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The new normal 

A split-second act of senseless violence changed Jason Statts' life forever

Like a lot of people, Jason Statts used to idly wonder, every once in a while, what it would feel like to be paralyzed.

"It was after I got into design, because I did everything with my hands," recalls the soft-spoken 35-year-old. "I always thought it would be really bad to lose my hands."

A talented graphic artist, illustrator and musician, Statts' hands are all but useless to him now.

It was just about a year ago - on June 28, 2008 - that a 22-year-old would-be thief named Desmond Hunter jabbed a pistol into Statts' neck and, without a word, pulled the trigger.

The bullet damaged his spinal cord, instantly - and most likely permanently - paralyzing everything below his mid-section.

Statts' buddy Dave Williams was standing next to him, and after the bullet passed through Statts' neck it struck Williams in the neck, too, and shattered his vocal chords.

As he looks back on his first year in a wheelchair, and the first arduous leg of what's certain to be a long and difficult road, Jason Statts knows things could be worse.

"I could've had a brain injury," he says. "It could have gone any way.

"But I wish it had been a couple inches down, or he'd shot me in the arm or the leg, something like that."

He laughs, a gentle, nervous chuckle.

 

 Several local acts, including Joe Nelson, the Josh Maul Blues Band, the 8-Tracks and DJ Emkay will play to raise funds for Jason Statts Friday, June 12 at the Savannah Station. There will also be a raffle and a silent auction, beer and wine, a cash bar and tapas nibbles.

It's not the first benefit for him, nor is it liable to be the last. Statts admits he doesn't know all the participants, but he is immensely grateful for all the community support he's received since the shooting.

He and Lyra, his wife of nearly 14 years (they'll celebrate that anniversary June 15) will be in attendance. Inseparable and still very much in love, they say they wouldn't miss it.

They met in LaFayette, in the upper northwest corner of Georgia, when he was in college and she in high school. In the fall of 1992, they moved to Savannah so Jason could attend SCAD. He got his BFA in illustration four years later.

Although his ambition had been to draw comic books for a living, Statts found satisfying work and a good salary with Bluffton-based BFG Communications, which does graphics work for various companies (one of their biggest clients is Camel Cigarettes).

After the shooting, his BFG bosses told him his job would there waiting for him, as soon as he was ready to come back.

Statts has limited mobility in his arms, and although his fingers won't uncurl, he's able to manipulate a computer mouse. And his feverishly fertile, creative brain hasn't slowed down at all.

So twice a week - on Wednesdays and Fridays - Lyra loads him into their specially-outfitted Honda van for the 45-minute drive to the office.

This is a good thing, because the company's health insurance program is one of the reasons the Statts haven't gone completely insane. It covers a good portion of their expenses.

"The thing with spinal cord injury, it's just ongoing," Lyra says with a heavy sigh. "The initial injury and hospitalization are really expensive, but as long as he's in that chair we're constantly having to deal with medical issues.

"We have a monthly standing order for medical supplies that he has to use every day. The doctor is on my speed-dial. It's just never-ending."

Her husband nods in agreement. "I guess it'll be for the rest of my life," he says. "Unless something happens."

 

The shooting occurred around 3 a.m., a few hours after Statts and Williams had finished playing a show at the Live Wire Music Hall. Their band, a doomy-and-gloomy instrumental trio they called Surt (the Destroyer), had opened for Sinister Moustache - it was Surt's first (and, as it turned out, only) live performance. Statts and Williams played dueling electric basses; the third member was drummer John Collenberger.

The two were standing outside a friend's house in the 600 block of East 48th Street, celebrating their successful debut with a couple of beers. Desmond Hunter and Ashimir Johnson, 19, appeared out of the darkness and offered to sell them marijuana.

Statts and Williams declined. The two strangers left, only to re-appear, suddenly, several minutes later. Statts, hoping to ease a suddenly tense atmosphere, asked if they wanted some beer. In response, Hunter pulled out a gun and shot him, point blank.

As their assailants fled, the musicians fell, bleeding, into the street. Statts says he knew that he was seriously injured. "I knew as soon as I hit the ground."

Emergency personnel arrived within seven or eight minutes. "The girl that heard the gunshots called from inside her house," Statts says. "And then Dave crawled over to me and got my phone - they took his phone - and dialed 911. They took his phone so that we couldn't call the police, I guess. And they never had time to go through my pockets."

Along with Williams' cell phone, Hunter and Johnson stole a pack of cigarettes and the case to Statts' Sinister Moustache CD. They dropped everything as they ran away down the street.

Lyra's mother and brother were in town that weekend; they'd all stopped at the Jinx after Jason's performance, and were outside chatting with someone when Lyra's cell phone rang.

"She said ‘There's been a shooting.'

"I said ‘Jason didn't shoot anybody. What are you talking about?'

"She said ‘No, Lyra, you need to come right now!'"

Jason sometimes tells his wife he wished he'd been carrying a gun himself that night. "You wouldn't have had time to do anything," she always replies. "It was so quick."

 

 Lyra Statts says her husband always had a pronounced dark side; she calls him a "glass is half empty" kind of guy.

No more. "I try to be positive," Statts says.

"I mean, I have days where I wake up and I'm like "Rah, fuck! Like ‘I'd rather just not be here.'

"But, whatever. I can't do much about it, so I have to make it the best I can."

He's adapted his quirky sense of humor to his present circumstances -- sort of. "He likes to pretend to drive through plate glass windows when he's had a cocktail or two," Lyra laughs. "He finds it really amusing to get me riled up."

Reality, unfortunately, is always lurking right around the corner.

Statts spent his 35th birthday at a spinal injury rehab center in Atlanta; afterwards he and Lyra lived in a borrowed apartment downtown while their Ardsley Park home was being outfitted with wheelchair ramps, a special shower and other amenities.

Statts is encouraged by the fact that he can now grasp things like food - albeit awkwardly - with his hands.

But there's no definitive prognosis. Whatever comes back comes back.

"No one really knows, and everyone's different," he says. "So they just tell you to keep you chin up and do your best, try to get your strength back and see what happens."

Meanwhile, Williams' injuries are almost completely healed, although the bullet is still lodged in his throat (his doctors expect it to come out, safely, on its own). The two remain close friends.

In exchange for a reduced sentence, Ashmir Johnson testified against Desmond Hunter, who was found guilty and sentenced, in January, to life plus 30 years behind bars.

None of which, frankly, means much to Jason Statts, who's just trying to get on with his life.

"It doesn't suck nearly as bad as it did at the beginning," he says. "The first month or two, I was pretty pissed off - just devastated.

"I think the anger was gone two months into it. I just don't see any good about being mad about it. I can't really do anything about it."

 For the Benefit of Statts

Where: Savannah Station, 601 Cohen St.

When: 6 p.m. Friday, June 12

Doors open for auction preview at 4:30

Tickets: $25 at the Jinx, Arcannum and Primary Art Supply; $30 at the door

Online: stattsbenefit.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About The Author

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

Bio:
Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.

More by Bill DeYoung

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