It was just before 2 a.m. on Sept. 6, 2008 at the Rocket Room, and two young men, who had led strangely parallel lives, were about to cross paths for the first time.
This encounter — like the next one Robert Romaine Bonsaint and Jonathan "Iggy Igloo" Ellis would have — would end badly. The events of that first night are a bit jumbled by alcohol, the passage of time, and personal perspective, but two facts stand out:
1. Iggy would stab Romaine in his right side and leave him bleeding in a parking lot.
2. The violent incident would originate as an argument about the quality of a cigarette.
It started out innocently enough, depending on your definition of "innocent." Romaine and Iggy were just out to listen to some music, drink a few beers, hang out with friends and flirt with some girls. Iggy started his night at the Black Sheep, where a friend's band was playing and he was taking part in the stage show. Wearing a "monster" costume made of cylindrical road barriers and traffic cones, Iggy went to battle with "Viking girls" dressed in lingerie.
"They ended up decapitating me," he says with a grin.
Iggy speaks slowly, his voice clear of strong emotion of any kind, a quality that makes him seem laid-back. He is lanky, with buzzed hair, a scraggly goatee, and a patch covering his left eye. (We'll get to that later.) His knuckles read "Iggy Igloo," and there are other tats as well — one for his ex-girlfriend, one for his son, one Superman logo and, across his back, "the worst tattoo," which reads "Fuck You" in big letters. Iggy's clothes are well-worn, and though he got off the streets years ago, he still wears a bit of that bum persona. He never disowned that past.
After the Black Sheep show that night, Iggy says, he headed to the Rocket Room, where he met up with his roommate. He'd been drinking heavily when he asked for a cigarette from a stranger.
"It was like, a Gold Coast or a SunDance or something ... and I was like, 'Oh, wow, you smoke cheap cigarettes, you know,'" Iggy remembers. "And he got really mad. And I'm like, 'Man, I smoke Top, it's like the cheapest cigarette you can get.' And he was like, still really mad at me, and I was like, 'Chill out, man, I'm just trying to have a good time, you know.'"
The way Iggy remembers it, that guy followed him around the bar for an hour, asking repeatedly if Iggy would fight him. He said no.
But when he left the bar, Iggy says, the stranger and another man followed him into the parking lot.
"I could tell they were going to like, jump me and stuff, and so I was like, 'If you guys try to attack me, I have a knife right here, I'm going to stab one of you. I'm too drunk to fight, I don't even fight as it is. This is really dumb, so, you know.'
"They came up on me and one of them grabbed me, and so I just struck him and walked away and walked around the corner and sat there with my roommate and waited for the cops."
The cops arrested Iggy, he bonded, and eventually accepted a plea deal to avoid a sentence of up to 32 years. He could have gotten three years even with the plea, but instead, he walked. He got four years of intensive supervised probation, plus rehab, and was ordered to pay $10,651.46 in restitution.
As far as Iggy was concerned, it was over.
Perhaps he didn't realize that revenge is a dish best served cold.
'I just got stabbed'
Romaine's recollection of Sept. 6, 2008 is a little different — and, it should be noted, closer to most accounts in the police report.
He'd headed to the Rocket Room to watch a "surf rockabilly" show with his cousin, Marc Williams. Marc was getting plenty drunk off Jameson whiskey, PBRs and Red Rocket beers. But Romaine says he only had a couple beers and then stuck to water, hoping to be sober enough not to scare off the ladies.
Around 1:30 a.m., Marc and Romaine called a friend to pick them up from the bar. Romaine stayed inside, chatting with a friend as the last-call crowd flooded the parking lot. Marc headed outside to await their ride, and lit one of his Camel Lights.
"It's all kind of foggy," Marc says. "[I remember] the guy approached me and asked me for cigarettes, and we talked for not very long before we were both offended with each other."
Around that time, Romaine wandered out of the bar, and into the increasingly tense argument.
"I had just walked out just as he said something about, 'These are cheap fucking cigarettes,'" Romaine says. "And Marc was like, 'Well, if you don't like it, give me my cigarettes back, I'm trying to be nice to you, give you a cigarette.' And they're verbally talking trash and like I said, they started pushing back and forth and it went around the back of the building. I was like, 'Marc, just stop. Leave it alone, leave it alone.' And I wasn't even around the side of building yet, and Marc was on top of him."
Romaine says he ran up and pulled Marc off of Iggy. As he was doing so, Iggy smacked him in the side.
"I felt the hardest hit I've ever felt in my life, like oh my God, took my breath away," Romaine remembers. "So I look at Marc and I'm like, 'Fuck it, get him!' And then, I was like, 'Wait, stop!' I realize that I'm gushing blood, and I pull up my shirt and realize there's a giant gaping hole in my side, so I'm like, 'Stop! Stop! Stop! He's got a knife, he's got a knife!' And then I walk back into the bar and I was like, 'Hey, I need bar rags and paper towels. I just got stabbed in the parking lot.'"
