"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Jason Loyal Shoemaker was the sort of 15-year-old you would expect to find riding in the back seat of the school bus. He regularly flipped his middle finger at Fred the bus driver and called him “dickhead” under his breath. When one of the little girls would get off at her stop, he liked to yell “bitch” out the window, according to neighborhood children, who recall Jason’s antics with raised eyebrows, wide eyes and a great deal of exasperation.
Several of the kids who rode bus No. 11 to and from Fairview Middle School in Fairview, W.Va., remember Jason for his droopy Tommy Hilfiger pants and Korn T-shirt, and how he bragged to the other boys on the bus of sneaking into the girls’ bathroom at school. Not long ago, Jason went before a local juvenile judge for dropping his pants long enough to “moon” a schoolbus.
Jason was trouble. That alone is not too surprising: An examination of local court records shows an extensive history of trouble with the law by Jason’s immediate and extended family. And that history may very well have played a part in the development of Jason’s latest identity: as a key character involved in the alleged murder by white teenagers of a young, gay black man that has drawn intense national media attention.
The bloodied, broken body of 26-year-old Arthur Carl “J.R.” Warren Jr. was found around dawn on July 4. In death, Warren has become a cause for gay rights activists and black leaders, who are incensed that the Marion County sheriff said no evidence pointed toward the murder as a “hate crime.” To civil rights groups like the NAACP and the Human Rights Campaign, the tragedy that befell Warren should make him a national icon: Imagine a brutal cross between James Byrd, the black victim of the truck-dragging murder in Jasper, Texas, and Wyoming gay-bashing victim Matthew Shepard.
But here in Grant Town (population: 400), the focus is on the three white boys involved in the events leading up to the murder, including Jason, who was there when Warren was killed. Their every past move is being remembered and deconstructed by townsfolk wondering why they behaved as they did.
There was the time Jason drew a stick figure on the palm of his left hand and another stick figure on the palm of his right hand. Clenching his left hand, the children remember, he declared, “This person is good.”
Then he waved his right palm and said: “This person is bad.” He smacked his left fist into his right palm and said: “Now, you’re dead.”
This parable of good fighting evil has taken on more than symbolic meaning to those who know Jason well. Instead of a tale of a mixed-up kid who predictably turned to violence, Jason’s story is how a mixed-up kid ultimately stayed out of the worst kind of trouble by telling police what he says actually happened to Warren.
Now, detained at his parents’ small house, wearing a police ankle bracelet over bare feet, Jason watches wild rabbits run on the lawn nearby with a freedom he doesn’t enjoy. Perhaps, because of what he told the police, Jason will bring some understanding — for the activists, for the media, maybe even the Warren family — about what could have led to such a brutal tragedy. His story offers a vivid look inside a culture of violence and crime.
Is that any consolation? In a slow drawl, Jason says, “A little bit.”
There are numerous obstacles, natural and man-made, to reaching Grant Town, a former coal-mining town resting in a valley in the Appalachian Mountains. The sign on the bridge just before Rivesville says it’s closed. It’s not. After crossing it, there’s a right turn at the green Huntington Bank sign right after the Monongahela River sweeps into view on the left. From there, on Route 17, it’s a windy road of four miles straight out of “Huckleberry Finn” — past grazing horses, young boys fishing at Paw Paw Creek and more railroad crossings than a visitor can remember to count.
To get to Grant Town, you have to cross Paw Paw Creek on a one-lane bridge that has been festooned with white, pink and red plastic flowers as a memorial to Warren from his friends. On a recent night, with the full moon overhead, bullfrogs croak. Crickets chirp. Fireflies twinkle. The power plant roars. It’s a town where local commerce isn’t much more than two Pepsi machines, a phone booth and a lawn mower repair shop on Main Street. People know the details of each other’s lives; anyone, for example, can tell you that the lawn mower repair shop is run by Larry “LaLa” Merico, previously a coal miner, then the town cop, then a writer for the local newspaper, penning a column called “LaLa’s Porch.” (“One of the Pepsi machines doesn’t work,” Merico says. But the two machines “make the town feel a lot bigger.”)
