A young man, a fatal stab wound, a life of nevers.
by Jonna Parker Cohen
It was not his time to die. That is what his
mother would say. Twenty-one year-old Andrew Moffitt was home for Christmas in 1996, when, late one night, he left for the Emergency Department at the local Brockville hospital, suffering from a heart attack.
At about 3 a.m. Paulette and Rodney Moffitt received a call from the hospital to come down right away. The whole way there Andy’s mom pleaded, “Please God, don’t let Andy die. He can’t die.”
His parents’ prayers were answered. Andy survived this heart attack, the second time in Andy’s life when his parents pleaded for God not to take their son. The first was when Andy was born and was diagnosed with a genetic heart defect. He survived threats to his heart twice in his life before the morning of December 23, 1998 that he was murdered at Coyote’s grill.
In the living room of the Moffitt home, Rodney Jr., 27, leans forward and shakes his head, “It hurts so much, having lost my brother. But it hurts even more to know that Andy has lost his life to such a senseless act.” He says this and looks over at his mother, Paulette, who is wiping away tears. She sits on the sofa next to the window, where their dog Buddy, looks out, body wriggling with excitement as he takes notice to Andy’s snow covered car in the drive-way, wondering where his beloved friend has gone.
“A parent should never bury their child,” his mother cries. She dabs her eyes and folds her arms tightly against her chest, as if desperately trying to hold herself together, even though everything inside her is quickly falling terribly apart.
There is sadness. There is rage. And relentless outpours of love. Most profoundly this family is devastated. Devastation that has this family by the throat. Choking on their every living breath in complete disbelief. The chaotic stream of thoughts: it can’t be true. Why did this happen? No, please no he can’t be dead. I want my son back! I want Andy back. This isn’t fair. A never ending flood of toughts.
Devastation is having a funeral service for your 23-year-old son. Devastation is a beautiful young life snuffed out by violence.
The accused, Henry Danninger, 26, was another student. They didn’t know each other. Danninger, who ran from the scene of the crime, was later picked up by police after he called them himself. He was remanded into custody and is charged with second degree murder.
Andy was a loving son and the best friend to both his brothers Rodney Jr. and Michael, 11. A photo album sits on the table in the living room, full of pictures of the son Paulette calls her “angel.” Why did he have to die?
“It doesn’t make any sense,” says his mother. “I just keep waiting for him to come home.” She begins to cry, “I just can’t believe he’s gone.”
This is a story about broken dreams, about a compassionate and intelligent young man who survived a heart ailment and the trials of adolescence, and emerged a handsome, athletic, gentle, honourable young man. He was, by all accounts of family and friends, “a great guy who’d do anything for anybody,”
He survived a heart attack.
But his time was almost up.
“He had so much potential. He was just about to start a great career. He never got a chance to have a family, he loved kids and that was something he always wanted,” says Andy’s mother Paulette. An avid golfer and tenacious chess player who was always delighted when a friend would accept his invitation to a chess match. He also loved hockey and working on computers. His gentle nature and gifted abilities made him every parent’s dream.
This is now a story about a life of nevers, which is the life that awaits the mothers, the fathers, brothers, friends and relatives of the victims of such violence. A life of nevers. Never having a chance to have a family. Never having had an opportunity to embark on a career. Never even a last word. Now a life of cherishing and reliving memories is all they have left and none of it is fair. There is no comfort. There is just the gnawing empty void where Andy is missing.
Still, you don’t know a person just by the slapshots he takes, but from the kindness he makes. Like the time a neighbour’s son needed a couple stitches on his knee. Andy, without even a moment’s hesitation, took him to the hospital and stayed with him for hours. The neighbour’s son.
Or the time, he surprised his mother on her birthday. Drove to Brockville during exams. Just one of many ways he showed his mother how deeply he loved her. This was not even an unusual thing for him to do.
On some weekends, when some other university students are caught up in their own worlds that revolve around studying, partying and part-time jobs, Andy, who had reassuring eyes and short brown hair, would take his little brother Michael for the weekend. He was Michael’s brother, best friend and mentor. He would play hockey with him and teach him right from wrong. And love him and hold him and horse around the way brothers do. He would even chat with Michael about not talking back to Mom and Dad and the growing strains that 11-year-olds come up against in prepubesence.
“He was a quiet person and a social person who had a way of making everyone feel comfortable and at ease. And he was always willing to help. If you needed something, then he would do whatever he could to help,” his brother Rodney Jr. says.