His friend got the towels, and told Romaine — who was still hoping he could just go home — to sit down. Romaine passed out.
When he woke up, he was at Memorial Hospital. Naked. And a doctor was standing over him yelling something like, "Prep him, I'm slicing him open, he hit his liver ... he's going to die."
The gas hit Romaine, and he was out.
Cooks in the kitchen
Romaine and Iggy were born in 1982, less than three months apart.
They were both El Paso County boys. Iggy grew up in the Deerfield Hills neighborhood before moving over by Doherty High School. He grew up dreaming of living downtown, but never knew what he wanted to do.
Romaine says he was a bit of a troublemaker in school in his hometown of Fountain. He was a boy's boy — he loved riding his BMX bike on an old motorcycle track near his house. And he loved Camaros. He bought his first right out of high school, from his mom — a '70 in red and black. "My baby," he says.
After they were 18, both boys got the boot from their mothers. Iggy tried out Job Corps. Romaine got an unpaid culinary internship at The Broadmoor, with a little help from his school counselor.
"It was like right at graduation time, the counselor was like, what are you going to do with your life, Romaine?" he remembers. "I was like, well, I don't know, I roofed with my stepdad before. I roofed my first house with him when I was like 10. I was like, 'Maybe I'll be a roofer.' And he was like, 'What about cooking?' You know every time we had — you know we used to have weird assignments, we'd have to cook something and put math into it, like take recipes and multiply and divide, you know and then we'd bring them into school. And he was like, 'Well, every time, your food was always the best. You ever thought about cooking?' He's like, 'I got an internship available at The Broadmoor.' Out of 30 kids, I'm the one who got it. I just skyrocketed from there."
Meanwhile, Iggy, who is part Inupiaq Indian, had a rough start on his own. At 18, he went to live on a reservation in South Dakota, which he found to be infested with crippling poverty and gang violence. He began drinking heavily and ended up in jail for underage consumption.
"I was like the only person in county jail for the entire 30 days, and the jail was attached to the sheriff's house — it was like old Mayberry style — and the sheriff was like this old dude, he lived there with his wife," Iggy says. "They gave me a pack of cigarettes when I got there, and when I ran out they gave me two cigarettes after each meal. And there was like full-access cable, and they were really nice and I was like sitting there like, 'What am I going to do with my life now?' And so, I was watching TV and I saw this four-hour-long documentary about punk rock on PBS and I was like, 'Oh, that is it!'
"And so when I came back here I went to a couple of punk shows and it was really awesome, and I picked up a 'zine and there was an interview with a band, Lesser of Two, and they were talking about survivalism, and dumpster diving and living out of society and whatever. And I was all about that because I had seen what American society did to the Native Americans firsthand ... so I ended up living on the streets down here for about five years."
While the young men, seemingly, were on different paths, both had a wild streak and it didn't take either too long to build up a rap sheet. Before Iggy and Romaine first met, Iggy had a bunch of underage drinking charges, a weapons charge, trespassing, public indecency and criminal mischief. His Colorado record spanned from 2002 to 2008.
Romaine had charges for underage drinking, two driving offenses, and a couple DUIs. His Colorado record spanned from 1999 to 2006.
But while Iggy was still on the streets, Romaine was moving up in his career. He left The Broadmoor for a better-paying roofing job. Then he went back to kitchen work, scaling his way out of "dive" diners to become the sous chef at the Radisson for three years and then at the Crowne Plaza, where he had been working for nearly three years when he encountered Iggy.
Romaine had, at that point, built himself a life. He had a long-term girlfriend and was involved with his two young nephews' lives. He worked 17 hours a day, but still loved going to concerts — he estimates he's seen about 300 shows.
Iggy took longer to get on his feet. But he, too, met a girl. And in February 2004, his son Kyan was born. It was a huge change, but Iggy tried to roll with it. He and his new family moved to Cincinnati, where his girlfriend had family. Eventually, they got their own little place. Iggy was working at fast-food joints and factories to pay the bills.
"It was a tremendous shock for me, going from living outside and being a feral human being for five years to living in a little box and working, and it was just really hard to deal with," Iggy says.
When Kyan was 2, the couple broke up. Mother and son ended up making a life in Cincinnati, while Iggy moved back the Springs. He went from a job at the now-defunct Michelle's to a cooking gig at El Tesoro, where he got promoted to head dinner cook, and then around 2007 he got his current job as a cook at Manitou Springs' Adam's Mountain Café.
He rarely speaks to his little boy, who's now 6.
