Jamie Vause saw his friend Travis Hood get shot on Jan. 21 2012 in the Morgan Junction. Hood died that night and the alleged shooter Lovett James Chambers is on trial. Vause testified in the case this week.
He saw his friend get shot: Key witness in West Seattle murder trial testifies
Racial terms and how they are used were part of the testimony
By Tim Clifford
The key witness in the murder trial of Lovett James Chambers, Johnathon “Jamie” Vause, flew back to Seattle and testified in court this week.
“My first response was to get the hell away from there before this guy kills me,” said Vause after he watched as his friend Travis Hood was shot the night of Jan. 21, 2012.
In the last two years, many things in Vause’s life have changed: going through a divorce, changing careers, and moving from West Seattle to Clearlake, California. But throughout that time, Vause has been anxiously awaiting the day that he could tell his story of that fateful night in court, in front of a jury and, maybe most importantly for Vause, in front of Lovett James Chambers, the accused shooter.
Finally this week, Vause was flown here by the state to testify Wednesday and Thursday.
“It almost seemed like a hit, I mean as crazy as that might sound, it’s the only legitimate explanation I can come up with…why would somebody come up and shoot somebody without even looking at them unless they are being paid for it”," said Vause of one of the many possible motives he has played out in his head.
According to Vause, who is in his mid-forties and who speaks with a heavy southern drawl, there hasn’t been a single day in the last two years that he hasn’t mentally played out the scene in hopes of finding some clarity as to what exactly happened.
Hood had recently moved to the area from Florida and was living with Vause and his then-wife and children at their home in west Seattle. A longtime friend of Vause’s, Hood had been having trouble in Florida, mixing with the “wrong crowd” and had even recently lost a friend in an execution-style murder over drugs.
The move to Seattle, the new job and the opening of his first bank account was all supposed to be a fresh start for Hood.
“It was an investment in a friendship for me” said Vause, who saw himself as not only a friend but a sort of mentor to Hood, helping him to get a job and driving him to work each day.
Motive has been hard to figure out in this case for both sides as Vause and Hood had never met or encountered Chambers before walking out of the Feedback Lounge on California Avenue that night.
What is known to have happened is that on the night of Jan.21 two years ago, Vause and Hood, both then employees of Charlie’s Produce and living in the same residence together with Vause’s family, went to the Feedback Lounge at the Morgan Street Junction. In the bar at the same time was Chambers, a regular and well- known customer, sitting in his usual seat and drinking alone. Vause and Hood left to go smoke marijuana in Vause’s pickup truck nearby with Chambers following them out at the same time. Brief words ( no one knows what was said) were exchanged between Chambers and Hood while Vause walked ahead.
All seemed well as Hood reached the pickup when suddenly Chambers came walking towards the truck.
“I don’t know if Travis heard his feet or saw his reflection or something but he reached into the back where I had a shovel and got into a batter’s stance with it” according to Vause of Hood’s reaction to Chambers. At that point, Chambers pulled out a .45 caliber handgun and shot Hood three times.
“I was already on my way out of the truck when I saw that first flash, I didn’t see where Travis was at that point, where it shot him, front back or whatever, but apparently he was spinning into the truck, the first one must have caught him in the front and the last two in the back because one of those bullets went through his liver and it literally, I mean it blew a chunk of liver out of his stomach the size of my fist” remembers Vause.
After shooting Hood, according to witnesses, Chambers calmly left the scene and drove away.
Vause got Hood into his truck (he was in the seat but slightly hanging out the door) and drove him to Providence Mount Saint Vincent on 35th S.W., a little ways north of the scene, thinking it was a hospital. By the time EMTs and police arrived Hood was unresponsive. He was rushed to Harborview Medical Center but passed away shortly thereafter.
Chambers was initially charged with first degree murder after being arrested but since August the charge has been dropped to second degree murder. While Chambers, a now 69-year-old black man, has a criminal history stretching back to the 1960’s that includes robbery, kidnapping, extortion and other crimes and because of being a convicted felon was in illegal possession of a firearm at the time of the incident, he also owns a home and had recently started an IT company. His motive for shooting Hood have been the major question of this case since by all accounts Chambers went to his car, retrieved his gun, and followed Hood and Vause to their truck.
The defense for this case has contended that Chambers felt threatened by Vause and Hood and was harassed with racial slurs by the two friends (both white) and believed they had attempted to rob him.
While Vause refutes the claims of the defense and finds them to be ridiculous, one point that he readily defends and was heavily questioned about on the stand is his use of the word “nigga”.
“Everywhere I live I mingle, and exist, and communicate everyday with black people. They are some of my best friends and I say the word “nigga” to them maybe 300 times a day and they never ever get offended,” said Vause. “A “nigga” to me is a “homie”, I don’t care what color they are, you know, that is the proper use of it in my world” said Vause.
A serious distinguishment between the use of the word “nigga” and “nigger” was made by Vause on the stand and became a major point of contention under cross examination with defense attorney Ben Goldsmith. At many points during the cross examination, a clarification of whether the word was being used with “ger” or “ga” at the end had to be made.
While Vause recognizes that he and his other white friends use the word “nigga” regularly in conversation, he contends they would never say “nigger” and that the night of the shooting the term didn’t come up in conversation for anyone else to hear and was never used towards anybody in the bar or outside of it.
The defense attorney also brought up Vause’s own criminal history and the fact that there is currently a warrant out for him in North Carolina. But according to Vause, the possibility of arrest is worth it if he can bring justice to his dead friend.
As Vause puts it “I don’t know anybody who has a perfect past. Let’s face it. That’s just real, but Travis had changed and was persevering into a positive thing in life and to have that just snatched away from him so brutally for no good cause, it really saddened me, just really saddened me, it’s really disheartening”.