Temperament Kills

A beloved friend dies a violent death after a petty disagreement

It was the kind of news story that merits only a few short sentences in the daily newspaper. Last month, a man had been killed trying to cross I-595 on foot. Both the Miami Herald and South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported the death of Jason Louis Livers as digest items, just a few words straight from the State Highway Patrol. But there was something about the incident — Livers had exited a car after arguing with the car's driver, then attempted to cross the freeway on foot and was hit by multiple cars before dying at the scene — that left too many questions unanswered. So New Times asked them.

What, for example, could be worth arguing about that would convince someone to pull over a car on the freeway and compel its passenger to get out on foot?

The surprisingly pathetic answer: The events that led to Livers' sudden death began with a disagreement over the volume of a car stereo.

Livers, ebullient but temperamental, was riding westbound with friends Jack Martin and Lane Helton about 7:45 p.m. on January 22. According to Livers' two friends, there was a disagreement about the music — "It truly was not an argument, more a matter of comfort," explains Martin, who was driving. Not an argument, maybe, but a disagreement that evolved into a pointless test of wills. Martin asked Livers if he wanted to get out of the car. Livers said yes, and when Martin pulled over, Livers hopped out. Martin eased forward across a bridge, a road crossing with no room for a shoulder.

Martin and Helton, deciding to call a halt to Livers' showy display of temperament, then pulled over, got out of the car themselves, and walked back to get their friend.

Livers had already crossed the five-lane commuter artery on foot and was walking down the median. When he saw his companions — both men make a point to mention this — he looked strangely lighthearted. "The last time I saw his face," Martin says, "he smiled at me." Neither man saw how Livers managed to cross the busy highway to begin with.

But when he started to cross back, they say, Livers made it across two lanes of the highway. In the third lane, a car struck him. It was a glancing blow. Then a second auto — a 2000 Ford Taurus driven by Steven Barry Clarke, police say — plowed into him, and, as Livers tried to stand, a third and fourth hit. Finally, his friends were able to pull his limp body to the shoulder.

Livers was just 27 years old and had lived a promising but troubled life.

"I've never known him to be suicidal or anything like that," Helton says. "I've never known him to take chances so randomly." His family, in Owensboro, Kentucky, is equally stunned. Reached on the day the family had traveled to South Florida, his father, Louis Livers, lamented: "I'm in the dark about this too, and I want to know." The Florida Highway Patrol investigation into the accident is continuing; autopsy results, which will include a toxicology report, have not been released.

What is known, from public records and conversations with Livers' friends and family, is that Livers was a headstrong party animal, enjoying himself too much in Broward County, a thousand miles and a world away from his birthplace. Those who knew him roundly recall his charisma, his spontaneity, his boyish good looks.

It's with regret that people who knew him discuss his problems; toward the end, though, he was showing the strain of a life lived hard. With a stiff jail sentence looming and a persistent drinking problem, Livers' death didn't seem incredible to some, even if the circumstances could not have been predicted.

From the time he visited the state as a boy, Livers loved Florida. He moved to Orlando five years ago and, after that, to various cities in Broward. "You would think that he was born and raised there," says his mother, Dee Reed Ranson. "He was always the type of person who liked to be in the center of everything." He delighted in South Florida's urbanity and in the climate; he would call his grandmother, Ruth, just to tell her he was walking on the beach.

"Owensboro was way too small for Jason," says Rachel Shelton, his friend of 11 years and a frequent companion to Phish concerts back in the day. "It's maybe the third-largest city in Kentucky, but even Mobile wouldn't do Jason justice." (Though Owensboro has only 54,000 residents, it's the third-largest Kentucky city, after Louisville and Lexington.)

His high school friends had known for some time that he was gay — no straight man ever dressed so well, they would joke — but it wasn't until he moved to Florida that he felt comfortable enough to discuss his sexual orientation openly. After moving about so freely in his adopted state, returning to Kentucky, he used to say, was a cross between déjà vu and a nightmare. "Trust me, Owensboro is not much for homosexuality at all," Shelton says. "He could breathe down there [in Florida]. And he could be his 100 percent true self."

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