Every now and then we get a perfect spring day in Cincinnati: balmy, bright, sunny and clear, pristine blue skies dotted with cumulus clouds. Sunday, April 17, 2011, was that kind of day. On that afternoon, David Paul Hebert—gangly, intricately inked, and maybe a little soused—loped into the backyard of Laura Harrell’s Kirby Avenue home in Northside. Trailing behind him was his new buddy, Jason Lee Weller.
The territorial, loyal, and clannish musicians, tattoo artists, bartenders, former punk band road rats, and fellow couch surfers who knew Hebert—pronounced ay-BEAR—called him Bones. So did Harrell, a single mother who works as a night manager at Arnold’s. She was convening an impromptu cookout with some friends, and when she saw him push open the gate, her heart sprang up a little in her chest. “I said, ‘Right on, Bones is here!’” she recalls. “‘He’ll get to be in on this.’”
It’s September 2011 when Harrell tells me this. We’re sitting in the buggy patch of grass that passes for a courtyard behind Sidewinder Coffee Shop on Hamilton Avenue. I’m trying to piece together the events leading up to Hebert’s fatal shooting by Cincinnati Police in the early hours of April 18. A challenge, since he was hard to track. He’d been living at Harrell’s place—sleeping in his van, actually. In exchange for hanging drywall in her shed, Harrell let Hebert park in her side yard. But his appearance at the cookout was a surprise. It was “typical Bones”: dipping away for a few days and then reappearing without any explanation, as if he hadn’t been gone at all.
Harrell is an outspoken spark plug of a woman and she had a hard-and-fast rule: Hebert had to steer clear of her house and her school-aged daughter when he’d been drinking. And lately, he’d been drinking.
“He was struggling,” Harrell says.
Hebert’s drunkenness may have contributed to his rootlessness—or maybe vice versa. At 40, he was still living a nomadic life. He first moved to Cincinnati from Louisiana via Chicago in the early 1990s, using it as home base for years while he toured as a drummer with various local bands before gaining a degree of fame as the dude who made the excellent burritos at The Comet, a Northside institution. Aside from the six years he lived in Portland, Oregon, where he landed in 2003 after going back home to Louisiana for a short stint, he’d spent most of the last 20 years here. He was having some success with sobriety around Harrell. Sitting
on her deck with Hebert, drinking tea and “shooting the shit for hours” is one of her favorite memories. “That’s not to say the little fucker didn’t wake me up in the middle of the night when he was drunk,” she says, laughing her raspy smoker’s laugh.
In written eulogies, public soliloquies, and extemporaneous recollections so alike they sound scripted, Hebert’s friends tell of a peaceful, thoughtful, and loving man who could disarm strangers just by smiling; a man who did not have an aggressive bone in his bony body. After his death, friends put together a “BONESfest” weekend of “white trash” concerts and public remembrances, which was attended by the self-christened “Friends of Bones” who formed a New Orleans–style second line down Hamilton Avenue. Standing three abreast, the parade of FOBs, numbering in the hundreds, quietly walked the path he did the night he was shot, ending at Hoffner Park for a family picnic. In Portland, a memorial concert was held at Mt. Tabor Theater.
It was beautiful proof he belonged to a far-reaching “family”—a crew of unconventional somebodies who remember Hebert as “a sweetheart.”
Except when he was drunk. Drinking unleashed Hebert’s sloshy, reckless twin. With newfound largesse, he’d become verbose, profane, daring, dangerously affable. Once, he was at a bar flirting with the date of another man. He waited until the guy went to the bathroom, unzipped his fly, and dipped his penis in the guy’s beer. The trick earned him an ass-whupping. Drunk, Hebert was a terrible judge of character and circumstance. It is a fact that some among this faithful and steadfast bevy of friends and occasional lovers—the people I call The Congregation of Bones—cannot reconcile. But it was that rash, addled version of the man who met a tragic end a mere 12 hours after he and Weller showed up in Harrell’s backyard.
In fact, it was the sight of Weller—the stranger dogging Hebert’s footsteps—that sent Harrell’s antenna straight up that day. Even in a neighborhood like Northside, where hipster hair and body art are de rigueur, Weller’s tattooed face was unsettling. “This guy walks in and I thought: Now, who is this shitcake Bones has trailing in behind him?” she recalls. She pulled Hebert into her kitchen. “I said, ‘I don’t know this guy. Do you know this guy?’ And he said, ‘Oh, he’s cool, we just played kickball together.’
