The ‘undisclosed destination’
On April 15, Christopher Savage made the trek from his native Bakersfield, Calif., to D.C. He’d arranged for a place to crash, desperate for a new start.
No one knows whether the 36-year-old Savage believed his stay in the District would be an extended vacation or a real settling down. He had sold much of his record collection and his record player. A friend set up a PayPal account online for other friends to donate money for his trip. Two Germans sent him a couple hundred bucks.
What is clear is that Savage had left a lot more than records back in Bakersfield.
In July, he began dating Sabrena Sullivan, 21. They had their first date at a P.F. Chang’s. Within weeks, they were living together. Within a month, he proposed in the backyard of their rental on Pine Street, presenting her with a platinum ring and a three-diamond setting. “I said, ‘yes,’ and I pounced on him,” says Sullivan. “I was sitting down, and I just tackled him. It was really cute. He wanted to do it at P.F. Chang’s, but I think he couldn’t wait.”
“Everything we did together was fun somehow,” Sullivan says. “Every single thing we did.”
In November, they moved into his parents’ house to save money. And then Savage, who battled a heroin addiction, slipped up. He told a friend he started taking painkillers; Sullivan says it was more serious than that. “I don’t know what was really going on. I was just scared.…It was hard for him,” says Sullivan, noting that Savage was haunted by sleeplessness and nightmares. “He was just really worried about a lot of things…what had gone on in the past—the drug use, everything his family went through. They loved him so much.”
After Sullivan broke off the engagement and moved out, Savage took it as a catalyst. He started planning for his big move to D.C.
Savage decided he would not tell most of his friends, convinced they would try and talk him out of it. He told Sullivan in an e-mail he was headed for an “undisclosed destination.”
Six hours before Savage boarded a bus from Bakersfield to LAX, he dashed off an e-mail to Sullivan:
Thank you sweetheart, if you ever ever need me or decide you really love me or wanna be my friend e mail me and I’ll come running I LOVE YOU SABRENA SULLIVAN AND ALLWAYS WILL I’M SORRY FOR HURTING YOU.......i STOPPED AFTERCARE REMEMBER HOW SICK I WAS THAT DAY WELL HERE IT COMES WHOA NELLY PRAY FOR ME THAT i WON’T HURT TOO BAD OK.......GOODBYE DARLING I HOPE WE CROSS PATHS AND YOU START LOVING ME AGAIN...............LOVE CHRISTOPHER
Savage had never been to D.C., had never heard of a jumbo slice, had never tried falafel, got spun around a traffic circle, or experienced Adams Morgan on a Friday night.
Four days into his new life in the city, in the early morning hours of Saturday, April 19, two assailants—maybe more—mugged Savage of his possessions and severely beat him. The police later dropped him off at his apartment at 16th Street and Kalorama Road NW.
That same morning, a roommate woke up to find him dead on the couch.
The news of Savage’s death has been a topic of D.C. blogs—most notably on Brightest Young Things and on one of his favorite band’s message boards. His parents back home in Bakersfield are still awaiting the results from the autopsy report. The cause of Savage’s death remains unknown, as does the question of whether he received proper attention from the city’s emergency medical agency and police department.
For now, there is only retracing his steps, rereading his e-mails, listening again to his phone messages, and recounting the brief conversations he had with his new friends in his new city.
Back in Bakersfield, Savage’s longtime buddies meet up and share memories at his old haunts. Sullivan says she has saved all of her ex-fiancé’s e-mails, including his very troubling final one—his only one from D.C.
In the hours, maybe minutes, before his death on that Saturday morning, Savage flicked on his roommate’s laptop and sent off one last e-mail to her. In the subject line, Savage wrote: “HELP.”
For his trip out East, Savage leaned heavily on his friend—and only tie to D.C.—Vinnie Betette. He asked for phone numbers of Betette’s friends so he would have plenty of people to call in case he ever got stuck roaming city streets alone. He ended one note: “sorry if I sound like a worry wort I am just over stimulated and exmutherfuckencitedd.”
When Savage arrived at Dulles, Betette, 30, waited there to pick him up, as promised.
They drove into D.C. in Betette’s 2000 green Ford Escort, a box of kitty litter in the backseat. Among his bags, Savage had brought what he called his “Brady Bunch suitcase,” a hard purple piece of luggage.
In March, Savage had called up his friend and pitched the idea of moving cross-country to stay with him. “I was all for it,” Betette recalls. “I loved having the dude around. My girlfriend and I talked about it. We’d give him a month [in our apartment].”
