By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“Quit talkin’ to me – talk to Jesus.”
That’s what Jonathan “Jamie” Vause testified he told his dying friend Travis Hood as he drove frantically away from where Hood had just been shot, toward what he thought was a hospital a mile and a half away.
Vause was the only witness to testify Wednesday at the trial of the man who shot Hood, Lovett Chambers, and he will be back on the stand today.
The fact that Chambers fired the fatal shots is not disputed – but the reason for the shooting is, as is Vause’s behavior preceding it. As laid out in opening statements last Wednesday, the prosecution contends he was a shocked witness who has no idea why Chambers, who had been drinking at the same Morgan Junction bar as he and Hood moments earlier, opened fire, while the defense contends Vause and Hood, both white, taunted Chambers, who is black, with racist insults and provoked a confrontation that led him to act in self-defense.
Yesterday, after prosecutor Margaret Nave led Vause through the story of his longtime friendship with Hood and the night he was killed – January 21, 2012 – defense lawyer Ben Goldsmith began the most intense cross-examination of the trial, first asking Vause: “You are a fugitive felon from North Carolina, is that correct?”
The courtroom was close to capacity for much of Wednesday’s testimony – at least two dozen people in the wooden church-pew-like benches that comprise the gallery, aside from the front row, which is off-limits because there is no barrier between it and the tables where the defense and prosecution sit, facing the judge’s bench.
Before testimony could start for the day, as is often the case, some other business had to be handled – in this case, a juror had reported to Superior Court Judge Theresa Doyle‘s bailiff that he had overheard a remark about the case while he walked through the hallway outside the courtroom. The person who had made the remark was among those in the gallery. The lawyers and judge discussed this in open court before the juror was brought in for further questioning; the judge decided to let him stay. Jurors are under solemn warning to not only avoid discussing or reading about the case while they are serving, but also to basically flee if they hear someone talking about it.
Finally, the full jury was brought in (if you have never been in court for a jury trial, side fact: Everyone in court is asked to stand for their entrance and exit, as well as that of the judge), and Vause, whose initial questioning by Nave totaled about 2 1/2 hours.
The prosecution flew him in from California, where he now lives. He and his family had moved to West Seattle from North Carolina in 2010, he said, first time he had lived in what Nave called “the North.” He said he was “tired of the South” because of its lack of opportunity. And he had family here – one of his five children, and a grandchild. After arriving here, he said he was hired as general manager of a restaurant in Leschi.
He had known Hood since 1996, when they both lived in Jacksonville, Florida. In 2011, Vause said, Hood moved here, not at the direct behest of Vause, but eventually being taken under his wing. Asked what kind of friend Hood – seven years younger – was, Vause replied, “family,” adding that he also mentored him.
That included helping Hood get a job at Charlie’s Produce, as a “produce puller and forklift operator,” even giving him a ride to work each day for Hood’s 7 pm-3:30 am shift.
The two were inseparable in their off-hours, Vause testified, hanging out and smoking marijuana, playing pool, going out to drink beer.
The mention of marijuana was not incidental in Vause’s testimony; he said it had been part of his life since age 13, and that he used it both recreationally and medicinally, to help with intestinal illnesses. Later in the morning, it was revealed that it is now his livelihood in California, where he is a marijuana producer for dispensaries. But while he was in North Carolina, it also was the foundation of felony convictions.
Vause expressed open disdain for that state’s law regarding marijuana; he had flown back after moving here in 2010 to plead guilty to two felonies, he testified, but acknowledged he did not comply with the terms of the ensuing suspended sentences and probation – which is why there is an arrest warrant for him there.
He explained that, being in the “marijuana-friendly state/culture” of Washington and Seattle, he would act as if the North Carolina convictions hadn’t happened.
THE NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING
After work, he stopped at the “marijuana flea market in White Center” to make purchases, and bought a six-pack of 16-ounce Budweiser beer too.
At his house, he and Hood ingested some of that before deciding to go out to celebrate Hood’s first paycheck: “He was floating on Cloud 9 – I hadn’t really seen him that happy in his life.”
Asked if he was feeling intoxicated when they left, Vause said, “No, I have a huge tolerance level, so it was like smoking a cigarette.”
They headed out in his 1996 red Ford Ranger, bound for their usual spot, the (now-defunct Junction bar) Rocksport. But it was packed, nowhere to sit. “I said, ‘Travis, I guess we’re going to have to go somewhere else’.”
That “somewhere else” was Feedback Lounge in Morgan Junction, which Vause said they had often passed by but never gone into. (Under cross-examination later, he acknowledged they usually went out drinking with a roommate who for some reason had been banned there, and since that roommate wasn’t along on this night, they felt free to try it.)
He said he found the decor off-putting – “what hell would look like” – predominant colors red and black, and dissonant with his own “hip-hop-setting” type clothing, a leather jacket, low-slung jeans, white Air Force One tennis shoes, a brown-and-gold New York Yankees baseball cap. Hood, he said, was “more modestly dressed” – Red Wing boots, polo shirt and jeans, khaki jacket.