“It was like having a teenage son,” she says.
Moments later, Betsy Young, Harrell’s nearby neighbor, noticed the two men walking up the street, tossed out of the cookout by Harrell. “They were heading up toward Chase,” Young recalls. “In hindsight, they’re like ghosts.”
It was 2:59 a.m. on April 18 when 36-year-old Jason Lee Weller dialed 911 from his new Cricket cell phone in his Virginia Avenue basement apartment, telling the operator in slurred, sometimes inaudible, and often incomprehensible language he’d been attacked. He’d been cut, he said, and there was blood “all over” his apartment. The call set the evening’s tragedy in motion.
Operator: Cincinnati 911, what’s your emergency?
Weller: [slurring] Uh, I live on Virginia Ave and, uh, my address I don’t quite know ’cause I just moved here, but, uh, I got jacked by two big…a guy and a lady in my own house and I’m bleeding. It’s all over my fucking house…
Operator: When did this happen, sir?
Weller: They walked out with two knives of mine…
Operator: How long ago did this happen?
Operator: How long ago did this happen?
Weller: Within the past eight minutes.
Operator: Eight minutes?
Weller: My whole house is turned upside down.
Operator: Sir, you have to give me the address. Go outside and look on the…
The exchange continues like this for some time, with Weller finally reading his own address off an envelope, then explaining that he “got jacked by a dude named Bones and whatever girl was living with him.”
Weller: [slurring] I’m bleeding all over my goddamned house.
Operator: [irritated and loud] What’s your phone number, PLEASE?
Weller: They walked out with a big-ass pirate sword that was in my house and a little tiny knife that [inaudible]
Operator: Did they use any kind of weapon on you?
Weller: [agitated] YES. I’m CUT and I’m BLEEDING! I have got my own blood all over my own house.
Operator: And what did they cut you with?
Weller: With a knife from my own house. They grabbed shit from my own house.
The operator asks Weller if he wants medical attention; he says he does not. He identifies Hebert as “a white dude with tons of tattoos.” And skinny. “Like 90 pounds. That’s why they call him Bones.” The operator struggles to get more information from Weller, and Weller struggles to make himself understood, emphasizing the loss of the “big-ass pirate sword”; his wounds (“My hand. My right hand…uh, my left hand…”); and the blood in his apartment.
The call lasts five minutes and 40 seconds. By the time Weller hangs up, Hebert has roughly eight minutes to live.
At 3:11 a.m., Hebert is stopped by two uniformed Cincinnati Police officers; they are joined quickly by two additional officers coming from Weller’s apartment, where they took his statement. Hebert is in front of 1833 Chase Avenue, a few blocks from Weller’s place, accompanied by 25-year-old Megan Hutchinson (who goes by Megan Hutch), his friend of a few months. They are walking Shady, Hebert’s dog.
According to police reports, at 3:12 a.m., after two verbal warnings, “Mr. Hebert pulled a 13-inch switchblade knife with a six-inch blade from his pocket, raised his arm, and made a swiping motion with the knife at one of the officers. Sergeant Andrew Mitchell, who was serving as cover officer, drew his firearm as Mr. Hebert turned and stepped toward another officer. Sergeant Mitchell discharged two rounds from his Department-issued firearm, striking Mr. Hebert in left shoulder and left upper chest with both rounds.”
Hebert was pronounced dead at the scene. The two officers closest to him at the time—Larry Johnson and Nicolini Stavale—did not discharge their weapons. Police say Hebert would have been charged with felonious assault on a police officer had he lived.
There is a hole high up in a windowpane of 1833 Chase. The Bones grapevine speculates it happened when the knife he was holding flew from his hand as the bullets slammed into his body, forcibly spinning his slight frame around before he hit the pavement. But that knife was found 25 feet away in a mulch bed behind Hebert, leaving some to postulate that he was trying to discard it.