During the drive, Betette says, Savage kept telling him, “I’m so glad to be out of Bakersfield.”
Before the trip, Savage was living with his parents. He’d recently been laid off from his bartending job at a rowdy joint called the Mint and was filling his time with part-time work as a “shop-bitch,” doing the grunt work at a tattoo parlor.
His work history consisted of much dabbling. Savage tried the military. He tried plumbing. He tried tattooing.
His escape from underemployment came via an Internet connection.
Savage and Betette had met online last spring, bonding over their shared devotion to Norway’s homoerotic death-punk act Turbonegro. The band’s over-the-topness—it titled one of its releases Small Feces, Vol. 1—was destined for a cult following. One developed in the style of the old Kiss Army; Turbo fans call it Turbojugend.
On the Web, Savage was different—he was invincible, organized, and disciplined. On MySpace and on message-board threads, he adopted an alias: Savage Von Ravage.
Savage had helped found Turbonegro chapters in Bakersfield and beyond. Obsession with music stretched back to high school, where Savage learned to drown out bad Bakersfield vibes in the loud, aggressive noise of the most extreme punk rock. He favored arty political bands like Crass and loved the tare-ass anarchy of British Oi! bands. He didn’t see it as just stuff to put on his record shelves, but as a way of life. He wore the pins and the patches to prove it.
In mid-September, Savage and Betette organized a Turbonegro fan-club meet-up in Guadalajara, Mexico. Only a handful of devotees showed. One morning, while everyone else was shaking off hangovers, Betette says, the two of them went out to the only open cafe.
Over super-strong coffee, Savage opened up about his addiction to heroin. Betette divulged his own drug past; he was in recovery as well. The two shared the usual war stories.
“He and I were both suffering with that everywhere we turned,” Betette says. “You lose friends and make new friends and lose them. It’s one of those cycles he was stuck in.”
For Savage, the cycle dated back to the early ’90s, when he discovered heroin. In 1995, he left Bakersfield for Portland, Ore., hoping a new city would keep him clean. Nine months later, he was back to injecting the drug and needed help. “He called his dad and his dad bought him a plane ticket home,” says his Portland roommate, Kore Kili, 38. “I came home from work to a note.”
Savage’s return to Bakersfield didn’t work either. Jail and prison stints followed. There was a prison marriage and a post-prison annulment.
In the last few years, he had steadied himself. Friends say he got into a methadone program and had nearly completed it.
The addiction-conquering narrative extended through Savage’s arrival in D.C. “Look, my bills are up with this program, and I’m going to come here and try and get off it,” Betette recalls Savage telling him. “He came trying to kick it,” Betette says.
Once on the ground, Savage dropped his stuff off at the spacious Adams Morgan one-bedroom apartment of Betette and his live-in girlfriend, Claibourne Reppert, who is in her 20s. The guest’s luggage was loaded down with fanboy paraphernalia that Savage was prepared to hand out to his new friends in D.C.
The hosts brought Savage to the Pharmacy Bar on 18th Street NW, a spot that would become Savage’s internal compass. Anytime he needed to get someplace, he was sure to pass Pharmacy. Betette told him how to get to just about anywhere he needed from the bar’s address.
That night, they ended up drinking until closing time, getting hammered on PBRs and shots of Maker’s Mark. They played the Faces on the jukebox. Betette explained that the neighborhood was vastly different on a weekend night.
Savage and Betette discussed his next step. “Dude could do anything,” Betette says. “He’s a journeyman plumber, a tattoo assistant, bartender, barback, cook. I told him it was wide open. We could find him a job no problem. I said, ‘You should kick it for a week, just be on vacation, see how the methadone wears off.’ But he wanted to get right to work.”
The 2 a.m. takeout was all over the apartment the next morning. Pizza remnants hardened on the floor. Savage had broken the cardinal rule of houseguests everywhere: Do not let your hosts wake up to a disaster.
Savage had slept on the couch; the air mattress proved too small for his 5-foot-10 and more than 300-pound frame. After waking, he quickly set to cleaning up.
A few days before he arrived, Savage created a résumé. Under “objective,” he wrote: “I would like to utilize my various and diverse skills in the area of customer service, social coordinator, personnel assistance, maintenance and labor services, or the plumbing trade.”
