Who Was the Real Paul Horner?

Paul Horner at the European Parliament building in Brussels for a conference on fake news.
Courtesy of J.J. Horner
Paul Horner at the European Parliament building in Brussels for a conference on fake news.
J.J. Horner pops open a padlock on the door of a vibrantly painted wooden shed. Inside the structure located in the dirt-filled backyard of The Compound art complex in Tempe, are the possessions of his late brother, comedian, writer, and prankster Paul Horner.

Swinging open the door, the local artist begins pulling out items. There’s a framed certificate Paul won from a writing contest, fading photos from his Little League days, small cards with uplifting messages he’d give to homeless people, and various paintings that J.J. made.

“This is just all his stuff,” J.J. says. “A lot of artwork he got from me over the years.”

There’s also a large cardboard box with the words “OG Paul Box” written in marker across the top. It contains various notes, ephemera, and childhood mementos, including baby teeth and a drawing of “The Nicotine Rabbit,” a character they came up with as kids.

“I brought it all here just 'cause I'm not going to get a storage unit or anything and I have some extra space,” J.J. says. “I pretty much just boxed it up and I haven't really gone through a lot of it.”

A lot of what’s in this shed, as well as a couple of others at The Compound, became J.J.’s after Paul died on September 18 of what’s believed to be an accidental drug overdose. He was 38.

In the six weeks since, J.J.’s life has been all about his brother’s death.

Besides packing up everything in Paul’s apartment in the Garfield neighborhood and moving it to The Compound, J.J.’s had to break the bad news to friends, take care of his mother and younger brother (who has special needs), and deal with his own grief, which has been overwhelming.

“Oh yeah, it’s not a fun experience whatsoever. It’s horrible to lose somebody. It sucks for my mom, it sucks for me, it sucks for everybody around him,” J.J. says. “Loss is a fucked-up thing.”

He’s also been interviewed by countless reporters about his brother.

Paul was a satirist and prankster who, over the last five years, became famous across the internet for the hoaxes and fake articles he created. Many of his stories, which were posted on sites like ABCnews.com.co or cnn.com.de that masqueraded as legitimate news organizations, went viral, hoodwinked millions, and fooled media outlets.

Some involved celebrities — like Bill Murray launching a nationwide “party-crashing tour” or street artist Banksy being arrested. (Paul also claimed he was Banksy.)

Others were about robberies being foiled by vigilantes quoting Pulp Fiction, Facebook implementing a $2.99 monthly fee, or the exploits of Fappy the Anti-Masturbation Dolphin, a satirical pro-Christian character preaching the evils of self-love.

Paul nabbed more attention for politically oriented stories, including that former Governor Jan Brewer wanted gay-to-straight programs in Arizona schools or how President Barack Obama was a gay Muslim.

And publishing fake news and hoax stories reportedly paid well. In a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" session from March, Paul claimed he was making anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 per month at the height of his fake news writing.

When fake news took center stage last year, Paul and his stories were thrust into the national spotlight. Most famously, he wrote a piece alleging that protesters were paid to demonstrate against Donald Trump, who mentioned the allegation while on the campaign trail. Eric Trump retweeted a link to the story.

After Trump was elected president, Paul became the poster child for fake news, particularly after he told the Washington Post that his stories helped swing the election for Trump. (He later walked it back.) Horner graced the pages of Rolling Stone, and appeared on Inside Edition, Fox News, and CNN, where Anderson Cooper grilled him.

He was vilified by each. Salon even called him a “trollish sociopath.”

But according to J.J., he wasn’t.

“He did what he did for a lot of reasons. I mean, it was to sustain [himself]. That was his income, for sure. He could've made a lot more money than he did by doing nothing but clickbait articles. Like I saw one that was like, ‘Jaden Smith commits suicide.’ He definitely had a certain level of class when it came to that. And none of that was malicious,” J.J. says. “It was meant to make you think or some kind of social satire idea or to show that people never fact-checked anything.”