Could Hebert—whose blood alcohol level was .33 with traces of marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms—have been trying to toss the blade precisely when he was shot, therefore appearing to lunge toward officers? Or was he drunkenly trying to hand it over? These are just two of a slew of unanswered questions—and only something akin to the Zapruder film could help answer them for many of his friends. Cruiser-cam footage released by Cincinnati Police appears to be from the final police car arriving after the shooting and from the farthest vantage point. There is no image of Hebert, only officers scrambling and calling for medical assistance. Cruiser cameras are only activated when officers turn on lights and sirens, and officers only do that in emergencies. Apparently detaining Hebert and his friend was not initially considered an emergency.
Four months after the shooting, Dave Cunningham meets me in Spring Grove Cemetery, a place where he likes to go alone to think. Cunningham is the owner of The Comet on Hamilton Avenue; Hebert worked for him from 1997 to 2003. We bat around all kinds of theories about free spirits and personal responsibility. He regales me with Bones stories and then drives me to the site of the shooting.
Cunningham is calm, reflective, and dispassionately honest about the incident—including Hebert’s own part in it. “The bad luck of timing, the bad decision of Bones to do whatever he did,” Cunningham says, thoughtfully. “He could’ve said, ‘I have a knife and I’m reaching for it in my pocket.’ [It] could’ve changed things. Knowing him as long as I did, he wouldn’t be dumb enough to lunge at a police officer with a knife.
“He wasn’t suicidal,” Cunningham continues, addressing rumors that Hebert deliberately committed “suicide by cop.” And he certainly doesn’t think Bones was homicidal. “Sure, he was dirty and he had some tattoos on him,” he says. “He’d maybe fuck your girlfriend, but he wouldn’t steal your money.”
Cunningham recounts to me his understanding of what led to Weller’s 911 call. Hebert, Weller, and Megan Hutchinson were drinking together that night. “The word is [Weller] makes unwanted advances on Megan. Bones says, ‘Quit, she’s not into it.’ Jason pulls a knife. Bones takes it from him and cuts him with it and leaves with his dog and Megan. They’re either on their way to the van or to Megan’s house and that’s when [Weller] calls the police with the robbery attempt.”
Rife with gossip, supposition, and grief, word of Hebert’s death spread among the tattooed denizens of Northside and Clifton, widening out to the area’s musicians, former skate punks, fellow van crashers, and underground music fans. Then it pinged through the ether to the Pacific Northwest and Portland. Grief-stricken and outraged, Hebert’s community was on full alert.
In a city divided so definitively by class, the death of a tatted-up wanderer who couldn’t seem to get his shit together might have been easy to dismiss by Cincinnatians who didn’t know Hebert or anyone like him. But his shooting death remained newsworthy because his friends marched, held commemorative concerts, and converged on City Council chambers to implore officials to look closely into the shooting and at Andrew Mitchell, a six-year veteran of the police force who according to records had previously used a TASER on a Westwood burglary suspect and also on a high school kid he assumed was a robbery suspect.
Betsy Young and her husband, Chuck Byrd, knew Hebert from the city’s aging punk community. The couple owns Aurore Press, the indie publisher that collected remembrances of Hebert and produced a 46-page memorial chapbook. Young says that when he died, Hebert was trying to settle down. He’d cobbled together a living by filling in at a pizza parlor; he was volunteering at the MoBo bike co-op, the Northside nonprofit that fixes bikes for neighborhood kids; and he was working at the horse stables at River Downs. Young thinks Hebert was on the verge of making a change in his life. “Then this happened,” she says.
If his friends are The Congregation of Bones, then The Comet, up the hill from Northside proper on Hamilton Avenue, is surely The Church of Bones. It is here where Hebert made thousands of The Comet’s signature big-as-a-baby’s-head burritos. During this time he was also renowned as a punk drummer and someone who had good pot. I learned this when I casually mentioned to an artist friend I was writing this story. He lamented the man’s death and, in the same breath, remarked what great weed Hebert sold him.
As Hebert made those burritos, he was framed by the kitchen’s rear pass-through window. Even in a bar known for its rotating cast of inked, pierced, dreadlocked staff, he stood out. His body art was amazing. Intricate, bold, and richly red, the religious iconography wreathing his arms and running up his neck—the Virgin Mary, “Jesus Is Lord,” and Day of the Dead images among them—made him appear permanently costumed. The first time I laid eyes on him at The Comet, I thought his ink sleeves were shirtsleeves. He had delicate features, India ink–black hair, and large eyes. For a period of time he had a mound of matted-yet-stringy dreadlocks piled atop his head like a black pineapple. He looked like Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons.
