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A Friend In Need

What Really Happened To Wes Hamilton?

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ROB IS A friend of mine, and truth be told, that's probably the only reason I'm writing this particular column. We've been friends for a few years now, and I like him a lot. We share a passion for basketball, dominoes, funny movies and good books, but other than that we don't have a whole lot in common.

We hang out at the gym, play some ball, play some bones. A couple weeks ago, we even coached against each other in girls basketball.

I find Rob intelligent, intellectually curious and quite funny. I think I'm in the minority, however. A lot of people think he's a tad arrogant and opinionated. I've even heard the word "jerk" mentioned in sentences which include his name. Come to think of it, people say those things about me, as well. I guess jerks of a feather flock together.

Still, while I enjoy hanging out with him, outside of the gym we pretty much go our separate ways. He's about half my age, so while he's out hitting the clubs at night, I'm at home hitting the homework books with my kids.

On one such night late last month, Rob was at a popular nightspot. His childhood friend, someone with whom he had been close for more than 15 years and the father of Rob's godson, was in town, and he and Rob had gone out to have a good time.

"I had known (this guy) forever," Rob remembers. "Since elementary school we'd been buddies. He had always been a little bit wild, but he had a good heart. He was a really loyal friend, and he wouldn't backstab you like a lot of people."

Rob's friend had been living in the Bay Area for the past couple years, but was going to spend some time in Tucson over the holidays.

"We were at the club, just hangin' out, lookin' at the women. He had had a couple drinks, but he wasn't all (messed) up. I decided to sit down for a while, and he told me he was going to walk around some more."

Rob said he wasn't even aware of the commotion, what with the loud music, darkly lit room, and constant drone of pathetically libidinous conversation. When he finally went to look for him, he heard snippets of conversation about there having been a fight. He went outside into the cold night air and saw a gathering of people. When he approached the area, he was told in stern tones that the establishment's security people were "handling a situation."

"I just hung around for a few minutes because the cold air felt good. One of the things I really don't like about clubs is the smoke."

After a while he just had a sense that something was wrong. He walked back to the scene, and there he saw his friend, Westyn Lee Tanawa Hamilton, being given CPR by a paramedic.

"I'm not really sure how," Rob recalls, "but I knew right then he was dead. I thought maybe he had been shot or stabbed or something. I've seen my share of bar fights and I've seen a whole lot of people get 'escorted' out of a place, but no one has ever died from it."

After Hamilton was taken to the hospital, Rob went back in the club to try to piece together what had happened. Witnesses agree on only a couple things. Hamilton had a few words with some guy, the other guy tried to get physical, and Hamilton laid the guy out with one punch.

"It wasn't a brawl, like the papers say. A brawl has a different, more sinister, connotation. Wes did hit the guy, but he hit him once and that was enough. He may have struggled with the bouncers -- I'm not sure; I got conflicting stories on that -- but that's a pretty common response.

"If he needed to spend a night in jail to cool off, in retrospect, that would have been fine. I think even Wes would have preferred that to the way things turned out," he says dryly.

There are a lot of things that bother Rob about that night. Among them:

· The other guy in the fight was just allowed to leave and his identity remains unknown.

· Two of the bouncers Rob talked to later both said they were in other parts of the building at the time, said they weren't involved, and weren't really sure who was. That at least stretches the imagination.

· The club owners and bouncers wouldn't talk to the media until the next day. ("Even if it were completely innocent, it still looks like they were holding off until they could get their stories straight.")

"I guess what bothers me the most is the way the story was hot in the papers and on TV for a day or two, then fell off the face of the earth. Ask somebody in a few weeks, and even if they read all the newspaper accounts, their recollection of the story -- if they have one at all -- will be that some drunk got in a fight with some bouncers and somehow died. Then they'll shrug.

"It may have been just a tragic accident, but we at least deserve an explanation. Someone should be accountable for a man's death."

Rob's grief didn't end with his friend's passing. He helped out with arrangements and then had to bite his tongue as he watched people from whom Wes Hamilton had been estranged for years come by and offer condolences. One guy had swindled Hamilton out of thousands of dollars and was going around telling people that he and Wes were the best of buddies.

"For a while I was even disappointed in myself because I didn't feel as bad inside as I thought I should in such a situation. But I think deep down, I always saw Wes as one of those guys who was living on borrowed time," Rob reflects.

"I guess I'll always wonder what would have happened if I had walked around the club with him; maybe I could have prevented the fight or maybe I would've gotten caught up in it. Still, I'm glad I spent a lot of time with him those last few days. I just wish I would have spent that extra 10 minutes."

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