He also tapped out a cover letter that included the following passage:
“Please note that in 1996, I was convicted of a D.U.I. in the state of California. As a result, my driver’s license was revoked. Despite this setback, I am researching and looking into the requirements and procedure in Washington, D.C. to become licensed again. As you may be more familiar with the laws and policies of D.C., if you have any suggestions or knowledge concerning this type of matter, please advise. In the meantime, I am able to begin work immediately after my move to D.C.”
Before he pounded the pavement with résumé and cover letter, Savage thought he needed a haircut. He arranged to meet Reppert, who works as a stylist at Trim on Columbia Road NW.
Reppert kept Savage’s haircut simple: short on the sides, spiky on top. When she noticed the elaborate tattoo spanning his neck, she says, he explained that he got the ink in prison. “You have to cover them up with color because cops could spot them a mile away,” he told her.
That night, they watched TV, perhaps an episode of Top Chef. Savage was stressed about his finances, says Reppert. He talked to his sister, his father, and mother. His mother was supposed to send him money. Savage was down to his last $16.
It didn’t matter. Betette and Reppert say they were prepared to provide for him. “He was a sweetheart,” Reppert says. “He looked tough, he looked like a big dude. [But] his voice was really effeminate. It was hard to match his voice to his body.”
“He was really aware of not imposing on us,” she goes on to say. “He would say, ‘If you need me to leave, just say: Go kick rocks.’”
On Thursday afternoon, Savage hung out with a friend of his hosts, Kyle Riley. At the apartment, they drank beers and watched TV.
Riley, 25, thought he should school the newcomer on D.C. Savage asked about the small things: how to get around, what were the cool places to go.
“Like, no offense. It’s a rough city,” Riley explained. “I want you to be smart when you go out.” If you go drinking, Riley counseled, stay away from the area south of Columbia Road—it’s poorly lit and easy to get lost around there. Riley remembers Savage telling him that D.C. couldn’t be any rougher than the penitentiary.
“I just wanted him to know,” Riley says. “The way that he spoke, the way that he carried himself, he just seemed to me to have a real trusting nature that I didn’t want to get taken advantage of. I wanted him to be safe out here.”
That night, Savage set out for the Black Cat, where he hoped to get a job. There he filled out an application and discussed his prospects with a club supervisor. Apparently, Savage made a good impression.
Savage hit the bar when the interview ended. Charles Smeed, 35, says the supervisor pointed Savage out to him. Smeed brought his beer over from the end of the bar and took a seat, introducing himself as a fellow Black Cat door staffer.
They hit it off. Smeed says they got along well because they share the “old school skinhead” style—the kind that involves an affinity for bomber jackets, punk rock and ska bands, and a chip-on-the shoulder attitude (emphatically not the neo-Nazi kind, Smeed asserts). They drank PBR and did a couple shots. Smeed felt as if he’d met a kindred spirit.
Savage made it clear that he was thrilled to be out of Bakersfield, that he was eager to start a new life with new friends. Smeed said to him, “Dude, you’re in the right place.”
They discussed tattoos. Smeed told Savage he had plans to get a crucified skinhead on his neck—a common bit of ink among their set. Savage said he was thinking of getting a similar piece on his chest but with a laurel wreath. When Smeed went to get his tattoo the Monday after Savage died, he added the laurel wreath element as a way of honoring his friend.
“He was definitely a cool cat,” Smeed says. “It was hard not to like him.”
After a few beery hours, Savage made his way toward Adams Morgan, where Betette was DJing at Asylum as part of his “Riff Raff” punk set.
Reppert was already there. Betette was busy spinning records but hung out during smoke breaks. Standing outside the bar, Savage gushed about his new friends. He was fitting into his new world. “He was saying, ‘Arnold’s a great guy, I met your friend Charles,’” Betette recalls.
Savage started to get pretty drunk and a little sleepy. An Asylum staffer noticed and politely encouraged him to leave. Reppert volunteered to help get Savage home. As they walked out, Betette cranked up the Stiff Little Fingers, and Savage sang along.
On their way home, Reppert noticed Savage had started limping. He said he was in pain, she remembers, from either an infection or a cyst on his backside. She can’t recall for sure. Whatever it was, it had started to hurt.
What Reppert does remember is what he said about it: “He said if he didn’t fix it, ‘One morning you may find me dead on your couch.’”
Friday morning, Betette found Savage half awake and in a cold sweat, possibly suffering from methadone withdrawal. He’d been throwing up.
“I sat with him for a while,” says Betette. “He knew I knew what he was talking about.”