“Another dirty Northside hipster,” I am sure I muttered to myself. Still, I complemented his ink.
“Thanks!” he said, his face pulling into a toothy smile. That would’ve been the extent to which other neighborhood tourists like me “knew” Hebert. But The Comet was where the satellites of musicians, women, and hangers-on orbited in and out of his life. If you looked in your regular haunts and Bones was not there, he’d be here.
Well, sometimes, anyway.
“In the six years he worked for me, the portfolio of excuses was just…” Dave Cunningham’s voice drifts off as he drives me around, his face registering astonishment at the memory. “It’d be just like, ‘I went home with some lesbians and I watched ’em make out and I jacked off and I’m in Green Township.’” Cunningham is red-faced and smiling widely now. “It was never the same thing twice,” he says.
Hebert amounted to a punk version of Ziggy Stardust: an alien-thing sent to show us another way of being. Tattoo artist Ryonen Ignatius knew Hebert from Carol’s On Main, where he worked in the kitchen in the mid-1990s. But she remembers him more for the figure he cut on city streets. “He had this really funny motorized skateboard that he’d ride around and you’d see his skinny little butt with his pants falling down,” she says. “It had a tailpipe so it was really loud. I’d be sitting outside the tattoo parlor waiting for someone and I’d hear it and I’d say, ‘Oh! Here comes Bones.’”
“He was charming and women loved him,” says Betsy Young. “He gave them attention and in exchange they gave him security.” But Young reiterates a story that she included in Bones about an encounter with him not long before he was shot. It was April 3, 2011, and they were at The Comet for a literary event heralding the publication of A Dead Boy’s Tale, Cleveland-born punk legend Cheetah Chrome’s autobiography.
During Chrome’s recitation of the lyrics from his ’70s punk anthem “Sonic Reducer,” she says Hebert, who was beside her in the crowd, started to sing/speak along loudly. It was an afternoon event and Hebert was already drunk.
“He was kind of loud and disruptive,” Young says. “I just put my hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Simmer down.’ I think he saw me as [authoritative] and uncool. He took me aside afterward and said, ‘You don’t understand! I am punk rock!’” Young says it was the first time she’d actually interacted with him, and she didn’t argue further. “I let him have his moment.”
Looking back, Young thinks Hebert was at an internal crossroads: Down one path, a treadmill of excess and rootlessness; down the other, stability, sobriety, and the permanence of place. That was the path he didn’t take.
The most obvious committed relationship in Herbet’s life was Shady, his dog. Shady figured prominently in musician and photographer Paul Carmack’s final encounter with Hebert.
Carmack calls Hebert his brother, and is still in close contact with his parents in LaPlace, Louisiana, a town most famous as a filming location for Monster’s Ball, the movie that won Halle Berry the 2001 Best Actress Oscar. The two musicians go back to 1991, when Hebert first moved to Cincinnati. “He had ‘Jesus Saves’ tattooed on the backs of his arms when he came to town,” Carmack says. Back then, Hebert was a proud Christian who loved punk rock.
A “big fan of Jesus,” Carmack adds. “It was his insurance policy.”
In fact, Hebert was in Cincinnati to do the Lord’s work. He originally arrived as part of a Christian youth ministry. The group bought the old take-all-comers Clubhouse on Ruth Lyons Lane and converted it to an evangelical juice bar. Carmack and his friends laughed at the Christians trying to save young sinners with the Fruit Juice of the Lamb. But he got to know Hebert. In the 1990s they played together in the bands Adios Motherfuckers and Shoot the Gift. And though Hebert may have started—or gotten more serious about—drinking during those hardscrabble punk days, he never lost sight of his faith. “The skinheads always wanted to fight the punks and here comes this kid trying to grow dreadlocks talking about Jesus until you told him to shut up,” Carmack says. “No matter how much he strayed, he always had that redemption waiting for him.”