Since Paul’s death, J.J. has defended his brother to reporters, extolling him as a kind soul who cared for their brother and gave out clean socks to the Valley’s homeless as part of his nonprofit, Sock it Forward.

“It’s all just about the Trump story or the paid protester story or how he called Obama a gay Muslim,” J.J. says. “Like, sure, that’s all true. But there’s so much more to that with Paul.”

Many of Paul’s friends agree. He’s considered a misunderstood genius, a talented prankster, and a unique performance artist by those in the Phoenix art and comedy scenes. He also was a regular at local stand-up spots like the Tempe Improv and hosted the monthly “Mystery Show” comedy night at Lost Leaf. Occasionally he’d show up dressed as Fappy.

Local comedian Erick Biez thinks Paul’s stunts were brilliant. “I think his ability to persuade a mass amount of [people] that a dolphin was traveling from school to school teaching the dangers of masturbation was brilliant,” Biez says. “I think his ability to get a son of the recently-to-be-elected President of the United States to share a fabricated story, even after including passages in the story implying its ridiculous allegations ... was brilliant.”

Biez believes that much of the hate directed at Paul is from those angry about getting got.

“People tend to lash out when they feel stupid or insecure,” he says. “Paul was that brighter classmate that you would become angry with for embarrassing you.”

Aaron Hopkins-Johnson, the owner of now-defunct Roosevelt Row bookstore Lawn Gnome Publishing (which hosted a “Bill Murray Crashpad” party in 2012) says that Paul’s stories and pranks were genius.

“How he used his abilities to push buttons and spread agendas kind of makes him important as a performance artist and comedian,” Hopkins-Johnson says. “Before Mark Twain was a novelist everyone knew, he was a hoax writer who wrote fake stories in newspapers to prove how people were foolish.”

Paul relished his job as a hoax artist and fake news writer. His business cards featured a roll call of quotes about his exploits and antics from sites like Huffington Post and PolitiFact.

“I’m prepared for people to not like what I’m doing," he told online publication The Rooster. "I know I’m on the right side of history. I know what’s right and what’s wrong, and I’m going to continue speaking out against what’s evil.”

Paul had such a knack for fake news stories that when Phoenix New Times first broke the news of his death, countless people, including his friends, questioned whether it was real or a stunt.

It wasn’t a hoax.

Obituaries focused on Paul’s exploits as a writer and prankster, but they didn’t capture his complexity, his struggle with addiction, or his motivations. Which begs the question: Who was the real Paul Horner?

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Paul Horner (left) and his little brother J.J. in the early '90s.
Courtesy of J.J. Horner
I ask J.J. that question while we’re on a porch of a ramshackle house at The Compound. The 35-year-old artist considers it while taking a drag from a hand-rolled cigarette, and chuckles softly to himself before answering.

“Yeah, I don’t know. He was a really sweet guy, I know that. He was really funny. He always had my back. He was genuine,” J.J. says. “But sometimes I really didn’t know.”

The Horner boys were inseparable as kids. “We were close friends,” J.J. says. “We did everything together. Growing up in Minnesota, we’d make a lot of snow forts. We drew all the time; that was probably our biggest thing.”

Paul, the eldest, was interested in sports. (It ran in the family, as their grandfather was famed Minnesota sports broadcaster Jack Horner.)

“Paul was an athlete. Sports in general, baseball, football … we’d play a lot of ping-pong,” J.J. says.

He also had a yen for politics. “He was into drawing political cartoons and stuff. He’d always read the paper, front-to-back, as a young kid. He always had his finger on the pulse of the world. I think he saw a lot of wrongs that were happening.”

J.J. and Paul stuck together through their parents’ messy divorce in 1984. Their father, Steve Horner, got custody, and their mother, Joyce, moved west.