Before it was even time for the fireworks show this past Fourth of July, the town was already abuzz about the death of J.R. Warren. Four days later, Warren’s body was laid out at Mount Beulah Baptist Church in an open casket, as demanded by his father, who wanted people to see what had happened to his son: his lips sliced with blood-dried cuts, his cheeks bruised, his forehead swollen and protruding as if a water balloon had been tucked inside.
Through his death, the country has learned that Warren was a developmentally challenged young man who was also gay, and who lived in a town with a sign that reads: “Grant Town, A Growing Progressive Community.” But the country knows very little about what really happened to Warren during the night that led to his death.
Lawyers, officials and immediate family members involved in the case declined to comment for this story. But by all accounts, Warren left his house around 11:30 p.m. on July 3. His mother told friends she reminded him that he had a curfew, and that he had told her he’d be back in an hour. He left his house on Paw Paw Street, which is called “Black Bottom” by some of the town’s white residents because it’s at the bottom of town, and most of Grant Town’s black residents live there in small bungalows with tiny yards.
Warren walked up to Main Street and made a right turn up to 101 View Ave., a one-level wood frame house famous around town as the home where Olympic gold medal gymnast Mary Lou Retton’s father, Ronnie, grew up.
Sources close to the investigation say that a boy Warren knew, 17-year-old David Parker, summoned him over to his family house. The house was empty while David, along with Jason, 15, and Jared Wilson, 17, were painting it.
The three boys had hung out together since childhood. David and Jared were second cousins, and Jared and Jason were cousins through Jason’s older half-brother. The two older boys had earned quite a reputation in the neighborhood and school as troublemakers, David in particular.
David had asked Warren to bring two specific items with him to the house: cigarettes and Xanax tablets. According to sources familiar with the investigation, Warren recently had been prescribed Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug. It was like Warren, say people who knew him, to be “a people pleaser,” even fulfilling the requests of someone like David, whom many in the neighborhood recall having heard call Warren “faggot” and “queer.”
When Warren showed up, the boys began to crush the Xanax, and then started to snort it as a way to get high. There can be adverse effects to taking Xanax, including hostility, irritability and excitability, if it hasn’t been prescribed correctly. Those effects can be aggravated further when the drug is snorted, a more potent way of ingesting the drug. And when it’s mixed with volatile personalities and alcohol — which it’s understood David, Jared and Jason were consuming — the consequences can be unpredictable and violent.
As the boys snorted the powdered Xanax, according to sources close to the investigation, the following ensued:
Tempers started getting out of control. David accused Warren of spreading a story that he and Warren had engaged in some sort of sexual activity. Warren denied the charge. Things cooled down, and Warren stepped into another room with David, leaving his wallet and a cigarette lighter behind. When he returned, his cigarette lighter was gone and $20 was missing from his wallet. Jared angrily denied taking the money, calling Warren a “dumb nigger.”
Warren apparently found his lighter tucked inside a toilet paper roll in the bathroom.
But then, something snapped. David and Jared went into another room with Warren, and David began kicking him with his steel-tipped work boots. Before joining in, Jared also switched into a pair of steel-tipped work boots. There was some punching. David threw Warren into a front room, where Jason saw the bloodied young man.
Nauseated by the blood, Jason fled the room to vomit in the bathroom. As for the beatings, Jason told police he did not participate, and has an excuse consistent with the violent bruising of Warren’s body caused by the work boots: Jason was wearing only flip-flops.
David continued the beating on a porch and even outside, where two spruce pine trees stand tall between the front door and View Avenue. At one point David said, “I cracked his skull. Somebody call 911.”
“I’m not going to do it,” said Jared.
Jason stood frozen still.
The entire assault was over quickly. (Neighbors in a trailer home just 20 feet away have said they heard nothing unusual.) Talk of a 911 call was quickly dropped and replaced with a plan for a coverup. The boys put the badly bloodied Warren into the hatchback of David’s Chevy Camaro. David drove. Jason asked to sit in the front seat because he was sick to his stomach. Jared sat in the back seat.