Betette left for work around 8. Savage stayed in close contact, calling a couple times during the day and getting directions from the apartment to the Black Cat.
Savage left the apartment at 6 p.m. and got to the club on 14th Street NW around 7, an hour early, for his orientation shift. On the way, “He called three times,” Betette says.
He toured the club with Smeed, whom he’d be shadowing that night. Smeed showed him the dark spots, the places where kids might try to drink or get an adult to buy booze for them.
Smeed describes having this huge, tough-looking man following him around, nervous and anxious for approval. Savage charmed the staff—Smeed had never seen another trainee make the trouble to introduce himself on his first night to as many co-workers as Savage did.
It was a slow night at the club, with the show ending around 12:30 a.m. Things were so tame that the joint started letting the door staff go early, including Savage.
“He asked me if he did a good job. I told him yes,” says a supervisor. “He said all night he was carrying only one glass. He was looking forward to carrying huge stacks of glasses.”
Savage grabbed a PBR and a triple Maker’s Mark after his shift and found a seat next to the pool table. He and Smeed discussed scooters. Smeed, an avid rider, says Savage was “a bit optimistic” that he’d be able to buy one after a few paychecks as a door staffer.
Savage left the Black Cat by 2:30 a.m. He got totally lost, overshooting 16th Street and winding up on 18th when he tried to find his way back to the apartment. He was unfamiliar with the closing-time scene in Adams Morgan on weekends. He told Betette later that he thought there was some kind of melee going on.
Savage saw the sign for Kalorama. That clicked with him. He knew Kalorama. He made the right and headed down the street, but he didn’t get very far.
Near the intersection of Kalorama and Champlain Street, a man offered to sell him crack, Savage told Betette later that night. He refused. The man continued to pester him, following him for a few paces.
The man told Savage to put his number in his phone.
“Within two seconds,” Betette says, “four kids started stomping him.” He described them as high school kids. They went through Savage’s pockets after kicking and stomping him for about 30 seconds.
After the beating, Savage got up, walked to 18th Street, and found a cop to explain what happened. According to the police report, the incident took place at 3:45 a.m. at the 2200 block of Champlain Street NW. It states that the mugging took place on the sidewalk. For method or tools used, the report reads, “n/a.”
The report inventories the possessions that Savage lost in the incident: a Sanyo flip phone, $277 in cash, a U.S. passport, a social security card, and a MasterCard.
The officers’ narrative of events differs from what Savage would later tell Betette. According to the report, Savage initially observed his assailants sitting at the entrance of 2301 Champlain St. NW with a group of other people. There is no mention of crack being offered—only the back and forth over the cell phone.
Savage then told the cops that a man approached him from behind and “placed his fist” to his head “simulating holding a weapon.” One of his assailants, the report states, ordered Savage to the ground.
One of the men was listed in the police report as roughly in his early 40s, slim, and a little more than 6 feet tall; the other was listed in his early-to-mid 20s, 180 pounds, and 5-foot-6-inches, and had dreads.
Both men, the report’s narrative goes on to state, kicked Savage in his midsection. They then went through his pockets.
The report doesn’t mention kids and doesn’t mention Savage getting dragged behind a Dumpster.
The officers described Savage’s injuries as simply “bruises to stomach” and note that he “refused” to be taken in for further medical attention. Detective Sean Caine, who interviewed the officer Savage flagged down on 18th Street after the assault, said the officer twice offered to call an ambulance for Savage, who declined both times. The report does not mention the heel marks all across his chest, clearly visible in a photograph taken later. Nor does it address whether or not Savage received any blows to the head.
Assistant police chief Diane Groomes says in an e-mail that it “appears the Fireboard did not respond to the incident,” meaning EMTs did not show up on the scene to check Savage over. The police report states “n/a” in the section regarding treatment by a D.C. ambulance.
In response to a question about police procedure, police spokesperson Traci Hughes says that the police department “does not have a protocol for officers to use should citizens who display an apparent need for medical attention refuse assistance. Officers are required to request FEMS [D.C. Fire and EMS] to respond for any apparent medical need or if a request for medical assistance is made by a citizen regardless of the circumstances.”
Following the incident, police officers drove Savage around in their cruiser in the hope that he could spot any of his assailants. Betette says Savage told him a female officer jumped out of the car when they saw one of the kids involved in the beating. The officer grabbed the kid but didn’t make an arrest. She then took Savage back to the apartment.
Reppert recalls Savage arriving at about 5 a.m.