Every clan has that one special member who lights up the room, who delights the children, who, when he’s not there, has everybody looking forward to when he will arrive.
This was Andrew “Andy” Adrien Earl Moffitt. The middle son of his family, the tallest of the bunch. Who worked hard at school and played hard in sports, and loved to dream and plan for the future, where he was looking forward to starting full-time work as a developer at Nortel where he had been working side-by side with his brother Rodney Jr. that started during a Co-op program. “He was so skilled they kept him on for contracts. He had a great career ahead of him,” Rodney goes on to say. He was just around the corner to some great new events in his life. A life that was abruptly ended.
He didn’t see it coming. The knife that plunged into his heart and killed him only minutes later.
Nearly two years after his heart attack, and just before Christmas, a bunch of friends were hanging and talking in Coyote’s, a popular campus grill. A squabble on the second floor erupted. Meanwhile, Andy and his friends were downstairs talking football. Holiday plans. Just chummin’ around.
According to Craig Wells, a close friend and Andy’s roommate, they heard a glass break and the sound of a table being thrown against the wall. According to witnesses, the accused, Henry Danninger, 26, of Brockville was angry with his roommate because he wanted to leave their housing arrangement. The argument escalated to a fight and after causing damages to the grill and assaulting his roommate he proceeded downstairs towards the exit, offering ten bucks and no explanation to the person tending bar that night. The bartender asked Danninger to explain what happened or that the police might need to be involved. Andy and about five friends stood up from their seats between the exit and the small bar when the commotion between the bartender and Danninger began.
In the grill now, the whole scene begins moving really quickly, so fast it is too fast to even remember as an event. But rather a sequence of images that are compacted, crystallized into one moment in time. It happened in a heartbeat. A 911 call was placed to get help for the disruption and destruction. Danninger proceeded to push towards the exit, pushing and shoving and cursing his way out the door. Andy and the handful of guys standing between Danninger and the door were being shoved back and crashed through the inside door, landing in a heap inside the vestibule. With 911 on the phone and the bartender looking from the floor just outside the vestibule. Danninger was the first to get up from the dog pile and pulled a four inch steel knife out. The bartender yelled when he saw the blade and as he tried to rise, Andy Moffitt was stabbed in the heart. Clutching his chest he stumbled around until finally he landed on the front stairs, spilling pools of blood. His friend Craig ran to him and cradled the dying Andy in his arms. “You’re going to be okay Andy, you’re going to be okay,” Craig repeated to him. Nothing stemmed the tide of blood that poured out from his body.
The ambulance arrived shortly but it was too late. He had no vital signs. At the General site of the Ottawa Hospital, the first thing the physician who worked on Andy said to the officers was “I hope you caught the son-of-a-bitch that did this.”
Back in the Moffitt home, Andy’s mother lets the dog out, then returns to the living room to sit down and she begins to cry. She is talking about the doorbell that rang that terrible morning, around 4 a.m.
How many afternoons had they spent playing hockey at the rink? How many nights had they gone to bed as a family? How many times did Andy phone to check on his little brother Michael? It was so often, that Rodney and his wife, Paulette, had no idea they should have been counting the memories.
And then their doorbell rang that cold December morning, and there were police officers. They were saying “dead” and the tears started flowing and no, no, no, “dead” does not happen to your son, not this way, not so sudden, so brutal. Earlier that day he had talked to his family. They never knew it would be the last time.
The police escorted them to the General Site of Ottawa Hospital to see their son’s body.
The Moffitt family just went through the motions during the days that followed. Trying to get through each moment. Not living, not sleeping, just trying to get through, for young Michael. They have said that they can never forgive the man who did this and nothing that is done will ever be enough.
Unfortunately, in this world, we don’t always reap what we sow. Bad things happen to good people. But that doesn’t change any of it. It doesn’t give Andy’s devastated parents a reason to go on. To believe in life. And why should it.
In the Moffitt home, there is crying and talking and an 11-year-old boy that wraps himself up in his dead brother’s quilt and says how he has his brother’s arms around him. They talk about Andy and how he loved to play golf, and soon they need Kleenex to wipe away the tears.
Some guys got into an argument. Some other guys got shoved to the floor. One guy pulled a knife. And now there is one angel who will never make it home for the holidays. And there is nothing they can do about it. Nothing at all.