But Warren wasn’t dead. According to sources familiar with the investigation, Warren apparently tried to crawl into the back seat of the Camaro and Jared kept pushing him back. He pleaded with them from the hatchback, asking to be taken home. Among the last sounds he uttered, according to one recollection, was: “Are you taking me home? Please take me home.”
David kept driving through the dark, quiet town, stopping near the one-lane bridge at the mouth of the town, which didn’t yet have the red, white and pink plastic flowers. There, David and Jared moved Warren’s body to the ground. Jason stayed in the front seat.
David ran over Warren’s body once, according to the sources. He backed up over the body. He ran over Warren a second time, and then a final time, trying to make it seem as though Warren’s death was the result of a hit-and-run accident. Jared jumped back into the Camaro.
According to the sources, the three boys returned to 101 View Ave., cleaned up the blood and burned the bloodied clothes in gasoline. David then “huffed” the fumes from the gasoline can, inhaling them as another trick to get high.
Jason then turned to go home. But first, according to the sources, both older boys told him that if he revealed the crime to anyone, he, too, would wind up dead.
Jason returned home, just about 500 yards up View Avenue. His father was home, but it was his mother, Norma Shoemaker, who he called and told what happened during her night shift on staff in the emergency room at Ruby Memorial Hospital, about 45 minutes away in Morgantown. If Warren had been found alive, he might have been rushed to the emergency room where Jason’s mom worked. As it turned out, his body was brought to Ruby Memorial for an autopsy.
Norma Shoemaker called the police later that morning. After her call, police had switched what they had thought had been a suspicious-looking hit and run to a homicide investigation. Soon, Jason spoke before Circuit Judge Rodney Merrifield, who, in a recent court action, described the witness as “nervous while testifying.” However, the judge went on to say: “There was never any reason for a prudent person, including the Court, to suspect that he was lying or fabricating his testimony.”
Last week, Merrifield transferred David to adult court, and sources close to the case expect Jared to be transferred as well. Both have been charged with murder. Jason, meanwhile, has been charged with a misdemeanor as an accessory after the fact.
For Warren, sexuality was a particularly sensitive topic. His mother, Brenda Warren, is a regular member of the Mount Beulah Baptist Church, whose members hold the traditional view that homosexuality is a sin and an abomination.
Still, Warren was embraced by the tightknit church congregation, most of them Paw Paw Street neighbors who call each other “sister” and “brother” despite having no relation. The Sunday service the day after the memorial was loud, dynamic and inspiring, with cries of “Go ahead, Reverend!” and “Amen!” After the service, members said privately that they applied the common Christian philosophy to Warren that you can hate the sin but still love the sinner.
Warren’s homosexuality was understood but kept quiet. Mount Beulah’s pastor, the dapper, hard-singing Rev. Nelson Staples III, had broken the public silence at Warren’s memorial when he called upon members not to judge Warren’s homosexuality. “There are people who wrestle with their sexual orientation. If you’ve never had to wrestle,” he shouted, “if you’ve never had to weep because you feel one thing and the Book says another thing, you don’t know!”
Afterward in his church office, amid the elephant figurines he collects, Staples compared the violence to Warren’s body to the violence Warren’s sexuality inflicted upon his soul. A passionate pastor with the singing voice of Luther Vandross, Staples imagined a conversation between the dead young man’s body and soul, sitting across from each other, the soul telling the body, “You can’t bother me anymore. I’m free now.”
But Warren’s sexuality has been a key part of the talk swirling around this murder. The West Virginia Lesbian and Gay Coalition led the call for local law enforcement to classify the murder a hate crime, saying Warren had told a local support group that local youths had harassed him, calling him “faggot” and “queer.” The Human Rights Campaign dispatched a team of investigators to Grant Town, and later arranged for the Warrens to visit the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights in Washington, which sparked an inquiry by that agency.
And media reports have spurred rumors of Warren’s sexual activity. Vicki Smith of the Associated Press filed a story on July 13 reporting that “sources close to the investigation” told the AP David and Warren “had a sexual relationship” and that “there is evidence indicating he also was involved with Wilson.” The story’s lead paragraph read: “A gay black man was beaten to death because he wanted to reveal a sexual relationship he claimed to have had with the teen-agers accused of his murder, sources told The Associated Press.”
