Portrait by Kelly Bjork
In James’s last moments, he shot his girlfriend Whitney as she huddled on the floor of the lounge at the Twilight Exit. The case’s discovery file contains photos of her injuries. He hit her twice. The bullets entered the knee area of each leg, then they traveled through the limbs and left wounds upon their exit. One exit wound carved a path into her mid-upper leg. The other is a tender red circle, resting in the center of her inner thigh. A long shot shows Whitney reclining in a hospital bed. Her shoulders and legs are bare, and her torso is draped in a white blanket. The room seems too bright. She looks exhausted.
The bulk of what I know about Whitney comes from the case’s discovery file. I haven’t been able to talk to her, despite multiple attempts and the help of a professional researcher. It appears she moves around a lot, and since the shooting, she’s gone through several phone numbers. They’ve all been disconnected. I’ve tried reaching her other ways—through her family, through the mail—but nothing has worked. Perhaps she doesn’t want to be found. Whitney doesn’t have a Facebook account (and she’s 27), but a Google search of her full name turns up a couple mugshots. One happened just under a year ago in Idaho, where she was charged for violating probation and the possession of marijuana. Standing before the gray backdrop, Whitney wears her hair in a high ponytail, and her face is make-up free—except her eyebrows, which are so evenly black and perfectly shaped they might’ve been stenciled on. The year before, Whitney was charged with a Driving Under the Influence (Excessive), which designates a blood-alcohol level of .2 or higher. Her eyes are glassy, and she smiles directly into the camera. A state-records search reveals she’s not new to the system. Over the years, she’s acquired more than a dozen charges for various misdemeanors and infractions. Some cases got dismissed, including a 2007 charge for battery. Other cases were upheld, such as a 2010 charge for failing to properly secure a infant passenger in a vehicle. Whitney’s rap sheet began at age 16, when she was sentenced for driving on the wrong side of the highway. Soon after, throughout her teens, she was detained as a runaway again and again and again.
Let’s get back to the case file. One section contains information about Whitney’s purse, a maroon Coach handbag with chevron pleats and gold buckles. As authorities discovered the purse on the scene, it was zipped open and positioned on its side, on the floor, in the lounge, close to Whitney’s body.
Photo Credits: Seattle Police Department
The authorities obtained the purse and documented its contents as evidence. Whitney carried Washington and Idaho ID cards, a state-issued food-assistance card, a credit card, and a crumpled social security card. A rubbery gold cosmetics bag stored her liquid eyeliner, her pencil eyeliner, her pencil-eyeliner sharpener, her scented lotion, her makeup brush, her containers of fancy powder, and her leopard-print tube of drugstore mascara. Many items are of neutral consequence, such as the pen, the pencil, the hard pack of Marlboro lights, the parking receipt, the lightly used napkin, and the miscellaneous change sprinkled with residue from a broken cigarette. There’s also a set of blue scrubs and a packet of schoolwork, titled with the name of a nearby vocational college where Whitney had apparently been studying to become a medical assistant. One page is a fill-in-the-blank quiz on the human cardiovascular system she’d taken a couple days before. Whitney’s handwriting is feminine, the letters bubble prettily. Another page is a handout titled Blood Focus Sheet she received in her Anatomy Physiology and Pathophysiology II class. Whitney seems to have paid attention during lectures. As the page shows, she took notes, and marked many phrases with arrows, stars, and underlines. The paper’s center crease and bottom edge are smudged with blood from the crime scene.
Another portion of the case file contains a transcribed interview with Whitney, which Detective Frank conducted as Whitney lay in her hospital bed the day after the shooting. Around the same period, Officer Karla conducted multiple interviews with Whitney and summarized her findings in an additional report. To both authorities, Whitney identified James as her boyfriend. They’d been dating a little under two years, she said, and James was the father of her nine-month-old boy. Whitney stated she didn’t have a permanent residence and usually stayed with friends, family, or James. At the time of the incident, she and James had been living together two weeks. “Is he aware that you have a no-contact order?” asked Detective Frank.
“Yeah,” said Whitney.
“Yet you still live with him?” asked the detective.
“Well, I was just around him for a little while and then this ended up bad,” she said.
“Just kind of starting from the beginning, can you tell us what happened?” said Detective Frank.
“Earlier that day he had come home after getting his taxes done,” she said. “He told me he was only gonna give me like seven hundred dollars, and I got upset.” According to Whitney, this wasn’t the amount she wanted, and they began to argue. “I just said, you know, ‘I’m gonna go down to the bar down the street to order some lunch,’ you know, and I said, ‘Do you want anything? I’ll be right back,’” said Whitney. “He didn’t say anything so I just left, and I had a drink, and then I called him about thirty minutes later and said, ‘Hey,’—you know—‘come on down here. The owner’s here with his kids and there’s some kids in here. Let’s just order some food and get over it.’”
