’s that nagging voice in so many of our heads as we get older and maybe can’t skate at the same level or dealing with injuries, or whatever it might be—people have kids, they have careers, there are other things that are preventing them from skating—you start to question whether or not you’re still a real skateboarder. 

He needed skateboarding. It was his fucking lifeblood, and he just kept doing it when he was hurt.

Besides the immense physical pain and his struggle to reconcile his declining skateboarding abilities, Vitello described other demons that may have driven Phelps’ drug use. 

Vitello: Jake was, most of the time, the smartest person in the room. His brain probably took him into some dark places on its own. 

I stop short of saying Jake was trying to kill himself. But I started to think that he didn’t see a road map for himself in the future. I just don’t know if he knew what his next act was.

Phelps’ death, and the death of many other skaters from drugs and alcohol, has intensified the need for public discourse about substance use in the skate community, Vitello said. Coming forward to The Standard about Phelps’ cause of death is among several efforts he’s making to facilitate that conversation. 

Vitello: We’ve been trying to have the conversation more, addressing alcohol-related issues in the magazine and not necessarily glorifying the partying. Unfortunately, there’s marketability to that behavior and to those lifestyles, and people use it to sell things. Everybody’s guilty of that to a certain extent.

He acknowledged that skateboarding has a long-documented marriage with partying but said that the issues stemming from that relationship are most prevalent in San Francisco. 

Vitello: I’m not saying it’s a unique conversation to San Francisco. It’s not, but what’s happening here and the concentration and how prominent it is makes it hard to relate it to somebody who’s somewhere else. They don’t see how extreme and rampant the culture is in San Francisco until they’re here. And that extends beyond skateboarding.

Here’s what I will say. Skateboarding is part of being on the edge. You want to feel something. You want to feel the fear, and you want to know that something bad can happen. And everybody’s got their different levels.

I see the parallels to partying and getting to that precipice. You just keep inching a little bit closer to see how far you can get. Sometimes you go too far, and you can’t go back.

And with the loss of Phelps, there was no going back for the magazine, Vitello said. 

Vitello: He’s the type of person you don’t even try to replace. You can do other things, but you don’t replace him. When Jake passed that was the new reality. 

It impacted a lot of people very directly. But beyond that, I think it was a huge loss for the city. Whether or not the powers that be ever really truly understood or recognized the treasure that he was for the city of San Francisco.

English

David Sjostedt can be reached at [email protected]


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