In the middle of our interview in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, a scream in the distance sends Phoenix sprinting across a parking lot and peering down onto a street below.
He takes stock of the fight happening a block away, but quickly determines that it’s just a couple of friends yelling and shoving each other at a hot dog stand.
“It’s not something I need to prevent,” says Phoenix, who is wearing a mask, cape and hat.
Welcome to the world of Seattle superheroes.
There’s Buster Doe, No Name, Troop and their leader, Phoenix. We don’t know their real names, but almost every night they suit up and set out with Kevlar and stun guns for protection.
They say their mission is to patrol city streets and stop crime.
“I don’t go around and look for people who park their car wrong,” Phoenix says. “I do acts of violence — I physically saw you assault another person and I intervened.”
It all started years ago after one of Phoenix’s close friends got beat up outside a bar.
“There were like 70 people outside and no one did anything. No one called police, 911, nothing. They just stood there.”
On this night, under a full moon, I went along to see Phoenix in action. He has a wife, kids, a 9-to-5 job and a Facebook page. He also patrols cities all around Puget Sound five nights a week.
|Watch: On patrol with Phoenix.|
He says he wears the mask to protect his family from bad guys who may want revenge. But what about the costume?
“Surprisingly enough the easiest thing to hide bullet proofing under and be recognizable for police so I don’t get shot, is a super suit,” Phoenix says.
For Phoenix, being a real-life superhero is part feeding the homeless, part public relations, and nothing like the comic book heroes we all knew as kids.
“I’ve had a couple guns pulled on me,” says Phoenix, adding that he’s been shot and stabbed while stopping fights.
It isn’t all that exciting.
In an alley in the city’s International District, Phoenix confronted two men after hearing that someone was selling drugs in the area. He spoke to them and asked if they were selling, and the two men walked off.
While Phoenix says he’s just out to help, Seattle police would rather he not intervene directly.
“We would recommend and we would prefer that if people see a crime, witness a crime, have knowledge of a crime, that they pick up a phone and call 911,” Detective Mark Jamieson said. “We don’t want anyone to get hurt and certainly people that are dressed-up their intention might be mistaken by other people.”
Officials are concerned that these superheroes might take the law into their own hands. But Phoenix isn’t planning to sit around.
“I’m definitely not going to let my fellow citizens be assaulted when I can say ‘no,'” he says. “If I walk around and find nobody, that would be a good day. The fact is that I’m finding people – that’s bad – you shouldn’t need me.”
And then I saw what police are concerned about. At the end of our night, Phoenix stops a man who he thinks is trying to drive home drunk.
“Just back up!” Phoenix yells as the man rushes him. He warns the man to stay back or he’ll use a telescoping stun gun he just pulled from under his cape. “Stay back, stay away — I don’t want to have to Tase you!”
One of Phoenix’s colleagues calls 911, and police arrive to defuse the situation. But, the officers are worried.
“I know who you guys are, I know what you’re doing,” an officer tells the costumed group. “But, somebody drunk all of a sudden having people in their face with masks on… now it’s not the norm.”
Did the superheroes escalate the problem? For Phoenix the answer is no.
“We never had an issue with you,” Phoenix tells the man he tried to stop. “We just wanted you to get sober and get home safe.”
It’s just another night of crime fighting.