The next day, Marion County prosecutor G. Richard Bunner told Jenni Vincent, the dogged local reporter at Morgantown’s Dominion Post, “I’m reading stuff in the newspaper that I’ve never seen before during this investigation.” He added: “These allegations of a sexual relationship between the juveniles and Arthur Warren are all hearsay. There’s no proof of it.” The AP, meanwhile, stands by its story.
Jason Shoemaker’s father, Willis Eugene Shoemaker, has known trouble. Before his son was born, Ohio police arrested him on charges of driving while under the influence of alcohol, burglary and possession of a stolen vehicle. According to court records, he served one year in a correctional facility in Mansfield, Ohio, and was then paroled to West Virginia for one year. Over the following years the family was torn by a man struggling to conquer his addiction to alcohol and, perhaps, overcoming it — but not before wreaking havoc on his family.
When Jason was 5, his father started becoming well known to the Marion County Sheriff’s Department. On Sept. 2, 1990, his father was arrested for DUI after he had a single-vehicle accident in his 1974 Chevy outside Grant Town. He served 24 hours in jail. That was about the time Jason’s kindergarten teacher noticed he would sit with his head buried in his arms, reluctant to answer questions.
Jason spent the rest of his childhood watching his father break the law. About a year later, despite having a suspended license, Willis Shoemaker hit another car while driving a black 1979 Dodge Diplomat. The state trooper wrote in his report that one and a half hours after the accident, Willis Shoemaker was “passed out on his couch, smelling of an alcoholic beverage.” He “could not respond to his wife trying to wake him up except for a few incomprehensible sounds that he made.”
Less than a year later, then-officer “LaLa” Merico went to the site of an accident on View Avenue. Eyewitnesses identified the driver, now gone, as Willis Shoemaker. Merico and a deputy eventually found Shoemaker “hiding under a blanket in a shed in the backyard” of his house, according to the police report. In 1994, he was charged with indecent exposure after the chief of police from nearby Rivesville spotted him urinating behind the Pantry Store. The charge was later dropped.
In 1995, Shoemaker pleaded guilty to a third DUI and driving with a license suspended or revoked for DUI. He was given a jail sentence that was suspended to give him one-year home confinement with work release.
Finally, two years ago, Shoemaker told police he had consumed about seven beers with a friend at Smiley’s bar in Rivesville before driving to a mall in neighboring Monongalia County to buy one of his daughters a CD for her birthday. He hit a Jeep Grand Cherokee and then a pine tree. “I had one hell of a headache.”
The inch-thick Monongalia County Circuit Court file on Willis Shoemaker is a window not just into his life but also into Jason’s home life. It contains psychiatric evaluations and notes from support-group meetings Shoemaker attended before sentencing. He wanted to show the court that he was working hard to get his life in order.
On June 1, 1998, Shoemaker admitted himself into Chestnut Ridge Hospital, a psychiatric facility tucked behind Ruby Memorial Hospital where his wife works. His statements were recorded in staff intake and release reports. It was reported that Shoemaker was one of six children and had been drinking alcohol and smoking dope since high school. He also told hospital staffers he felt “ignored as a child by his dad.”
“He states that his dad always had time for his brother, but did not have time for him,” according to the report. He reported trying to hang himself at the age of 12.
His records report that he admitted to a 20-year “on and off” drinking history, with a two-year stint at going cold turkey that ended three years before. He said it took 18 beers to get him drunk, and that was how much he had downed just the previous Friday. He also reported being “a daily pot smoker” for “at least 20 years” with a drug history that included experiments with cocaine, hallucinogens and inhalants. He said alcoholism ran in the family, afflicting his brothers and father — though he said that his father had been sober for 20 years.
At home, the reports show, there were big problems. He reported that he was “having marital problems with his wife, thinking she spends more time with the kids than him and has lost interest in sex.” Asked if he had homicidal thoughts, he replied: “towards my wife.”
The records note: “Although he has not been crying, he has been very sad.”
“His wife complains of a personality change when he drinks,” one report reads. “The patient reports that he has ‘hit bottom’ again. He wants to get his life back.”