When they walked in, “I felt like every eye that was available went straight to us,” especially to him because of his clothing. That is why, he said, he and Hood went to the back of the Feedback, past the bar, to tables near the pinball/video games, “where I could observe and see what the place was about.”
After the morning break, Nave brought out visual aids – first showing a photo of Hood, then an image of the Feedback’s layout. She asked Vause when he first saw Chambers. He said they had been there about 15 minutes when Chambers caught his eye – “a big dude,” walking by, talking with someone he assumed was a waitress or bartender. He and Hood ordered pints of beer and wings, and he said they did not interact with anyone but the wait staff.
Nave then asked how they were speaking with each other, after eliciting that Hood had come from what Vause described as one of the “roughest hoods” in Jacksonville.
Their terms for each other included the slang word “nigga,” he said, “not ni–er. Slang, not racist. (It means) my homeboy, friend, acquaintance, someone associated with me.”
How did he feel about ni–er? Nave asked.
“That’s not a cool word, that’s a racially motivated word,” one he said he did not use and was “not even comfortable using … here” (in court).
But Hood did once use it at Rocksport and offended a bartender, Vause acknowledged, asking her to change what was playing on the sound system to “some ni–er music.” He said he had tried to explain to the bartender that his friend had not meant it in a racist context because he was “one of the blackest white boys I know,” growing up in a majority-black neighborhood.
Back to January 21, 2012, at Feedback – were they talking that way when Chambers walked by?
Vause didn’t recall. But in any event, he said they didn’t feel appreciated at the Feedback, so he told Hood they should go smoke some marijuana in his truck, parked alongside nearby Morgan Junction Park, and go check out another bar.
A plastic bag of marijuana confiscated from Vause’s truck was then shown as evidence.
As they left the bar, Vause said he noticed Chambers standing to the right of the front door. He said that didn’t seem anything to be concerned about – he thought perhaps Chambers was security.
An aerial photo of the area was used so that Vause could point out the locations of what he mentioned. He and Hood were together as they walked out, but then Hood detoured off to the left. Vause recalled calling out, “Travis, what the hell you doin’, nigga, the truck’s down here.”
Hood acknowledged that, and trailed after Vause – who was walking quickly to get out of the cold and wind – toward the truck, which was parked tightly between a big yellow van and a trailer with construction equipment. Vause opened the passenger door and waited for his friend to come into view. When he did, Hood said Chambers was six-to-eight feet behind. “I thought maybe Travis invited somebody to come smoke some weed.”
He saw Hood’s mouth move but didn’t hear what was said; “I didn’t even see any kind of odd body language, (so) I wasn’t alarmed, Travis was so nonchalant, I thought maybe he was saying ‘have a good night’.”
Reaching the truck, Vause said, Hood grabbed the passenger door and then grabbed a shovel from the back of the truck, “held it up in a batter stance and said, ‘What you trying to do, man?'”
Nave at that point retrieved the shovel from its resting place in the courtroom as State’s Exhibit 1, giving it to Vause, who re-enacted what he said he saw Hood do with it. Then, “the defendant jumped back about three steps … he pulled out a gun … Travis was between he and I, so I didn’t see the gun come out, but Travis then told me, ‘nigga, watch out, he’s got a gun’ and I saw the first flash.” He took cover “below the bed of my truck,” as Travis tried to get into the pickup.
“Did he swing the shovel?” Nave asked.
“No, he did not.”
He heard three shots, then saw Chambers put his pistol back inside his jacket and “just casually walked away,” without a word.
Hood had fallen into the truck, across its front seat. “There was blood everywhere. … I lifted him up, he was still conscious, and I said, ‘What the f–k just happened, what the f–k was that?’ He said, ‘I don’t know’.” Vause spoke of trying to get his wounded friend entirely into the truck, but the door wasn’t closing – the shovel’s handle was caught in it – “I pushed it out, made a U-turn, took him to what I thought was a hospital …”
One of the family/friends who have been in the courtroom daily was sobbing loudly.
Asked Nave, “Did you think of calling 911?”
Vause said he was in shock and afraid that the man who had shot Hood would come back for him, and that’s why he took off. On the mile and a half to Providence Mount St. Vincent – the retirement/rehab center which he said he had always thought was a hospital because the sign “has a cross like a hospital – not a Christian cross, a hospital cross” – he tried to keep Hood talking, though, he said, his friend said, “I don’t know, dawg, I ain’t gonna make it, I know I’m not’.” He was “fading really quick … I said, ‘quit talkin’ to me, talk to Jesus’.”
Picking up the story after lunch break, Vause said his friend stayed conscious until they reached The Mount, at which point he “jumped out and ran inside and said, ‘My friend’s been shot, help me’ … (they said) ‘We’re not a hospital, call 911’ … I ran out and he (was no longer) conscious.”
Mount staff had called 911 and emergency responders soon arrived. Vause was “put in a police car real quick” and said he was there for a long time, eventually “dictating a statement” to an officer.
