Temperament Kills

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."

By all accounts, Livers was having a blast. His looks and charm ensured that pleasure was never far away. By the time he was pulled over in February of last year for running a red light in Wilton Manors at 3:45 a.m. while intoxicated, he had already accumulated three drunk-driving citations.

This one was going to spell jail time, says his attorney, Lloyd Golburgh. The only question was how much. A year? Eighteen months? Livers spent much of last year trying to stay sober, in part to show the court he could. He lived in homes for recovering addicts; the last address his family had for him was such a home, the Cleveland House, in Hollywood, where since September he managed to stay for no longer than 50 days at a stretch without violating its substance abuse policies.

Golburgh could tell the prospect of a year and a half behind bars was weighing on Livers, who would call frequently, sounding scared. Golburgh says a psychological evaluation showed that the young man was depressed.

"It's almost like a kid going to college," Golburgh says. "Is it Fort Lauderdale, or is it a symptom of their personality? A guy like Jason comes from Smalltown, U.S.A., and says, 'Oh my God, I can be free,' and they just go too far.

"It's a waste," the attorney continues. "A young guy, a handsome guy, and he had potential. Maybe it's one of those things where God says, 'I shouldn't have left you alone, and it's time to come home. '"

Seth Solomon, who started a softball team in Wilton Manors for men recovering from addiction, welcomed Livers onto the squad last fall. Several times, Solomon says, he saw the young man lapse, sometimes attending a game with alcohol on his breath, other times eschewing his antidepressants because they quashed his libido. But Solomon tried to keep him involved with the group, who loved the guy.

"His life paralleled so many other people on the team," Solomon said. "He was the sweetest kid, though. He had so many people that cared about him. Nice, personable — and he just couldn't get it. I guess you could say he never surrendered to the fact that he had a problem."

The day of his death, Helton says, Livers had had a couple of drinks, though he didn't see alcohol as contributing to his death.

"I feel like he went at a good time, because he was straightening himself up and he was getting help," says Ranson, his mother. "And he was trying. I think he would have wanted people to know that."

At Livers' funeral in Kentucky, Shelton tried to describe the Jason she knew. She and other friends had tried to assemble a collage of snapshots, but he had been a notorious photo thief and over the years had commandeered the best pictures. Others, such as the one of them playing chess on that night when he taught her the game a decade ago, wouldn't pass public scrutiny, for there on the table with them was a bottle of Jack Daniels.

So she told a story. She had been driving him and a couple of other friends home after a long night when the song "Crimson and Clover" came on the radio. It was their song, Shelton says. He looked at her, and she knew what was coming. She pulled over, and right there, just off of Highway 60 in Central Kentucky, to the astonishment of the other people in the car, the two got out of her Jeep to dance.

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling