After a month of close monitoring, officials have yet to identify one death related to the global monkeypox outbreak.
But influential conspiracy theorists insist that they have tracked down at least one victim of the outbreak. Her name is Michele Fallon, and she supposedly died in February—over two months before public health officials identified the first cases of this particular wave of monkeypox.
The thing is, Fallon is very much alive.
“I don’t even know what to say to people who say I’m dead,” she told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. “I’m not.”
On Jan. 21, a dump truck hit another truck carrying about 100 lab research monkeys on a road outside of the town of Danville, Pennsylvania. Fallon, a Danville local who was on the road at the time, witnessed the crash and pulled over to assist. She came into close contact with a few of the monkeys, and a few days later she fell mildly ill, with pinkeye and minor cold symptoms.
But conspiracy theorists baselessly add that, after the media stopped following this story, Fallon’s condition deteriorated, and that she died about a month later—clearly due to her exposure to infectious primates. Conspiracists clash over the exact details, but most are fairly certain that this crash was somehow part of an evil plot that led to the current outbreak, or that it seeded some mysterious new disease that officials are currently passing off as monkeypox. Either way, they thus suggest that Fallon was an early monkeypox martyr, and that medical officials and the media have been covering up her death as part of some broad yet vague sinister scheme.
“Holy shit…they covered up Michele Lee Fallons [sic] death,” a May 20 post on a conspiracy forum on Reddit with over 1.7 million users reads. “She was the one exposed to Monkeypox.”
“Remember this escaped monkeys story from January?” a notable Telegram conspiracy channel asked on May 27. “While you might remember that a woman (Michelle [sic] Lee Fallon), was involved … did you know she died? This was the crash that just so happened to be in the same location as where they filmed the movie 12 Monkeys… it’s curious that no media outlet reported or followed up” on that.
In reality, parts of the 1995 flick were filmed in Philadelphia, more than 100 miles southeast of the crash site. And the media didn’t follow up on Fallon’s death because it did not happen.
Theories linking the crash and Fallon’s fictitious death to monkeypox are so vague and weak that medical experts can’t fathom why anyone would buy, much less propagate, them. “The people spreading this story look like complete idiots,” David Evans, an expert on poxviruses at the University of Alberta, told The Daily Beast.
But experts on conspiratorial rhetoric say that the emergence and circulation of this baseless tale makes total sense to them. Because identifying a specific victim can give a big boost to a theory within conspiracy world—no matter how flimsy that ID may be.
“Linking a conspiracy claim to a named individual… gives it the appearance of legitimacy,” explained Michael Barkun, professor emeritus at the University of Syracuse and an expert on conspiracy theories. “If there’s a specific person involved, people think it must therefore be true.”
Conspiracy theorists had their eyes on the Jan. 21 monkey truck crash long before the start of the current monkeypox outbreak, which public health officials first identified in early May. In fact, as soon as news of the accident and the temporary escape of three of the monkeys from the truck into the area nearby broke, many conspiracy theorists quickly argued that it was probably a cover story for the planned release of some new bioweapon that would be used to devastate and subjugate the population. In their minds, this would be the obvious next step in a much larger elite plot that encompasses COVID-19 and so much more.
At the time, they didn’t view Fallon as a victim of this vague plot, but instead as an active participant who was feigning exposure and illness. “People made long videos saying I’m a crisis actor and all kinds of weird stuff,” she told The Daily Beast. “They were harassing my family, too, saying that they were part of this whole thing as well.”
When no strange new disease emerged, these theories quickly faded. People also stopped posting wild accusations on Fallon’s social media pages. So she figured this strange saga was over.
Then health officials confirmed a case of monkeypox in the U.S. in mid-May, and conspiracists immediately started claiming that the manageable outbreak was actually the long-planned next stage of the COVID pandemic. They began drawing red threads between monkeypox and any and every recent event they found suspicious to “prove” the existence of this grand plot. Inevitably, they drew fresh lines between monkeypox and a crash involving dozens of monkeys, reframing the incident as a clear sign of the long-planned and manufactured nature of this new supposed pandemic-to-be.
“Last November 100 MONKEYS got lose [sic] from a truck accident [and] 6 months later we have a Monkey Pox outbreak!!???” one conspiratorial Reddit forum user posted in mid-May.
In fairness, a few non-conspiratorial social media users have also wondered aloud in recent weeks whether the ongoing outbreak might somehow be connected to the January crash. However, none of them attempted to connect monkeypox to a murky and wide-ranging elite conspiracy, and most quickly and openly abandoned the notion when they realized that there is simply no plausible connection between the two events.
Conspiracists jumped through hoops to construe Fallon’s symptoms as signs of monkeypox. Notably, some pointed out that the disease can lead people to develop conjunctivitis, and leveraged that tidbit to claim that the fact that Fallon got pinkeye after contact with the monkeys on the truck must mean she had the pox.
And things only got weirder from there.
At least one person digging for more information on Fallon stumbled upon an obituary in a West Virginia publication from Feb. 20 for a woman named Michele Lee Fallon Riffle. Quickly, this obit spread across conspiratorial circles online as proof positive that the Fallon who ran into these monkeys and clearly got monkeypox had succumbed to her illness. The fact that the obituary didn’t list a cause of death was deemed suspicious. “And creamated [sic],” a Reddit conspiracy forum user pointed out. “Nice and tidy.”
Michele Fallon of Pennsylvania told The Daily Beast that she started seeing people on social media claiming she’d had monkeypox and was now dead almost as soon as she heard about the first case of monkeypox in the United States. She was baffled by the apparent shift in the way conspiracies portrayed her. “One minute you’re saying I’m fake, and now you’re saying I’m real,” she noted, incredulously.
But this pivot from portraying Fallon as a crisis actor to a real fatality makes sense within the context of conspiratorial opportunism. As David Gorski, a doctor who has monitored medical conspiracy theories for years, explained to The Daily Beast, theorists are usually far less concerned with consistency and facts than they are with slatting cherry-picked details into scaffolds of pre-existing narratives. Whenever a new disease outbreak strikes, he added, conspiracy theorists go on the hunt for “a secret ‘patient zero’”—someone they can point to as the clear victim of a dark plot behind the illness, and around whom they can build new narratives.
Fallon fit the role of a definitive patient zero—a human hook conspiracists could point to as hard “proof” that monkeypox connected back to the monkey truck crash, and was thus definitely part of a much larger, long-planned conspiracy. This may be why, rather than interrogate claims of her death, many conspiracy theorists seemingly got excited and leaned into them.
“Fucking A great find,” another Reddit conspiracy forum user exclaimed in the comments on a post connecting Fallon’s involvement in the crash to Fallon Riffle’s obituary.
Unsurprisingly, as soon as you so much as lightly tug on any of the threads tying together this crash, Fallon’s alleged death, and the monkeypox outbreak, the entire theory falls right apart.
Notably, the monkeys in the truck involved in the January crash had just arrived from the island nation of Mauritius and were on their way to a quarantine facility for observation before being shipped on for use in medical research. As every poxvirus expert The Daily Beast spoke to pointed out, Mauritius is not a monkeypox hotspot. Even if one of the monkeys had somehow contracted the pox, the disease typically doesn’t spread from monkeys to humans. The species jump usually occurs between rodents and humans. The name is a misnomer.
Fallon explained that she had no idea what the truck was hauling when she stopped to help. The driver didn’t tell her when she checked on him. However, a bystander told her that he thought he’d seen a cat dart out of the truck’s trailer. So Fallon got up close to one of the truck’s crates, at which point a spooked monkey hissed in her face.
According to poxvirus experts, that level of contact typically wouldn’t be enough to transmit the notoriously inefficient virus. But Fallon, who moved a few crates around and may have touched monkey spit and feces in the process, had a cut on her hand. So she and her doctors worried she might have been exposed to some other pathogen. She got preventative care—a rabies shot and antiviral meds—and monitored herself for any signs of illness for weeks.