Both J.J. and Paul had issues with their dad. So much so that each joined Joyce in Arizona permanently after turning 17.

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Paul Horner during his Little League days in Minnesota in 1990.
Courtesy of JJ Horner
“We had to get away from that because my dad was a real strict guy growing up,” J.J. says. “We had a lot of good times, a lot of bad times.”

Paul’s relationship with Steve was contentious.

“I don’t think they got along because they’re almost the same person, in a way. There were times we’d go out and my dad would fuck with people. It was like his way of entertaining himself, and it’s the same type of shit that Paul did. That’s just a bad combination, You’re not gonna get along fucking with each other.”

Steve Horner disagrees with J.J., telling New Times he was a “helluva better single parent than most” and his relationship with Paul was good until Paul’s junior year of high school.

“Here’s where it all started. I made the mistake of allowing Paul to go out and live with his mother for one school year. Big mistake on my part. She was lax, she didn’t keep him up with church, she didn’t keep him up with all his good habits,” Steve says. “And when he came back after his junior year ... there [were] major differences: belligerence, anger, swearing at me, recalcitrance, absolutely abnormal [behavior].”

Steve is no stranger to pushing people’s buttons. The conservative-leaning author and self-described “outspoken social activist” has written anti-feminist books like The Unusual Frank White Man and Tackling Single Parenting From A Man's Point of View.

He also famously crusaded against bars and clubs in Colorado, Idaho, and Nevada that offered ladies’ nights, which he said discriminated against men and violated his constitutional rights.

And he isn’t a fan of Paul’s work, describing it as “nothing but lies and bullshit.”

“I never really understood what Paul was doing ... And then only when I started hearing the mainstream media talk about ‘fake news,’ I was able to connect the dots. Because at this point, I didn’t trust Paul if he said the day was Tuesday and [it was Monday.] He became a major liar and I ridiculed him. I put him over the coal with that crap.”

J.J. says their father’s opinions on Paul’s work come from his political worldview. “My dad is this conservative Trump supporter,” J.J. says. “And he looks at Paul’s work as lies, because that’s what the media and Fox News told him.”

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The late Paul Horner in 2012.
Dapper Gatsby
Back in September 2013, Paul Horner was staying at his mom’s house on the edge of Laveen. He worked out of a cramped back room decorated with his personal heroes. A painting of Bill Hicks he made rested against one wall. A bulletin board with pictures of Andy Kaufman and Hunter S. Thompson hung above his desk.

We were in the middle of an interview, when a medium-size cream-colored mutt named Mac wandered in. Paul had rescued the dog after she was abandoned nearby (a common occurrence in that part of town). He petted Mac while describing how both Kaufman and Thompson influenced his work.

“I like writing stuff that takes you one direction and then turns it around … Andy Kaufman-like stuff,” he said. “And Hunter S. Thompson, I love doing political stuff and he was all about that, calling out assholes. I did a lot on Rick Santorum when he was running for president. That’s just pure evil, man.”

At that point in his life, Paul had accrued a fair amount of internet fame.

After working for years as a mortgage broker or doing SEO and web design, Paul created his first fake news website, Super Official News, in 2012. It hosted his first hits, including ones about Bill Murray’s “party-crasher” tour.

Later, he contributed to the now-defunct National Review, producing such viral hits as a story about the small town of DeQuincy, Louisiana, passing an anti-twerking law. In many respects, it was similar to another one of his tales about Saint George, Utah, banning porn.

Paul told me that each story, while fake, seemed believable because it was close to reality.

“That’s the way you do a good hoax,” he said. “You write about something that is plausible that a person or that state would do, and people eat it up.”

And, he hoped, it would make them think.

“If it causes any kind of commotion and probably gets people kind of riled up and gets them to step back and think that it is wrong, [then] that’s kind of the point. I want to get people to think,” he said. “I don’t have a bunch of money. I don’t have a bunch of connections. I don’t have power. But I have my writing and can write about stuff and it gets thrown out there and can make people change. Things can change if you know how the system works.”