The attending social worker recommended that Shoemaker stay at the hospital because of his “depressive symptoms.” He stayed for 10 days and then began outpatient treatment that included support-group meetings at the hospital and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in town, at a former furniture store with its name, “Loving,” still on the front.
On June 16, 1998, his outpatient report stated: “Sober 16 days.”
But then less than a month later, his report showed he “smoked pot yesterday, attributed to depression.” The report reads: “Did not discuss problem w/ anyone & kept pot in home ‘just in case.’ … Feels the energy to do things comes from Pot!”
He also regularly struggled with feelings of guilt over what he had done to his family. “He feels that they have to pay for something that he did,” according to a report.
On Dec. 16, he discussed “issues regarding his son who was kicked off the basketball team.”
Shoemaker “seemed to vacillate between believing that discussing the issue with the coach was appropriate as opposed to becoming physically aggressive with the coach,” according to a report. He “feels as though he let his son down by not becoming physically aggressive with him.”
On Feb. 17, 1999, with a jail sentence approaching, “He thinks his kids will be ashamed of him, if he goes to jail. He connected his alcoholism to family dysfunction.” Later, Shoemaker “became tearful” after telling his support group of “his satisfaction fulfilling his role as husband and father more fully since he has been sober.”
In March 1999, Shoemaker pleaded guilty to more charges of DUI and driving with a revoked license. Shoemaker’s social workers gave him an optimistic diagnosis of “alcohol dependence in early full remission,” and he reported with pride to his support group that he took his wife out on a bowling date.
A relapse prevention therapist at West Virginia University’s School of Medicine also chimed in with a letter to the court, reporting that Shoemaker had “made tremendous progress in his recovery.”
“He has improved his relationship with his three school-aged children” and “has shown insight into how his drinking has affected the lives of others and is taking responsibility and ownership of his disease.” Going to jail “will severely disrupt a family” that “is slowly healing from the effects of alcohol.”
The court was not so sympathetic. Shoemaker was sentenced to one year in the county jail, and one year to three years in the state penitentiary, consecutive to the county jail sentence. He was released to attend alcohol treatment counseling sessions and work at his job as a contractor at Morgantown Heating, Cooling and Plumbing, most often walking the couple of miles from the jail up a steep hill to his job. By September of 1999, hospital records show, he had been sober for a year. In April, the court granted him electronic home incarceration for the balance of his sentence.
Long ago, Willis Shoemaker could see he wasn’t setting a good example for his son. When Jason was 13 Willis suspected his son was smoking, and he told the group he believed his son “has an attitude problem and does not want to follow in his father’s footsteps.”
Two years later: Jason and his father sit at home wearing matching electronic ankle bracelets.
David Parker’s father, William Lee Parker, is called “Parker Bill” to distinguish him from all the other area Parkers. Just after police discovered Warren’s battered body up by the bridge on the morning of July 4, Parker Bill drove the two alleged murderers, David and Jared Wilson, out the other end of town, to the Fourth of July festivities in nearby Fairview.
First, they stopped at a cousin’s trailer, located behind the Fairview fire hall, for a Parker family party. David told a relative he had dropped out of North Marion High School but was taking vocational technical education classes and intended on taking his GED. Jared shuffled his feet quietly and tugged at the brim of his baseball cap.
Soon, the boys left the gathering and wandered off. Just before the local parade started at 10 a.m., David ran into his kindergarten teacher and played a guessing game to see if she could recognize him.
Then, a local cop ran into one of Parker Bill’s first cousins, 60-year-old Bob Parker, behind the fire hall listening to a lay preacher speak, and told him that the cops were looking for Parker Bill. “Tell him to get down to the house because something important’s happened,” the cop said.
Cousin Bob found Parker Bill nearby, telling him, “You’re wanted at home. It’s important.”
“What’s it about?” Parker Bill asked.
“I don’t know,” said his cousin, who suspected it might have involved David, thinking he might have been picked up for drugs. Parker Bill drove back home and, upon hearing the allegations being made about his son, fell to the floor.
The Parker family house at 101 View Ave. has seen its share of problems. On the night of April 4, 1995, when David was 12, the Marion County Sheriff’s Department advised officers to watch for a blue 1970 Chevy Nova hot rod allegedly being driven by an apparently intoxicated Parker Bill, who was “threatening to shoot people.”