James showed up at the Twilight Exit, and the pair was joined by James’s cousin, who lived nearby, and the cousin’s girlfriend. (Neither responded to my requests for interviews.) As Whitney described this afternoon visit, things seemed fine. “We’re all eating and talking and hanging out,” she said. James might’ve had a few drinks, “probably like five or six shots or something, but they were like double,” said Whitney. (James’s multiple bar purchases might explain the origin of an item listed in the evidence file. Later that night, when authorities would examine James’s body, they noted “a green bar swizzle stick in the shape of a small sword was attached to his sweatshirt near the collar.”) Whitney told the detective, she wasn’t sure how the alcohol affected James. “It’s a tough one because even if he’s drunk, you can’t tell that he’s drunk at all. He’s one of those people that are always the same. Always mellow.” She said she wouldn’t consider James a chronic drinker, “but when he drinks, you know, he’s gonna have some drinks.” When the detective asked directly, Whitney mentioned James sometimes used cocaine, but they didn’t discuss the frequency. She said she didn’t know whether James had done any that day.
Whitney’s group left the bar after a while, and the four walked to James and Whitney’s place. Soon after, James took off without saying goodbye to anyone. Once Whitney realized he was gone, “I was like ok, well, I need to figure out where he’s at. I need to go and find him. He was at a friend’s, down the street. He finally picked up my phone call. I said, ‘Man, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘I just went down here. [We’re] not doing anything. I’m on my way home.’ So he gets home and right away he left again. And it was just so quick. I was like, ‘Where are you going, what are you doing?’ And he said, ‘I’ll be back,’ and he’s like, ‘I’m just gonna go meet up with a friend.’ And I was like, ‘No. We’re here. You’re not doing anything,’” said Whitney. James took off anyway.
Twenty or thirty minutes passed, and when James didn’t return, “I’m like, ‘I need to get him. He needs to come home.’ I told the cousin, ‘Come on, let’s walk to the guy’s house and get him.’ We get there, and he’s not even there. They have no idea where he went. I’m calling him, calling him, calling him,” she said, but James wouldn’t answer. The cousin went away soon after, but Whitney stuck around, waiting for James to arrive. “I’m just there with someone that lives there. And James had walked in the house and he said, ‘Why is it just you two?’ and the guy was like, ‘Man, cause everyone left.’”
James turned to Whitney. “He was like, ‘Well, what are you doing here?’ I was like, ‘I was waiting for you.’ I was like, ‘Where have you been?’ And he was like, ‘I’m gonna kill both of you guys.’ I was just like, ‘For what? What’d we do?’ He’s like, ‘Well, you’re here alone with a man.’ And I was like, ‘There’s woman upstairs. There’s two other guys in this house. Nothing’s going on.’ And he got really crazy, and he came up and tried to choke me. And I kicked him away from me. The guy said, ‘You guys have to leave now. Get out of my house.’ I said, ‘But if I leave, he’s gonna kill me.’ He said, ‘I don’t know what you’re gonna do, but you can’t stay here. I’m sorry. You have to go,’” said Whitney.
“I walked down the steps with James. He was trying to get me to get in the car, but I ran over to the neighbor’s house”—which is where the cousin and the girlfriend lived—“I said, ‘You guys, James is going crazy. He just showed up with a gun. I can’t go with him. He’ll kill me, you guys. I gotta go to the house and get my kid and go.” When the detective asked about the gun, Whitney said James had been carrying it in his waistband. She’d seen the gun many times, she said, and this wasn’t the first time he’d used it to threaten her. She said James had physically assaulted her many times in the past. He’d punched her before, she said.
Whitney detailed another part of her story to Officer Karla. At one point, perhaps earlier, when Whitney was by herself and looking for James, she’d make a stop to her home. She discovered James had left the residence, leaving their baby alone and locked inside. Whitney said she’d told the cousin that if James didn’t get home soon, she would have to break in. When Whitney spoke with Detective Frank, she didn’t mention the baby in these moments. “[I] go into the house, the door is locked, [I] don’t have my key, so I break open the windows. I get really upset, and I broke his TV and his Play Station 3. I went upstairs, and there was all these weed plants. So I took them and I threw them outside. I called him probably twenty times. I said, ‘All you care about is making money and your weed plants. I destroyed them. You only care about that kind of stuff. I’m tired of you.’ He said, ‘Oh, you did that? Where you at?’ I said, ‘I’m not gonna stay at that house. You’re gonna kill me.’ So I told him, ‘I’m down at the restaurant, and I’m charging my phone.’ He said, ‘Ok, I’ll see you there.’ And he was like, ‘I’m going to kill you tonight.’”