The Saint George story also allowed him to poke fun at his dad.

“That’s where my dad lives, and they wrote about my story in their local paper,” he said. “So he’ll probably see that and be more angry.”

Paul also had another goal at the time. “I’m just trying to get my name out there as much as possible.”

He’d get his wish.

Following Trump’s election, Paul was one of the few fake news writers willing to come forward. As a result, he was in demand for appearances on news programs and television shows. Few, if any, of these interviews and profiles touched on his troubled past.

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Paul Horner sitting in his "VIP room for one" at The Lost Leaf.
Paul Horner's Facebook
Paul was a night owl. We’d sometimes joke and chat over Facebook at odd hours. The conversations were funny and more than a little random.

He’d tell me about his fascination with cryptocurrencies and the deep web, hatred of religion in politics, and battles with Snopes over his stories.

Then, one night in 2014, he dropped a tidbit about his past, completely unprompted.

“When I was 20 I used to throw raves,” he wrote. “I would smuggle thousands of dollars of Ketamine into this country from India for my parties. Ketamine, best, drug. EVER.”

Given that Paul’s profession involved writing lies for a living, I took it with a grain of salt. According to J.J., however, it was legit.

“He was importing ketamine from India, that’s true,” he says. And his struggles with drug addiction wound up costing him.

According to Maricopa County Superior Court records, Horner was arrested in January 2011 on multiple drug-related and money-laundering charges after he was caught with an estimated $15,000 in narcotics.

He pled guilty to one count of possession of dangerous drugs for sale as a part of a plea deal and served four months in jail. “He did time in Tent City, got out, stayed clean for a while, and it was just an ebb and flood,” J.J. says.

J.J. says that Paul’s drug use was a byproduct of his struggle with anxiety issues throughout his life.

“He had really bad anxiety, which was a big thing,” J.J. says. “His struggles with drugs and alcohol, I think, just mainly came from his anxiety in general. I think anxiety was probably the biggest staple in his life or at least his biggest inhibitor, which probably stemmed from a lot of stuff with our dad.”

Steve Horner says that Paul’s anxiety issues dated back to his oldest son’s childhood and may have stemmed from his divorce from Joyce. He recalls one anxiety attack from when Paul was 11.

“The shrapnel of this divorce hit Paul and he was a sensitive kid,” Steve says. “And one day he claimed he was having anxiety problems. I was like, ‘Okay, well let's breathe into a bag. I've seen that from women, they've got all these anxiety issues. So Paul, he looked like he was getting to be in pretty bad shape. So we went over to the emergency [room].”

Steve Horner told New Times that he wishes he'd heard more about what was going on in Paul's personal life. They didn't speak much, he says, and when they did, he'd suspect that Paul was lying.

Steve also wishes that J.J. told him more about what was going on.

"I'm not saying he's his brother's keeper. But I spoke to J.J. several times, telling him, 'J.J., Paul's lying. I can't get any conversation out of him. What is he doing? It doesn't make sense,'" Steve says. "So either J.J. was playing stupid with me or was being stupid with Paul. I don't know. But if I had known, I would've rushed right out there and taken [Paul] by the neck and done what I could to clean him up."

J.J. says that when Paul was using, he kept it from his brother.

“I think Paul only showed a certain side to people when he had the option. He was either really good or really fun to hang out with or I couldn’t hang out with him for a while because I couldn’t be around it,” J.J. says. “Yeah. I mean, he would never disclose anything like what he was actually doing. But then there was also great lengths of time where he would be totally fine where he’d be a treat to be around.”

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Paul Horner (left) and his brother J.J. Horner at their cousin's wedding in August.
Courtesy of J.J. Horner
The last time J.J. saw his brother was in mid-August at a cousin’s wedding in Minnesota. It was a “really good time,” he recalls, especially for Paul.