Nave asked about the small folding knife found in the bed of the pickup truck; Vause said it belonged to Hood but had become gummed up a day or two earlier with residue of a tar-like marijuana “concentrate” that Vause had been trying to cut to ingest and was tossed aside in the truck bed when, as he was being dropped off for a subsequent work shift, Hood realized the knife had been fouled. (The residue was still visible as the knife was subsequently shown in court.)
Neither man was armed the night of the shooting, Vause said.
“Do you know what really happened that night between Travis and the defendant?” asked Nave.
“I wish I knew. I still wish I knew.”
Then, the defense’s questioning began, with attorney Goldsmith’s opening line:
“You are a fugitive felon from North Carolina, is that correct?”
It didn’t get any friendlier from there.
“In court (in North Carolina), you lied to them about what your address was.”
“Yes, I did.” When pleading guilty to the aforementioned felonies, Vause was living in Gatewood, but gave the North Carolina court a local address. And as soon as he left the courthouse, he went to the airport to fly back to Seattle.
“I wasn’t a fugitive – I was going home.”
“You would agree, the law calls it ‘fugitive’.”
“Well, they haven’t come and gotten me.”
Vause eventually confirmed he knows he’s wanted “and do I give a sh-t? No.”
Goldsmith brought up the fact that Vause brought up the warrant to the officer who took his statement at The Mount the night of the shooting. “While you were (there) sitting in the back of a Seattle Police car, your warrants were on your mind.”
“They always are.”
At that point, Goldsmith moved to play back video from the officer’s in-car system. Technological difficulties ensued. The defense lawyer subsequently brought out that Vause had originally been charged with selling heroin as well as marijuana. “Heroin is illegal here in Washington, too,” he said, accusing Vause of “trying to flee.”
Retorted the witness, “I’m trying to get on with my life and I was doing pretty good until I met you.”
The heroin charge eventually was dismissed. And, Goldsmith noted, somewhere along the line Vause was working as a paid informant for law enforcement. Yes, he said, calling it “moonlighting.”
Next calling Vause a “fugitive drug cultivator,” Goldsmith pointed out the county paid to fly him here and back to testify, and “you’re counting on the fact that they’re not going to alert the authorities of North Carolina …”
“Justice is what I’m counting on,” countered Vause. “I could care less if I go back to North Carolina (to go to jail) … for justice, I’d do (twice the sentence), I’d walk up, put my hands right here, and say go ahead, cuff me .. to see justice for my friend’s death, you’re damn right.”
In the final hour of the day’s proceedings, the video playback finally worked. The officer was heard to say that Vause’s warrant “was not extraditable, anyway.”
Introduced next, a transcript of a July 2013 interview with the witness, as Goldsmith tried to make him define what he considered “home” at the time of the shooting. Vause said he had three houses back then, and split time between them; “Home is where you lay your head … doesn’t mean it was where I lived, but it was home that night.” He said Hood was living in one of those houses at the time of the shooting but not the same one he was living in. Pressed again for memories and consistency, he told Goldsmith, “I’m telling you, I don’t remember anything too much of what was going on that night and … I don’t really remember talking to that cop. I felt like I was at the bottom of a well, trying to understand what had happened … there’s a million things going through your mind when you get subjected to something like that.” Shortly afterward, he repeated that he just couldn’t recall a detail, and raised his voice angrily – “for the fourth time, I don’t remember! God damn!” – leading to a gentle chiding by Judge Doyle.
A few minutes later, Goldsmith brought out the detail that Vause and Hood felt free to go to the Feedback that night because they were not accompanied by the roommate who wasn’t allowed inside. “You never asked why (he) wasn’t allowed in there?” Goldsmith asked. He then honed in on details of that specific night – why Vause described his outfit as “hip-hop-oriented,” that he and Hood were “joking people (there) probably thought they were gay,” and that he at some point had in a statement later described the woman who served them as “not engaging” and suggested the bar staff “needs people to come in and train them to be decent servers.” Pressed about when and how he had noticed Chambers and why, Vause repeated what he had said earlier – that it was just a matter of noticing him, not an interaction, and that because of Chambers’ apparent familiarity with the server he was talking with, Vause guessed he was an employee.
That’s where they broke for the day. In a logistics discussion afterward, Goldsmith voiced concern that he was less than halfway through his list of questions for Vause, who is booked to fly home late today. Asked if she could make time for testimony on Friday – usually an off-day for trials, while judges handle other matters – Judge Doyle said she had a full calendar, including sentencings, so she expressed optimism the lawyers would be able to finish with Vause today. Court resumes at 9 am, and we’ll again be there.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE AND BACKSTORY:
Trial report, Tuesday 2/25/2014 (DNA analysis, police)
Trial report, Monday 2/24/2014 (5 more witnesses)
Trial report, Thursday 2/20/14 (first witnesses)
Trial report, Wednesday 2/19/14 (opening statements)
Charge reduced to second-degree murder (August 9, 2013)
Charges filed against Chambers (January 25, 2012)
Coverage the night it happened and the morning after (January 21-22, 2012)