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.
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 described going to great lengths to hide Phelps’ addiction from the world and to keep Phelps from hurting others in the process.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
And with the loss of Phelps, there was no going back for the magazine, Vitello said.