Thin red lines
Romaine stands outside the shut-down Rocket Room on a frigid December afternoon. This is where it was, he says, pointing to a bit of parking lot to the side of the building. It's maybe 10 steps from the front door.
It all happened so fast, he says, staring for a moment at the ground. If it scares him — this pivotal stretch of pavement — Romaine wouldn't tell you. He looks up, crosses his arms. He's shivering.
Romaine is 6 feet tall and a little stockier than he was back in 2008. His slicked-back brown hair and tell-it-like-it-is style can make him seem distant, but he's easy to smile and there's a bit of a boy in his grin.
In the criminal report from the night of the stabbing, police note that Romaine kept asking for his blood-splattered shoes — which were seized for evidence. They were the only ones he had.
Today he wears jeans and a black zip Pennywise hoodie with crude red stitches closing a tear on one side. The hoodie was the one thing spared from the night of the stabbing. But it's no relic to Romaine. Just a sweatshirt that's still perfectly good.
Those red stitches, though, match up perfectly with the angry red scar on his belly, about two inches long. Down his middle runs another, 5½-inch, mean-looking crimson line — where the doctor cut in for the exploratory surgery.
"They split me down the middle and pulled out all my intestines to get to my liver," Romaine explains. "[Iggy] barely missed it, by a sheet of paper, luckily. He hit the rib, and then it bounced down, so I've got constant nerve damage in my rib. Like you'll see me sometimes, I'll be just standing there, and you'll see me hunch over to the right for a few seconds and then sit back up."
When Marc arrived at the hospital that night, he expected to take his cousin home after the doctors stitched him up. Things didn't go that smoothly, though.
"The doctor came down and said, 'You need to get a hold of some of his family, and we're getting a hold of the chaplain, because he may not make it,'" Marc remembers.
Romaine spent about a week in the hospital, and was off work for more than two months. He had to sleep on his couch sitting up, because getting out of bed was too painful. He was losing his wages. Digging into his savings. Relying on his big sister to bring food and take him to doctor's appointments.
When he finally did go back to work, he spent a lot of time in the office, hunched over in pain. His co-workers began to mock him, suspecting he was faking. Eventually, he says, the sour situation came to a head, and he lost his job in February 2009.
He has been unemployed since.
Romaine went into depression for six months, staying at home with his two pit bulls and staring into space.
"Honestly, going out anywhere terrified me," he says. "...If I went out, I would have my back to the wall. I would be glancing around everywhere."
Romaine's fear was heightened by an oft-repeated rumor that he was not the first person Iggy had stabbed. (The rumor was actually recorded in the police report from the night of the stabbing — Iggy's friend recounted it. Iggy admits to lashing out violently in his past, but has no other violent crimes on his record.)
Over time, the pain in Romaine's side lessened, though it never went away.
"On the side right here it feels like someone's constantly punching me," he says, gesturing to the right side of his stomach. "It's really weird. It used to happen probably every half-hour. I think I've just kind of grown used to it so it's just in the back of my mind. Sometimes it gets really bad ... the doctor told me just get used to it, 'cause it ain't going away and he ain't giving me painkillers for it."
There's also discomfort caused by scar tissue from his surgery — there's so much of it that doctors wanted to operate to remove it. Romaine didn't see the point.
He's continued to look for a job, without luck. He's sold most of what he owns and cleaned out his savings.
Recently, he and his off-and-on girlfriend of five years broke up. And he sold that Camaro.
An eye for an ...
Shortly before making his plea deal in 2009, Iggy realized it was time to clean up his act.
He quit drinking and says he hasn't touched alcohol since. He reconnected with his creative side, teaching himself to play more instruments, focusing on his one-man band, learning how to paint.
He's still on probation. So going to a party is a pretty rare thing.
"I go to shows, but I don't do stupid stuff," he says. "I live a pretty decent life now, I guess."
But an invitation to a pig roast at a friend's farm this past July — well, that he just couldn't pass up.
"They buried a pig and roasted it," he explains. "They had just pulled it out of the ground. It was really big. I was really excited to eat a pig straight out of the ground. I hadn't done that since middle school."
He was sitting near the bonfire, chatting with a friend he hadn't seen much since going sober. Then the friend tried to introduce Iggy to a girl standing nearby.
"I'm Iggy," Iggy told the girl.
"All I heard was, 'Oh, you're Iggy!'" Iggy recalls. "And then I heard, 'Oh, you fucking stabbed me!' And then I was like, on the ground. And I was like, 'Oh, why does my head hurt, this is painful,' and everyone's freaking out."
Iggy says he doesn't think Romaine recognized him until he said his name. After all, they had only met once. And Iggy certainly didn't recognize Romaine. (But, apparently, several witnesses did.)