“Why can’t I get it fucking right?” Betette recalls Savage telling him. Savage started crying. He told him that the perps had put a gun in his mouth.
“The fucking guy couldn’t get a break,” Betette says. “He was starting to feel the effects of not being on the methadone, so he was sick on top of it. It’s almost like being dope-sick.…He was shaking pretty bad.”
Savage didn’t complain about getting hit in the head. He pulled up his shirt to reveal the heel marks.
According to Betette, Savage didn’t say he was in any physical pain. He just asked for Betette’s cell phone so he could call his father in California. Betette gave him his phone and went to bed. He got up half an hour later to use the bathroom and saw Savage sitting on the couch facing the computer.
At 5:25 a.m., Savage sent his ex-fiancée, Sullivan, an e-mail to tell her what happened. At this point, he became a really unreliable narrator of his own story. Whether this was because of a concussion, some other injury, or just the entire drama of the night, no one is sure. This e-mail is the only bit of evidence left except for what an autopsy might reveal.
Savage misspelled Sullivan’s name, typed in fragments, got the dates of his stay in D.C. wrong, and the entire timeline of his mugging all turned around. It had been less than two hours since the incident. The only thing that is clear is how utterly freaked he was. He wrote (emphasis his):
sabrana I came to DC because i cant bear living without you i got here the 15th on the 18 was held … they hand cuffed me on th way to work tossed me in a recycling dumpster at 7 and they found me at 6 no shoes cell phone atm card passport id and367 dollars in tips.............help me sabrena your supposed to lov and take care of your man i would travel 100000000000000000000 miles to protect you call my moms cell phone ans she will give u a numbber to call me or gie one to her............I love you so much please 1 more chance....tub of broken love chris
That morning, Reppert got up to go to work and saw Savage on the couch. Feet crossed, he was wearing only a pair of blue checked boxers. He was still wearing his glasses. The remote control was wedged between his left biceps and his left side. In his left hand, he gripped a lighter. His right hand extended out from the couch. Half a jumbo slice was on the floor. On the coffee table was a large bottle of Vicodin. Just below his hand was Betette’s cell phone.
Reppert didn’t try to see if he was awake. But she took a picture of him with her BlackBerry. “I saw his stomach,” Reppert explains. “I was going to show people his bruises. I was going to tell people what happened because I worked in the area. I took a picture of his bruises because it was so crazy.”
Reppert can’t stop looking at the picture now. The photo shows black and blue welts across his chest and his stomach.
Other than the bruising, Savage looked normal, like he was sleeping, she says. “It was almost like one of those party dude pictures,” Reppert says.
Betette got up a little before 1 p.m. and walked into his living room, where Savage had been sleeping on the couch. He got an entirely different feeling.
“I got up, and just as soon as I turned this corner I knew he was dead,” Betette says from his living room. “This wave of something came over me. He was ice cold.”
Betette called 911. He told the operator that his friend had died, that he was going to try mouth-to-mouth. But he couldn’t pry Savage’s mouth open. The operator didn’t understand.
“I was saying I couldn’t do it,” Betette says. “She said, ‘Are you refusing to do CPR, sir?’” He yelled at her: “I can’t do it!”
“This was the most haunting thing for me,” Betette says. “His tongue was in his teeth. Touching him—I’ve never felt anything like that before. He was so cold. There was no color in his face. All of his blood had drained to his hand.”
A fireman arrived shortly thereafter. “Oh man, your friend’s dead,” the fireman said.
Emergency personnel were on site for four hours, waiting for the body to be taken away. “Everybody was waiting for the guys with the bag, I guess,” Betette says.
Betette told the medical examiner that Savage took painkillers, including Vicodin, to help with the methadone sickness. Two days later, the medical examiner’s office indicated that the physical trauma didn’t look like it was enough to kill Savage.
Detective Caine, who was present for Savage’s autopsy, says it did not appear that Savage had suffered a concussion or any broken ribs. “From my observations and the doctor’s observations at the autopsy,” he says, Savage did not die from injuries sustained in a beating. Caine says the cause of death remains undetermined “pending toxicology results.”
As soon as they got the body out, Betette and Reppert left also. They went to Betette’s parents’ house in Tenleytown and stayed there for two days. With the help of friends, they got rid of the couch.
Betette hasn’t erased the voicemail Savage left him at 3:45 a.m. that night. Coming through the speakerphone, Savage’s voice sounds tinny and shaky. He’s drunk and short of breath. “It’s Savage. I’m lost, man. Call me if you can.”