“All my dad’s brothers were there, and he hadn’t seen them for like 15 years. He was in good form. They were all smart, witty guys,” J.J. says. “And everybody was excited he was there and everybody was rapping with him.”

It was a respite for Paul. While the first few months of 2017 were fun (and included traveling to Brussels to speak in front of the European Parliament and appearing on Charles Barkley’s four-episode series American Race), his summer was tumultuous.

He’d seen a drop in revenue after Facebook began flagging fake news stories as being disputed by fact-checkers like Snopes. “It’s hurt my wallet for sure with how difficult it is now to get something to go viral and people so quick to call things fake news,” he told USA Today in early August.

“I think he was struggling with the Facebook bans and was working on different ways to sustain [himself],” J.J. says. “He was becoming a speaker, like speaking at the [National Association of Black Journalists] conference in New Orleans.”

Paul was also busy creating red snapbacks adorned with the slogan “Make Red Hats Wearable Again,” riffing on Trump’s infamous MAGA caps. And he was planning to launch a mock Snopes site.

“He was rolling with the punches,” J.J. says. “So it seemed like everything was good, he was on the right track, and he was trying to bounce back.”

In the days before Paul’s death, he and J.J. were planning a camping trip.

Despite things looking up, J.J. thinks his brother was under a lot of stress and, which may have caused him to turn to drugs.

“Obviously something happened. I can’t say for certain right now because the toxicology reports still are [pending],” J.J. says. “I know a little bit more about addiction these days, and it’s not uncommon to turn to a substance in times of stress. The addict’s mind has a way of tricking yourself into thinking you need things to feel good about yourself or spark creativity. But that’s pure speculation.”

Paul’s mother, Joyce Barth, blames Facebook and other social media and tech companies’ new policies against fake news.

“Once politicians began bad-mouthing fake news, Facebook, Google, Bing all got scared and took action and took [fake news] off,” she says. “Paul was in the process of reinventing himself and was making money, but it wasn’t like it was before and he was suffering from anxiety. I feel like they kind of destroyed him.”

Barth feels he was unfairly demonized because of his stories.

“What Paul did with his stories was so much satire, so much fun. They had people who would complain about Paul’s stories and not read past the headlines or the first few lines and think he had some sort of pro-Trump agenda. He didn’t. They were lumping him into groups with other [fake news writers]. He was just having fun. These weren’t causes, they were just stories to make money. And he was using the money he made to help other people.”

All that Paul’s family knows for certain is that sometime in the early hours of September 18, Paul died at their mother’s house, likely from an accidental overdose. According to J.J., his brother was in bed and working on his laptop when it happened.

“He was passed out in front of his computer, mouse in hand, literally working up until the very end,” J.J. says.
He announced Paul’s death five days later on Facebook.

The news came as a shock to friends. In a situation reminiscent of Andy Kaufman’s death, many thought it was a hoax, at least initially. Even his father believed it was a stunt. Reality eventually set in after the death was confirmed by the Maricopa County Medical Examiner.

Paul’s body has been cremated, and J.J. says the family will scatter his ashes into the ocean near their mother’s condo in Rocky Point.

In a final twist, many of Paul’s websites have mysteriously gone offline since his death. J.J. can’t explain why, even after searching through his brother’s notes and email accounts.

“I don’t know what the deal is with that. Unfortunately, I’m not very computer-savvy in that regard,” J.J. says. “It definitely seems suspicious.”

J.J. once hoped the stories could “live on forever in the ether” as a tribute to Paul. But, he says, his brother’s legacy is more than just fake news and hoaxes.

The amount of people that he affected is remarkable, not just with what he created, but with all the things he did in his life,” J.J. says. “I think if everyone has an opportunity to shape their world and be who they want to be and live in a world they deserve, they should. Paul squandered a lot of his potential in the worst ways possible and I think he used a lot of his potential in the best way possible.”