Shooting victim struggles to move home, regain life

April 19, 2013
photo - Leonard James is greeted by friends and family after arriving Thursday, April 11, 2013, at the TownPlace Suites near the Colorado Springs Airport. James, who was shot in the back and paralyzed Feb. 12, had been in Craig Hospital in Denver.  Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK, THE GAZETTE
Leonard James is greeted by friends and family after arriving Thursday, April 11, 2013, at the TownPlace Suites near the Colorado Springs Airport. James, who was shot in the back and paralyzed Feb. 12, had been in Craig Hospital in Denver. Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK, THE GAZETTE 

His legs went.

Then he heard the bang.

The bullet dug into Leonard James’ lower back.

He looked back — up the stairs toward a table where his friend, Ian Whittaker, 31, sat. Whittaker was holding his Ruger P345, .45-caliber handgun.

“You shot me,” James said, before collapsing.

Since that day, life for the 33-year-old college student and single father has been agonizing.

Pain is everywhere.

It’s in the eyes of his 8-year-old son Kaedyn, who wonders why his father was shot and can’t walk, his legs useless appendages, a bullet lodged in his spine between L1 and L2.

It’s in the eyes of his older sister, Wanda, who drives down from Denver as often as she can to help Leonard deal with the travails of being paralyzed from the waist down, learning to use a wheelchair and to live under a different set of rules.

There’s the pain in James’ eyes as he reacts to waves that roll over him like lava, a burning in his legs and lower back. The brittle feeling of knowing he is no longer whole.

“I don’t think that even now I am fully aware of what has happened to me,” he says two months into his new life.

James was shot Feb. 12 at a party in his Widefield home, allegedly by Whittaker, who he has known since the second grade. There was plenty of alcohol, according to the arrest affidavit, and depending on who you talk to, lots of marijuana.

James was escorting two friends to the door at the bottom of the stairs when he was hit.

A large pool of blood marked the area two steps up where El Paso County Sheriff’s investigators found him a little after 2 a.m.

According to James and others, Whittaker was crying and saying: “I shot Leonard! I shot Leonard!”

Whittaker is under a restraining order to stay away from James. He’s been charged with second-degree assault, prohibited use of a weapon and reckless endangerment and has pleaded not guilty.

A trial is set for June.

The shooting has been characterized by some as accidental.

James isn’t so sure.

“I don’t call it an accident, I call it an incident,” he says.

“There are certain steps you have to go through to fire a weapon,” James says. “This weapon was prepared to be used. A bullet had to be in the chamber. That takes it beyond the realm of accident. The trigger had to be pulled.”

Whittaker declined comment on his lawyer’s advice. He’s out on $10,000 bond and back at work at a Widefield liquor store.

In the arrest affidavit, he tells an investigator that the gun went off while he was reloading the magazine.

“Mr. Whittaker,” it says, “stated he did not mean to shoot Mr. James and that the gun just went off.”

There are a lot of details yet to come out, and plenty to disagree about between the two men on how it happened and how the gun went off.

Whittaker, James says, “just had way, way too much to drink and he should know, if you’re drinking, your gun is not present.”

James grimaces in his room at TownePlace Suites Colorado Springs South, his voice shaking, his eyes squeezed tight, the pain rising like bile.

He never knows when it will come.

“Sorry. I’m sorry,” he gasps. “Just a minute. A minute.”

He lives here now, a hotel near the Colorado Springs Airport, paid for in part by Craig Hospital in Denver, where James was taught the realities of living without useable legs.

Craig, he says, “is like a city of people who had the same problem that I did.”

For now, the focus is James’ recovery.

As soon as his house is ready, James will go home.

But the needs are massive and the money is hard to come by.

The material for a ramp will cost $4,500.

His car needs to be retrofitted, hallways widened, the bathroom enlarged and re-equipped.

Wanda, who owns a Denver restaurant and is a political consultant, created a website to raise funds for her brother. It’s called “gofundme, Restoring LJs Life.”

There is a picture of Leonard with his son.

A message on a Leonard’s Facebook site outlines Wanda’s pledge to her brother: “Love you. You have a voice and numerous causes..... your life will be full. I promise!”

She knows how to raise money. As a member of the Obama campaign’s national finance and Colorado finance committees, she helped raised about $150,000 in 2008, $75,000 from El Paso County.

This is different.

“Professional is one thing,” she says. “Personally raising funds, it’s different. It’s more difficult.”

Help is flowing in though.

At the hotel, staff bring James his breakfast every morning. When he swims, staff members pitch in.

Then there is Pikes Peak Christian Church, which is pitching in to build the ramp.

There’s “JJ,” or Jonathan Fox, James’ best friend.

JJ’s friend Daniel Blanco has been working on the house since the renovation started. Until the shooting, he didn’t know James, but he gets the situation and has experience in construction.

Blanco also is a single father.

“We all have to stick together in this world,” Blanco says.

Steven Hildebran, 30, has known James since the age of 14.

“It’s unbelievable,” he says. “Glad that he’s still here, you know. He’s a great guy and didn’t deserve this, but it happens.”

James says he owes his life to Craig Hospital and to his son.

In his darkest moment, he wanted to give up. The pain bites at his psyche.

He remembers that when he was transported to Memorial Hospital, he could feel the bullet digging into his spine.

“Every turn, every stop,” he says, “It was excruciating.”

He was comatose at first. When he woke up, he was told he had lost the function of his bowel and bladder.

“My life is in a place where I have to give up my dignity a bit,” he says. “Your modesty. Your dignity. Gone.”

“I just didn’t want to do it any more. I just wanted to give up.”

His mother, Carlotta, helps. She gave him a white horse to symbolize the biblical horse of faith from the book of Job.

James’ father died in 1999, but Wanda is convinced he had a hand in James’ survival from a .45 caliber from such close quarters.

James, though, finds his inspiration in the one who needs him the most.

His son.

“I don’t think my son would approve of me leaving the earth right now,” James says.

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