Hebert’s Christianity was a calming influence during the grim drudgery of touring. “We’d spend eight hours in the van driving to St. Louis and from St. Louis to Iowa,” Carmack says. “I’d be in the back of the van going crazy because I’m hyperactive, and he’d say, ‘Dude, look out the window.’ That’s where he and I bonded the most—in the back of that van.”
The last time they talked, it was about their dogs. “Right after I got my dog, Spike, he got Shady and then I got Mischief,” he says. “These dogs grew up together.” In the weeks before the shooting, Carmack tracked Hebert down to tell him about how he had to put Mischief down. “We spent the next 30 to 40 minutes talking about our dogs,” he says. “I drove away and he was still teary, waving goodbye. We played phone tag for the next coupla weeks, and then I got the call.”
Here’s what can be bittersweetly beautiful about the public dissemination, the grieving, and the grasping for understanding when cops shoot a citizen in the street. If we let it, it can bring us—black, white, and usually poor—together without us even knowing it. Some in Hebert’s community now know the pain, absence, and confusion Timothy Thomas’s family and the black community felt after he was killed by Officer Stephen Roach in April 2001.
“In Cincinnati, everybody knows if you’re a black man walking down the street, you’re in danger,” says Ignatius. “But this incident made us realize that the same goes for the Northside freaks. Now it’s in our backyard.”
“The interesting dichotomy of the whole thing,” says Young, “is that this is what African-Americans, particularly males, have been feeling for years.”
In the days following Hebert’s shooting, Carmack went before City Council and, without naming names, eloquently reminded listeners of what happened in this city during another April police shooting a decade before. “Ten years ago this city suffered riots…[because of] another senseless shooting at the hands of a police officer,” he said. “I’m greatly saddened that 10 years later we have learned nothing from our mistakes.”
There were three investigations into Hebert’s death—one by the Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Unit; one by its Internal Investigation Unit; and a third by the Citizen Complaint Authority. (That seven-member panel—with an independent investigative team—was formed under the direction of the Department of Justice in 2003 in the wake of Thomas’s shooting.) All three came to the same conclusion: Officer Mitchell did not violate Cincinnati Police Department practices and procedures. In addition, as part of the police department’s internal examination, a shooting review board looked at the case to determine whether there should be changes made to Cincinnati Police practices and procedures. No changes were prompted by that internal examination.
“It’s a real tragic kind of a situation,” says Lt. Col. Vince Demasi, the Police Department’s head of investigations. “Our officer [Mitchell] felt like the officers were threatened. It was a life-or-limb situation. We value life in the Police Department. The loss of any life is extremely tragic.”
Yet a question still haunts the chain of events that night. It was Sgt. Mitchell who went to Weller’s apartment and took his statement. A confused and slurring Weller repeatedly told the dispatcher—and it’s assumed, Mitchell—that Hebert had assaulted him and taken knives with him. I ask Demasi, when Mitchell arrived at the scene where Hebert and Hutchinson were being detained, was he under the assumption Hebert was more dangerous than he really was, based on Weller’s word?
“The truth of the matter is Officer Mitchell responded to what Mr. Hebert was doing,” Demasi says. “It heightens your awareness that a person could be armed. If [Mitchell] had no knowledge of what he’d been told, he would’ve responded the same way.”
And so we would probably still be where we are now: mourning a man’s death and questioning the actions of police and prosecutors.
After considering the evidence and investigative reports handed over by the department, last August Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters cleared Mitchell and the three other officers at the scene. The Congregation of Bones was crushed.
Megan Hutchinson knows she can’t get a do-over of that night. The best she can do is try to clear Hebert’s name and reputation.
I reach her the day after Christmas—a long distance call from the West Coast, where she lives now. “We met dancing at a show at The Comet,” she tells me. “We connected very strongly. He’s a very honest, no-bullshit kind of person. We have that in common.”
Hutchinson, a musician, also clarifies that she was set to leave town before the shooting. As a witness to the entire night, she insists she was never bullied or threatened by any police investigators. She was initially told by her attorney not to speak about the specifics of that night, but that gag order has gone away. “At this time,” she says the second time we talk, “I can say whatever I feel like I need to say.”