On Route 17 outside of town, Parker Bill illegally passed a vehicle on a double yellow line “at a high rate of speed.”
When he was finally stopped, he failed a horizontal gaze test, one-leg stand test and a walk-and-turn test. At 9:06 p.m., his alcohol level registered at 0.246, more than double the legal level. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of DUI and his license was suspended until September of that year, by which time he had completed the West Virginia Alcohol Safety and Treatment Program. He had to pay a fine of $262 and spend 24 hours in the Marion County Jail.
The next day, Parker Bill’s wife, Kathy, filed a complaint against her husband, “alleging abuse or danger” the night before at 101 View Ave.
“Bill had a fight in a bar. Blamed me. Was very drunk,” she wrote. “Bill accused me of hireing [sic] someone to kill him after he got beat up. He’s been having Vietnam flashbacks. Has been drinking excesively [sic] and acting very strange.”
She ended by writing: “He threatened to go get a gun” and “shoot everyone who has caused him problems. Because of past abuse I am scared for my life.”
Kathy requested that the court prohibit Parker Bill “from abusing me and/or the other person(s) named in this petition.” She sought temporary possession of 101 View Ave., $200 a week in child support, temporary custody of her two sons and only supervised visitation by her husband. The petition listed sons Brian, who was 15, and David, who was then just 12. Less than a month later, David’s mother filed for divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences.”
The divorce was finalized quickly, and Parker Bill got custody of Brian, while Kathy, who was unemployed, won custody of David, $157.34 in monthly child custody payments and $700 in legal fees Parker Bill had to pay her. Parker Bill, meanwhile, who listed his monthly income at $764.57, won use of the garage at 101 View Ave.
After his divorce, Parker Bill moved a few doors down the road on Main Street from first cousin Gary Parker. The Parkers will admit they’re not a tightknit extended family, but Gary remembers a change in his cousin after he returned from Vietnam, including an increase in his drinking. “The war changed him a lot. He never talked about it with me, but I could see that he was a little different,” he says. “Anybody in town will tell you he’s a good, decent fellow, hardworking and pretty loyal. Everybody’s got a little complication in their life.”
Cousin Bob, meanwhile, found God and became a devout Christian, but he says, “I know something about alcohol and violence in coal mining towns, having experienced it firsthand.”
One night out drinking in his youth, he got stabbed. His dad used to call alcohol “courage juice,” says Cousin Bob, a retired Ohio school psychologist, who says young cousins David and Jared were small guys who struggled with bad school grades and battles with authority. That doesn’t even factor in a broken home, drugs and alcohol.
“It’s a dangerous, dark and dirty combination,” he says. “The only guy they could beat up in Grant Town was J.R.”
Two Saturdays after the murder, Jason is home alone. It’s a clear evening on View Avenue. A neighbor rakes his lawn. At a nearby house, the mayor’s son works outside in his driveway. The blaring TV at Jason’s house can be heard near the end of the dead-end road.
There’s a large cardboard carton on the side porch, a lace curtain over the window on the side door and a bird feeder dangling at the porch’s edge. When a visitor knocks, it takes Jason a few knocks to hear the door. When he arrives at the door, he is just another teenager in the middle of a hot summer, bare-chested, with long droopy Champion athletic shorts hanging so low that the elastic of his boxers peeks out and, of course, an electronic bracelet strapped around his right ankle.
He is polite and has a calm demeanor, leaning on the side door. He can’t talk about any details related to the murder, he says. The judge has instructed all parties not to talk about the case. Some details are already known, including Jason’s confession of his involvement in the crime.
He didn’t have to do it. The local police originally said the case seemed like a hit and run, and there’s a possibility no one — the media, the activists and certainly not the Warren family — would ever really know what happened otherwise. He has no great pride in going to the police; his reaction is swift: “It was the right thing to do, even though I knew all three of them.”
Some gray rabbits hop by. Jason explains they were a neighbor’s pet rabbits that got loose, and have since turned wild. He says he knew Warren from around town, but didn’t know the Warren family at all.