Whitney headed to the Twilight Exit, leaving the baby home alone. She needed to make arrangements for someone to pick them up, and she knew she couldn’t take the boy into the bar with her, she said. I was seated in the lounge when Whitney arrived. Her beauty stood out to me. I remember her as a light-skinned African American of average height, with a slim figure, and long wavy hair. According to the evidence list, she wore a black cardigan with a cigarette lighter in the pocket, a black tank top, black socks, and black tennis shoes with hot-pink and neon-green accents. Whitney sat on a stool near the far corner of the horseshoe bar. As nearby witnesses recall, she ordered a pint of beer and plugged in her phone. While she waited for it to charge, she spoke quietly into a phone she’d borrowed from the bartender Natalie. According to Whitney, James showed up after she’d been there about ten minutes. “He just went running in my face and screaming and the bouncer and the other people got him off of me. They said, ‘Leave her alone. Leave her alone,’” said Whitney. She said the bouncer approached and asked Whitney if James was bothering her. Whitney said he was, and she requested the bouncer make James leave and asked that he call the police. The bouncer escorted James from the building. He was gone “probably a minute or two. Next thing I know, he came back in and started shooting. He shot the bouncer to get back inside,” said Whitney.
When the shots sounded, Whitney moved to the floor and crouched into a dead end. (She and I shared this tiny space, along with customers Lexi and Arielle and one other woman.) “I just remember someone was screaming, ‘Get down, get down, get down,’” said Whitney. Suddenly, “James came around the corner. He said, ‘I’m gonna kill you. This is all your fault. You made me do this.’ He shot me in my legs. He said, ‘boom boom boom boom boom boom.’”
“Do you think he was intentionally shooting at your legs?” the detective asked.
“Yeah,” said Whitney. (I’m not as sure. James was only a couple feet from his target, so I’d initially assumed his aim was intentional. Later, a police officer told me it’s very common for untrained shooters to miss their targets at close range. Improper body posture, gun position, or trigger-finger placement can easily ruin one’s accuracy, he said.)
As Whitney crouched on the floor, “I just remember saying, ‘James. Just don’t, don’t, don’t do anything else.’” That’s when James addressed the witnesses surrounding her, said Whitney. As she recalls, he told them, “You guys, get up and go. I’m not wanting to hurt any of you guys.” Officer Karla’s statement offers an alternate version of the same exchange: “You all need to leave. I don’t want to kill you. I just want to kill her.” As Whitney remembered, “everyone in front of me left and ran out. Next thing I know, the police showed up, and he started walking around, and then I heard shot shot, and I heard him go down,” she said. Whitney wasn’t sure whether James fired at the police. “I was behind the bar, so I couldn’t see anything over there, and I wasn’t getting up. I didn’t look up until they said, ‘He’s down. Is there anyone in here? Is there anyone in here?’ And I rose my hand up. I said ‘Help me, help.’”
Officer Karla was on-scene and described what happened next. “I contacted a female who’d been shot and was hiding behind the bar. The victim was seated on the floor with her back up against the wall of the bar,” she wrote. Sometime as Karla was helping transport Whitney to the hospital, Whitney told the officer her baby was home alone. Officer Karla immediately advised radio and requested units respond. Officer Daniel’s report brings more details: “I received information that before the shooting began the suspect yelled that he had ‘killed the dog and the baby,’” he wrote. Daniel and another officer arrived at James and Whitney’s place. “As we walked up to the home we could see that one of the front windows was smashed out. We announced, ‘Seattle Police!’” When no one answered, “we forced entry by kicking the door in. The home was in great disarray. Broken glass covered the floor and the flat-screen TV above the fireplace was smashed. Marijuana plants were strewn about and food littered the kitchen floor.” The second officer located a Smith and Wesson 9MM gun case, which was empty, blue, and labeled with James’s name. As Officer Daniel noted, “clothes and blankets were piled high on a bed in the back bedroom. Lying on top of the blankets was a small infant. The infant was soaked in urine but was otherwise unhurt.”
Let’s go back to Whitney’s hospital room. When Officer Karla finished her interview, she gave Whitney a business card and case number. Then “I asked [Whitney] for an alternate phone number since her purse and cellphone were at the scene. She informed me she did not have one,” wrote Karla in the closing paragraph. “When I asked for an alternate address that she will be staying at, she informed me she did not know where she would end up.”