Friends by Fire

Jason Statts and Dave Williams went through hell together. And came out the other side.

Geoff L. Johnson
Best Buds: Dave Williams, left, and Jason Statts.

"I was never scared," Jason Statts says. "I just thought I was going to die."

Statts is remembering the midsummer's night, more than five years ago now, when a 22-year-old thug named Desmond Hunter pressed the barrel of a .380 semi-automatic pistol against his neck and hissed "This is a stickup, motherfucker!"

It was just before 4 in the morning on June 28, 2008, in the well-manicured front yard of a home on the edge of Ardsley Park. Statts was 34, a promising artist and graphic designer. He and his buddy Dave Williams, 30, had played a gig that night at Live Wire Music Hall with their brand-new band; they had dropped off their amps at Williams' house and were standing outside another friend's place, on 48th Street, waiting for him to show up so they could all go inside and celebrate.

They were leaning against Dave's blue Chevy Cavalier when it began.

"I see a couple of guys walking around the corner," Williams recalls. "They were both dressed all in black; you could obviously tell they were up to no good. I tell Jason, 'Look, we're kind of stuck here right now. Either we get in the car or we just try to deal with this.'"

They opted to deal with it.

"We thought we handled it well," Williams says. "They were doing all the things that guys would do when they're potentially going to mug you. I knew this from growing up in South Florida: 'Man, do you want to buy cocaine?' 'Want some weed?' Trying to get our wallets out of our back pockets. They try to sell you stuff, or ask you for money, just to get your hands busy and get your wallet out. So they have less work to do."

"And neither of us were doing what they wanted us to do," injects Statts. "We were like 'No. No. No.' We gave them two beers. Dave actually handed them the beer.'"

Hunter and 19-year-old Ashimir Johnson left with their bottles of iced Stella Artois, and that was that. Or so Williams and Statts thought.

"I saw them coming back out of the corner of my eye," says Williams. "And I said 'Aw fuck. Here we go.' Jason laughed. He thought I was saying that our friends were home, so it was time for us to start moving."

It all happened so fast.

"He jumped on me like a spider monkey," recalls Statts. "He grabbed me and pulled me down a little bit. And pressed the gun in my neck. I just instinctively put my hand up, and touched the barrel. And he thought I was going to fight him.

"I still wasn't scared. I didn't think he would actually pull the trigger; I just thought 'Oh shit, he has a gun.' When I was touching it, I was going to say 'Dude, we don't have anything.' And I didn't even get 'Dude' out."

Hunter fired once. The bullet tore through Statts' neck, exited the other side and lodged in Williams' esophagus. As Williams fell to the driveway, Johnson reached into his pocket and grabbed a cell phone and half a pack of Camel Lights. The assailants fled.

"I stayed awake the whole time, until the paramedics got there," Statts continues. "It was weird. It was kind of surreal. It was like a movie, almost. Like a TV show or something."

Ironically, their friends had been home the whole time, partying in a back room, with the music turned up loud.

"I saw the friends come out and line up on the sidewalk," Statts says. "Everyone came out of the house and just started staring at us. I remember their faces, like 'Oh, shit!' Like they couldn't believe it."

Statts can picture the scene as if were yesterday. "It was just weird."

Jason Statts has been paralyzed, from his chest down, since just before 4 a.m. June 28, 2008.

This Sunday, Oct. 13, an organization called Friends of Statts will take over Muse Arts Warehouse for its second annual Statts Fest, a fund-and awareness-raiser with music, games and other acceptable forms of tomfoolery. The government pays for Statts' three caregivers — they visit his home in shifts, every day — but there are other bills to be settled. Statts' monthly electric statement, for one thing, is enormous.

The main mover and shaker in the group is Dave Williams, who lost a vocal cord to Hunter's bullet but is otherwise fully recovered. He and Statts remain the best of friends.

"I don't think about it nearly as much as I used to," Williams says. "Jason and I have moved past it enough that we joke about it. We've always picked on each other, anyway, about the absolute worst things we could pick on each other about.

"That's just always been part of our personality. Both of us grew up with 'trial by fire' groups of friends. In that situation, you make fun of each other. There's nothing somebody could say to us that's going to offend us."

Adds Statts: "We're sarcastic assholes, basically."

He does have his serious moments. "I can say that I don't think about it every day. I mean, I think about the fact that I'm in bed, or I'm in the chair. But I don't think about why. Or the shooting. On a daily basis. I don't even think about the shooters, or the bad stuff, any more. I'm just moving forward."

Although he's bedridden, Statts has limited mobility in his arms, and continues to draw, using a program on his omnipresent laptop computer. He is a voracious reader, and a music nut, and is a constant presence on Facebook.

Friends drop by constantly, to drink beer and shoot the breeze with him.

"He's always been pretty much the same dude — calm, cool and collected," Williams explains.

"If anything, I think the experience has made him appreciate things more. The things that he can do, he doesn't take those for granted. Everything's important. Everybody that comes through the room.

"A lot of times, people forget to tell somebody they love them. Or thank them or something like that. He's just not one to miss that opportunity."

Statts insists he let go of his bitterness — all of it — two or three years ago. "I feel like I've got a second chance at living life," he says. "That's the way I'm looking at it. I do have more appreciation for things."

They met in the mid 1990s, in a work study program at Design Press, SCAD's in-house graphic design department, on the ground floor of what is now Poetter Hall.

It later transpired that they were both fans of punk rock — although Statts' tastes leaned more towards metal and hardcore — but they first bonded by making fun of the parade of students passing by their street-level window.

"These were kids going to art school, who wanted to do something weird, but were still wearing the clothes their parents bought for them," Williams laughs.

Sarcastic assholes, indeed.

"It was like we were in a fishbowl, basically," adds Statts. "All we had to do all day was watch people walk by."

Statts has every intention of people-watching at the festival that bears his name. Williams, for his part, loves to see how others react to his friend's Zen-like countenance.

"I'm sure there are people who are uncomfortable talking to him, afraid he's going to be a bag of sad or something," Williams says.

"But nine times out of 10, what I see is people who think of Jason like a rock star. They've heard so many good things about him, and know that all of us love him so much, they'll shut down an entire downtown for him."

The reporter suggests to Statts that he ought to operate a kissing booth during the festival.

"We tried," Williams laughs. "He won't charge!"

Statts Fest's namesake has already made his plans, anyway.

"I'm going to hang out by the Sweet Tease hugging booth all day," Statts says with a big smile. "I'm just gonna get hugged all day."



Bill DeYoung

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