There are a few rumors buzzing around the neighborhood that Jason has heard. David, according to the rumors, allegedly threatened to hurt Jason’s two younger sisters if he squealed.
“Nah, he never said anything about my sisters,” Jason says.
But David threatened him, right? “Yeah,” Jason says in a long drawl, blinking through thick curly lashes.
There are also rumors that Jason obsessively washes his hands, because of the memory of cleaning up Warren’s spilled blood. He’s already heard that rumor. “None of that is true,” he says.
He speaks softly with a steady gaze. He says he’s been going to church some, and gives a reporter directions to Noah’s Ark, a Pentecostal church outside Fairview. Soon, the town mayor, a neighbor, comes over to find out who the stranger is talking to Jason. He asks him, “Are you OK talking with this lady?”
“Yeah,” Jason drawls.
The next morning, Jason’s mother, Norma, does indeed drive him to Noah’s Ark. The sign on the grassy knoll out front reads “Find Love Here.” This is where Jason plays basketball on Friday nights, in a slick new gymnasium where the church’s band, Flames of Fire, practices. Rules to the gym on the front bulletin board are explicit (“1. Adults are in charge”) and inspirations are taped up in every corner. (“The Dragon Slayer and the God of Peace shall soon crush Satan under your feet,” a quote from Romans 16:20.) The youth pastor here counseled Jason, at Norma’s request, after the alleged murder.
The Sunday before, Norma had gone forward during services for a special blessing from the pastor, fiery grandmother Louise Tennant, known as “Pastor Louise.” Pastor Louise asked her if she had declared the “Sinner’s Prayer,” which is an initiation as a born-again Christian. She told her she had.
Jason sits in the second to last pew on the left side, atop a long mauve cushion. He blends in with the rest of the boys in the youth ministry who always sit there. Beyond his distinguishably long lashes, it’s obvious that it’s Jason. Between the cuff of his black denim jeans and the top of his black Nike sneakers, Jason itches at his white athletic sock, where his ankle bracelet makes a slight impression. A stud earring glistens in his left ear along with a tiny hoop.
A couple of guys pop green Tic Tacs, a trick to stay awake. To a visitor, everything seems filled with meaning. David and Jason’s kindergarten teacher softly plays background music on the piano as Pastor Louise strolls from the front, where Jason’s mother sits, to the back, where Jason is.
“I pray the devil will stay away from your doorstep!” she shouts.
She stops eerily next to Jason’s pew. “Will you seek forgiveness for your sins?” she asks softly. “Jesus will give you redemption!”
She speaks in a murmur: “Say, ‘Lord, I am sorry. Take away all my pain. Heal me with your Holy Spirit.’ Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
What’s happened in Grant Town can make for a heyday for any sociologist or activist — or even a journalist — determined to prove a point. But what’s clear about the death of J.R. Warren is that other, fairly banal factors — drugs, alcohol and the problems that come with a troubled family background — probably played a more important role in Warren’s untimely death than homophobia or racism did. It’s simpler, and surely more dramatic, to see it as a crime motivated purely by an unimaginable hate. It’s more realistic to see it as the product of society’s own, self-perpetuating cycle of violence.
At Noah’s Ark, amid the sadness, there seems to be a real hope for Jason Shoemaker. Whatever can be learned of the murder is the result of his willingness to come forward, risking his own safety, in a young life where doing the right thing hasn’t always been the obvious choice. It’s a dim light of optimism, but it’s one that members of this congregation cling to.
“Did you see? He was looking straight at me,” Pastor Louise says after the service.
Back in Grant Town, at Mount Beulah Baptist Church, an unexpected visitor slips into a back pew. It’s cousin Bob Parker. Before the end of the service, the Rev. Staples motions for him to speak to the congregation.
“I am sorry,” he says to the congregation. “I am here to ask for forgiveness on behalf of the Parker family.” The congregation sits quietly and a woman gets up and gives him a hug. Brenda Warren sits stoic and silent in the front.
Asra Q. Nomani, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal currently on leave to write a book, is reporting for Salon from Pakistan. To read more about Nomani click here.More Asra Q. Nomani.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)