As horror stories often do, this one started with a bump in the gathering night.
At 6:30 p.m. on May 31, 2000, Kenny Hughes had just passed Bundy in West L.A., heading east on Wilshire. A minor celebrity in skate circles, Hughes stands out in any crowd — a 6-foot-5, rail-thin African-American with a bushy Afro, whose small-town North Carolina deference belies a competitive streak which at 26 had won him a sponsorship with DC Shoes and, later, Element Skateboards. According to his police statement, riding next to him in his white 1995 Honda Accord was Aine Behan, his Irish girlfriend, whom he’d just picked up at the airport. Hughes himself was just back from Barcelona, where the skating is good, and was following three friends in the car ahead of him, looking for a motel on their way to Vegas. They made the light. He didn’t.
Locked in animated conversation, neither he nor his girlfriend noticed the 1994 black Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo approaching them from behind. It hit them at a dead stop, doing minor damage to the Honda. Hughes had the presence of mind to set the emergency brake before stepping out of his car, arms out, horizontal at his sides — wassup? — to inspect the damage. Angry, but in control, he walked back to the driver’s-side window of the car. This all took maybe 30 seconds.
“I get up to his car, and he’s slumped over the wheel, looking out the window towards me with his eyes open,” says Hughes today. “And I was probably there for a second, two seconds, and then the car just started moving.”
According to witness statements, the Jeep struck his car a second time, gradually picking up speed, until it jackknifed the Honda into oncoming traffic. Hughes’s girlfriend was still in the car and scrambled out of the moving vehicle, just as the Jeep slipped off its right bumper. No longer impeded by Kenny Hughes’ emergency brake, the Jeep’s RPMs found purchase, and suddenly it was going an estimated 35-40 miles per hour the wrong way across Wilshire, witnesses told police. It jumped the curb and obliterated a bus stop, scooping up 26-year-old Santa Monica City College English student David Roos, who was running for the safety of Q’s Billiards, located at 11835 Wilshire, immediately behind him. Taking out an outdoor patio of tables and scattering bodies — among them, 34-year-old environmental lawyer Noah Baum, there celebrating his first trial victory — the SUV continued unabated through the plate-glass windows and front doors of Q’s, stopping only after it had moved the heavy horseshoe-shaped mahogany bar, beer taps and freezer units several feet. Bar employees later said that from his vantage point on the west patio, Baum was the first to notice the careening car, and the first to recognize it as a potential threat.
Those drinking inside or watching the Knicks game on TV heard what sounded like an explosion, followed by a spray of glass, wood and dirt from a sidewalk planter. Many assumed it was an earthquake or a bomb — though bombs were not quite so plausible back in those pre-9/11 days. In statements to police, several witnesses reported the Jeep’s driver — Eric Red, then 39, the screenwriter of horror film classics The Hitcher and Near Dark 15 years before, and more recently the director of progressively lesser-known horror fare — was unconscious and slumped over in his seat. But others remember him wide awake and staring straight ahead, both before and after the impact. One of these, Jason McCourt, was pinned to the bar and began yelling at Red to back up. Bartender Donal Tavey came over the bar and onto the hood of the Jeep, then tried to help him get it into gear. “He went from ‘park’ to ‘reverse’ and back, then started screaming and shaking his head like he was a little kid,” reads Tavey’s police statement. Others told police that Red was “shouting and flailing his arms around” or “shaking hard and screaming like a lunatic.” Another bartender got Red out of the Jeep and popped it into neutral, after which the crowd managed to rock it back off the bar. Miraculously, McCourt was alive, getting off with a broken leg and fractures to his hips and pelvis. But immediately below him, Baum was crushed into a sitting position. Ann Blackburn, a nurse, examined Baum within minutes and reported he was dead at the scene, although she continued CPR until an ambulance arrived.
Rather amazingly, three retired FBI agents — Mike Wacks, Fred Ahles and Richard “Bucky” Sadler — were drinking at the southwest corner of the bar, about three feet from the point of impact. None will comment on the record today, but in his police statement, Wacks — who was once assigned to a detail investigating Carlos Marcello, the notorious New Orleans mob boss widely implicated in the Kennedy assassination — stated: “I looked at the driver after the crash and he appeared awake and alert. It was like he was just a guy in the bar. There was no look of surprise or shock on his face at all.” Sadler’s statement quotes Red as saying, “Is everybody okay? Did I hurt anybody? I didn’t mean to kill anybody.”