"He hit me with a beer bottle, like one of those big, huge, wine-bottle-type beer bottles," Iggy says. "...[Friends] took me into the bathroom and I was just bleeding and I was like, 'Oh, wow, that's why my head hurts.'"
Iggy, who feared for his life, caught a ride to a friend's house. He remembers saying his ABCs and counting backward to ensure he was all there. And he remembers throwing up in the car. Most of all, he remembers that his left eye wasn't working.
"I asked [my friend], 'Is my eye open?'" he says. "And he was like, 'Yeah.' And I was like, 'Really, 'cause I can't see anything.'"
The next day, Iggy's sister brought him to the doctor. But it took a month of appointments before anyone knew what was wrong, since his injury was so unusual. The impact of the bottle had broken a tiny bone in Iggy's face called the sphenoid. And that, in turn, had severed the optic nerve running to his left eye.
"[The doctor] was like, 'Well, it's permanent,'" Iggy says. "And I was like, 'Oh, I guess I can get a parrot now.'"
Is this justice?
Iggy has a little collection of eye patches. He paints designs on them and wears them to match his shoes.
Adjusting to life with one eye has taken some work. In a fast-paced kitchen, depth perception means a lot. Even now, he'll reach for something and miss it by three inches.
But he's tried to persevere. He's painting a vibrant series based on the Inupiaq number system. He swears he's a better painter now than he was with two eyes.
He put together a folk-industrial musical project, too. It's called Samovar, which means "Russian tea urn." Iggy is a nut for Russian literature, and he liked the idea of everyone gathering around this urn full of hot liquid, enjoying its comforts.
And he says he's not mad anymore.
"I really don't care about him," he says of Romaine. "It's like, I could harbor all kinds of resentment, and just be eternally angry towards him and end up killing him one day, but then it's like what would that prove? What would that bring? Nothing. I'd get caught and spend the rest of my life in jail."
As for the legal stuff, for the most part, Iggy was satisfied with the handling of his case. It was investigated by an El Paso County Sheriff's deputy, who was understanding about Iggy's plight. It was Iggy's first-ever good experience with a cop.
But in other ways, Iggy is disappointed. He's still having to pay restitution to Romaine — though he skipped his last payment. Iggy will soon get some dividends from his tribe, and was hoping to go to Cincinnati with the money. He wanted to see his son on the boy's birthday. But instead, that money will go to restitution.
To Iggy, that just doesn't seem fair.
"He's fine!" Iggy says. "I stabbed him. That's true, you know. I mean, that probably really sucked. And they had to do exploratory surgery to make sure I didn't puncture any vital organs, which I didn't. But he was able to heal. And he healed. And I'll never see out of my left eye again."
What's more, Romaine is out on bail, and Iggy fears that he's even madder now. That maybe Romaine wants to kill him. After all, Romaine apparently wasn't given the plea deal that Iggy got, despite facing identical charges.
Romaine says he was offered a plea with a minimum of 10 years. (His plea deal is confidential, and therefore impossible to confirm.) He's headed to a disposition Jan. 24. Normally, a plea deal is accepted at a disposition, so it's possible that Romaine decided to accept that plea after all, or that he was given a better deal.
Interestingly, Romaine has the same prosecutor, Gail Warkentin, whom Iggy had back in '08. So, obviously, she understands the history. But that doesn't mean she'll pursue equal punishment.
"There's a lot of things that go into what may be offered — depending on priors is one thing, and the facts and evidence in the case," explains 4th Judicial District Attorney spokesperson Shelly LaGrill.
If Romaine does get 10 years, it's a tough break. And he's scared of being in prison, he says. Terrified.
"I don't see where the justice is," he says. "I almost died, and he gets probation. I was in the hospital for a week and he was in the hospital for a half a day, half that time sitting in the emergency room, and now I'm looking at hardcore prison time?"
While Iggy gripes about paying restitution, Romaine says he only received one check, more than a year ago, for about $2,000. That's a lot of money for Iggy, but less than Romaine would have gotten from a single paycheck at his old job.
Romaine can't talk about the day Iggy lost his eye. Everything is hush-hush until the trial. But he will say that he's not "a grudge-holder." In fact, he says, he told the cop who brought him a lineup after the stabbing (he identified Iggy right away) that he just wanted Iggy to get his shit together and take care of his son.
In fact, Romaine says, he cared so little that he never knew until recently what came of Iggy's case. He had always assumed that Iggy went to prison. But he never checked.
"Honestly, I've never thought about him [Iggy]," Romaine says. "Like I said ... I just pretty much let it go."
Letting go was a little harder for Romaine's cousin. Marc blamed himself for everything for at least the first year.
"For a long time," he says, "I was like, you know, if the cocksucker had brought his own cigarettes, it never would have happened."