Fallon said that her doctors do believe she developed pinkeye soon after the crash as a result of a bacterial infection caused by exposure to monkey spit and feces. But Mark Slifka, an expert on monkeypox at Oregon Health & Science University, pointed out that this is not the same as the conjunctivitis that people with monkeypox sometimes contract.
Both Fallon and her doctors believe that her cold symptoms, however, were likely just that: a cold.
“None of her symptoms sound like the typical symptoms of monkeypox at all,” Evans stressed. Several other poxvirus experts echoed this analysis. Even if Fallon had contracted monkeypox, Evans added, that case wouldn’t line up with the timeline and geography of the current outbreak.
Attempts to equate Fallon and Fallon Riffle don’t scan, either. Fallon is 45 while Fallon Riffle was 51, and the two don’t look alike.
“I can assure you my mother is not the same woman from Pennsylvania,” Fallon Riffle’s son, Jesse Riffle, told The Daily Beast.
He explained that she died of a “massive heart attack” in her sleep; she was disabled and had not been very mobile for years. She certainly hadn’t been to Pennsylvania in the recent past, and she definitely didn’t have monkeypox.
“A lot of conspiracy theories have turned out to be conspiracy facts,” he added. “But not this one.” He directed the following request at conspiracy theorists: “Please leave [my mother] out of this… Let her rest in peace.”
Even a few members of conspiracy forums have pointed out all the wild leaps and factual flaws in the theories linking Fallon’s “death” to the monkeypox outbreak. However, most in these circles who cast doubt on the story do so not due to factual issues but instead because it does not gel with their own wild and baseless narratives.
“Fake cover-story [sic],” one member of a conspiratorial Reddit community commented on a post about Fallon’s supposed death. “Monkeypox is from the [COVID] jab.”
Conspiracists wedded to this narrative, of course, shrug off all critiques whenever someone raises them. A few have notably compared Fallon to Tiffany Dover, a nurse who fainted on television after receiving a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, was falsely painted as a COVID jab fatality, and has been unable to convince conspiracy theorists that she’s alive ever since, no matter how much proof she, those close to her, or anyone else can ever proffer.
This, Barkun stressed, is par for the course; conspiracy theorists are loath to give up what they see as a good narrative, facts be damned. “Between the time a conspiracy theory is launched and the time its falsity is finally demonstrated,” he stressed, “conspiracy theorists may well have constructed yet more ‘explanations’ that seem to render the proof of their falsity irrelevant.”
Fallon told The Daily Beast that, by stopping to help in the January accident, she was just trying to do “the right thing.” She never expected to become the focus of conspiracy theories galore.
“It makes me mad,” she said. “It does upset me.”
Back in late January, she actually tried to respond to people posting conspiracies about her, asking them to correct their errors. None did so. Now, she’s trying her best to ignore all the chatter about her “death.” (Gorski, the medical misinformation watcher, said that’s the best thing she can do, because “denying these stories only makes the narratives stronger for theorists, as denials are part of their conspiracies.”)
Fallon hopes that these theories will fade away just like the last batch did, and she can go back to living her normal life. “But you never know what they’re going to say next,” she noted.
However, she stressed that conspiracy theorists are hardly the only complication she’s had to deal with since her run-in with the monkeys. Her friends and family were wary of her for weeks, she said, because they feared she might have picked something up from the primates, and the CDC never got back to her with any information on the health of the monkeys and what she might have been exposed to. (The CDC did not reply to a request for comment.)
She also had to delay a surgery, and she hasn’t been able to get her insurance to pay for her rabies shots and antivirals, she said.
Fallon refuses to let any of this change her, though. She’s currently cooperating with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to use her experience to advocate for better enforcement of regulations surrounding the transportation of research animals, and eventually an end to the use of monkeys in medical research. And she insists that she’d still stop and help out in any road accident.
“If I saw crates on the road, I would be very hesitant to go near them now,” she added. “But I’m an animal lover, so I’d still help any animal in an accident. Even if it was a monkey.”