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Who Is The Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker?  

A hitchhiker hailing a lift wearing handcuffs

He was the unknown drifter who became a viral sensation, a human meme and then a convicted murderer. This is the almost unbelievable story of Kai, the hatchet-wielding hitchhiker.   

‘Smash, smash, suh-mash'  

It was on a seemingly normal day in February 2013 that a 24-year-old surfer, musician and ‘homefree hitchhiker’ named Kai was picked up by a driver just outside Fresno, California. The guy behind the wheel, Jett McBride, appeared fine to begin with. However, things took a surreal and violent turn, when he proclaimed himself to be Jesus Christ and ploughed his car into a group of construction workers on the road.  

Yelling racial slurs, McBride got out of the car and approached a worker who’d been pinned under his vehicle. When a woman tried to intervene, McBride grabbed her in a bear hug. And that was when Kai – birth name Caleb McGillvary – came to the rescue, clobbering McBride in the head with a hatchet he was carrying in his bag.  

McBride survived, and the incident would likely have remained a minor police matter if a local news reporter hadn’t interviewed Kai at the scene. ‘Before I say anything else, I want to say no matter what you done, you deserve respect,’ Kai told everyone watching at home. ‘It doesn’t matter your looks, skills or age, your size, or anything, you’re worthwhile. No one can ever take that away from you.’  

Exuding a kind of child-like wonder and excitement, Kai then recounted the incident with McBride, and how he’d been forced to go up behind him and ‘smash, smash, suh-mash' the hatchet into his head to subdue him. Little did Kai realise that this off-the-cuff interview would change his life forever.  

A folk hero for the digital age  

Despite the ugly nature of the incident – after all, it involved a mentally ill man attacking random bystanders before being hit repeatedly with a hatchet – Kai himself became an overnight pop cultural sensation. The video of the interview racked up millions of views on YouTube, his ‘smash, smash, suh-mash' line swiftly attained meme status, and Kai himself became an abrupt folk hero thanks to his wholesome, vibrant energy and message of unconditional love and respect.  

Every media outlet in the world seemed to want a piece of him. One of the producers of Keeping Up with the Kardashians was even eyeing him as the potential star of a new reality show. But Kai really didn’t seem all that fussed about wealth and fame – he was more interested in hanging out on the beach than becoming the next Kim Kardashian. He did, however, agree to appear on Jimmy Kimmel's talk show – a truly surreal turn of events for a guy who’d been an unknown drifter less than two weeks before.    

‘Thanks for not killing me with a hatchet,’ Kimmel quipped as Kai soaked up audience applause. Nobody watching could have imagined that the lovable hero hitchhiker would very soon be behind bars for murder.  

The killing of Joseph Galfy Jr  

While his adoring fans on social media were keen to idealise Kai as a kind of radiantly virtuous holy fool, his media handlers behind the scenes already knew he could be genuinely volatile and almost frighteningly reckless in his behaviour. Kai had also made allegations of a very dark childhood, saying that he’d been physically and sexually abused, and had been on the streets since his teenage years.   

Things took a shocking turn in May of that year when a 73-year-old lawyer named Joseph Galfy Jr was found beaten to death in his New Jersey home. Detectives found evidence linking him with Kai, and it transpired the victim had invited the drifter back to his place after they crossed paths in New York’s Times Square.   

The former folk hero was charged with Galfy’s murder. After six long years in jail, largely in solitary confinement, Kai was finally put on trial in 2019. His story was that he’d lashed out at Galfy when he’d woken up to find the latter trying to sexually assault him. However, prosecutors maintained the sexual contact was consensual, and that the savagery of Galfy’s injuries indicated deliberate murder rather than self-defence. The jury agreed.  

Sentencing Kai to 57 years in prison, the judge poured scorn on the ‘public image of a surfing free spirit’, describing him instead as a ‘powder keg of explosive rage, a cold-blooded, calculated, callous killer’.  

A controversial fallout  

Kai had long maintained that Galfy’s status and connections in the New Jersey legal community meant that authorities had conspired to conceal the truth of what had happened that night. ‘This has been nothing but a sham trial, and you have railroaded an innocent man,’ he said in court after his sentencing.   

There was a rush of online support for Kai. Hashtags were created to protest his innocence, with many alleging that police had either mishandled the investigation or deliberately framed Kai as a vicious killer rather than a victim of attempted rape. Despite this groundswell of support, Kai lost his appeal against the conviction, with the appellate judges flatly concluding that ‘the record does not suggest a miscarriage of justice occurred’.  

A recent documentary on the story has re-ignited fresh debate. Not only over the Galfy investigation itself, but over the morality of the media frenzy that thrust Kai – a volatile and traumatised man – to a level of fame he never sought, and which he’d been ill-equipped to handle. The former ‘homefree hitchhiker’ now resides at New Jersey State Prison and won’t be eligible for parole until October 2061.