Throughout our initial interview and a subsequent one in February, she is anxious to be articulate, to say things precisely as she wants them. Tangentially, she says she has some things to say about Jason Weller. “Jason Weller disappeared the night after it happened,” she claims. “He left the city.” (I called Weller’s local cell number—the number he couldn’t recite to the 911 dispatcher but later gave police—multiple times, but only got a canned recording. I keep dialing it randomly, hoping one day he might answer. At press time, his number remained “temporarily disconnected” according to a prerecorded message.)
As for what happened in Weller’s apartment—the alleged cutting and the theft—Hutchinson says, “Bones was doing nothing more than protecting me and himself.” Regarding Weller’s allegations on the 911 call that she and Hebert had stolen “two knives” from him, Hutchinson is emphatic. “Bones should not be in the ground right now as a criminal,” she says. “He’s in the ground as an armed robber [but] nothing was recovered.” (Friends have said the knife police found in the mulch in front of 1833 Chase Avenue was Hebert’s.)
She takes me back through her final night with Hebert, and what led up to the fight with Weller. She says she met up with the two men “around 11” that night and the trio ended up at Weller’s “around midnight.”
“After a couple hours and a couple beers passed, Jason Weller made some comments and gestures I wasn’t feeling,” she says. “[Weller] was not happy with the fact that I wouldn’t put out, basically, and Bones tried to defuse the situation and continue to have a good time—until the next thing you know, Jason’s on top of him.
“Anybody can be embarrassed by that kind of situation,” she says of Weller’s bruised male ego, “but we were trying to move on. No harm, no foul. Bones did successfully retrieve the knife that was being threatened at me or Bones or both [of us], but [Weller] was cut in the process.
“That’s what happened,” she says. “We were doing nothing but trying to leave a madman’s house.”
Hutchinson says that she, Hebert, and Shady were on their way to her house when they were stopped by police. She still registers shock at Weller’s allegations. “We had no idea that [Weller] was faking a robbery and attack,” she says. “We were getting away from something that could’ve escalated into a lunatic trying to attack us.”
Hutchinson repeats to me what others have said: that Hebert did not have Jason Weller’s knife. As for Hebert having a knife of his own and behaving erratically or threatening officers with it? “I don’t recall seeing it. Period,” she tells me. “That doesn’t mean that [Hebert] didn’t have it. I think I would’ve remembered any flailing or any commotion.” (According to the Police Department’s internal investigation, Hutchinson gave an interview to the police on April 20, 2011, in which she “stated she was intoxicated from consuming alcoholic beverages and mushrooms and her recollection of the incident may not be accurate.”)
For everything she must have seen and heard that night—the fight at Weller’s and the tragedy that followed—Hutchinson doesn’t sound fragile or traumatized. She is filled with memories of her friend.
“He had a huge soul,” she says. “There’s not many people in the world who have the ability to bless other people with their smile and eyes. I trusted him so much because there wasn’t anything false about that man.”
Ever the counterintuitive thinker, Dave Cunningham isn’t so much shocked by Hebert’s death as he is by how his friend died. “If I were to think [back] five years ago, it wouldn’t be that way. It’d be some hiking trip at the Gorge,” he says. As for the circumstances of his death, Cunningham wants what families and friends of dead black men have wanted for years from the cops. “I’m not looking for blood or a tooth for a tooth,” he says. “But a recognition of how fucked up it was would put a lot of people at peace.”
Hebert’s best friend and former bandmate, Paul Carmack, also wants something to fill his friend’s absence. He wants—or wanted—the man he called “brother” to be able to finally call Cincinnati home. “Everyone I talked to said the same thing,” he says. “He was home to settle down. He was 40. He felt it, and he had people here, and you know when you’re ready you should be able to go home.
“That’s one thing you can say about this old Northside community and all these old Vine Street punkers,” Carmack says. “We may have come from dysfunctional families, but when we come together, we make one helluva family.”
When Hebert walked away carefree and tipsy from Harrell’s that Sunday last April, he walked away from one such family and one version of home. Regardless of his dirty, bony body, his legendary sexcapades, those tats and piercings, his battles with alcohol and triumphs over sobriety, and even his falling into and out of the arms of Jesus—regardless of all that, it’s obvious that David Paul Hebert belonged to somebody.
So did Bones. It’s just that neither could quite figure out where either belonged. But they were—he was—so close.
Let The Congregation of Bones say amen.
Illustration by Matthew Green
Originally published in the May 2012 issue.