JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — More than eight months after Ja’shon Yates was killed by gunfire at a New Year’s Eve party in Johnson City, the couple he knew as his parents remain wracked by grief but hopeful investigators will find answers about Yates’ death that so far have not come.
“I think the thing that I want more than anything is just first to know who and second to know why,” said Chriss Hess, whom Yates had known as a father since he was about 2 years old. “There’s so many endless days that you just sit around and think and think and think. Sleepless nights.”
The only man charged in the incident at Monarch Apartments Unit 4205, 23-year-old Dae’Vo Jennings-Worrell, pleaded guilty last month to seven of 12 reckless endangerment counts filed against him early this year. That plea carried a six-year prison sentence that will keep Jennings-Worrell behind bars for at least another year.
But the events that occurred during the early morning party remain shrouded in mystery.
“I think there are a few people who know truly what happened and for whatever reason they don’t want to talk about it,” said Jessica Hess, who met Ja’shon when he was 12 and who he knew as his mom the rest of his life.
Jennings-Worrell has never been charged for anything directly related to Yates’ death, though one of the five counts on which he wasn’t prosecuted lists the victim as Yates and leaves open the possibility of further charges against him.
An unhappy birthday
Ja’shon Yates who went to school in Hampton until finishing his junior and senior years of high school at Sullivan South, would have been 20 on Aug. 18. Chriss Hess said the Hess’s and Yates’ girlfriend celebrated “just like he was there.”
It was still a hollow time as they remembered a young man Chriss Hess said loved Greek mythology and who Jessica said “had a heart of gold.”
Yates was already a manager at a local restaurant and his girlfriend was GM there. He had confided in Chriss that he wanted to ask her to marry him.
“I had told him not too long before that I was really proud of the man he was starting to become,” he said. “He was starting to take more responsibility and help and you know he always come home with his paycheck and he would always ask me and his mom, ‘you want me to pay the water bill, or y’all want me to pay this?’”
Jessica Hess said her husband had rubbed off on Ja’shon after taking him into his life so many years before.
“He’s a wonderful person and he instilled that in Ja’shon,” she said. “Ja’shon had a heart of gold especially when it came to other people. Kids, oh my gosh – the babies that were involved in his life and that got to be loved by him, it’s amazing.”
He was gentle but loved his family very much and didn’t like it when people talked any kind of way other than good about them, she said.
“It didn’t matter if he met you two seconds ago, if somebody was giving you crap he’d give them crap right back for you.”
Asked how she wanted Ja’shon to be remembered, Jessica laughed. “Goofy. Goofy and smiling. Gentle. He was so smart. He loved Harry Potter. He loved conspiracy theories.”
She remembers walking into a store when Ja’shon was about 13 and him saying, “‘Mom, do you know,’ and he started going on about this conspiracy about JFK. You’re 13. How do you even know any of this?”
‘If it’s 15 years from now I’ll still be out advocating’
Police recovered 12 shell casings from the gun Jennings-Worrell fired at Building 4 of Monarch, which is just across State of Franklin Road from East Tennessee State University and caters primarily to students.
Yates suffered three gunshot wounds. Witnesses initially told police that with more than 50 people around and several fights having broken out, “the door was pushed open and they observed a black male in a red hoodie reach into the apartment firing three shots into the apartment striking the victim,” according to an affidavit.
Jennings-Worrell told investigators he had fired shots into the apartment door and wall from the hallway. The affidavit says shell casings in the hall matched the caliber located inside the apartment.
Police told News Channel 11 they aren’t able to comment on the case as it remains an active investigation.
Jessica Hess said she believes Detective Brady Higgins is “very committed to finding who took Ja’shon from us so early. He is just running into a lot of nobody wants to talk to him because he is who he is.”
She said that resistance is hard to endure.
“It’s not fair to Ja’shon’s family, it’s not fair to Ja’shon, but as far as the JCPD and the work that they’ve been doing, I can’t say anything less than I appreciate them.”
Chriss Hess began to cry as he talked about the lack of progress in the case.
“There were so many people there — I know somebody seen something. Even one little thing would help, you know? Any anybody who truly had a heart, and anybody who loved him, truly loved him like they say they did, they would say something, anything.”
He said police can often make progress off of minute details, and that the JCPD has made it clear they don’t care whether witnesses were drinking underage, using drugs, fighting — “they just care about being able to tell us as his chosen parents what happened.”
He said he won’t give up his quest to learn what really happened.
“If it’s 15 years from now I’ll still be out advocating for my son like any good father would.”
Jessica Hess said it had already been a difficult fall for the family prior to Ja’shon’s death. Chriss’s mother had died of cancer several months before. In late January, Jessica’s grandmother died, bringing more bittersweet memories of Ja’shon.
“He took care of his mamaw, my grandmother, day in and day out for two years. He was just a giver and that’s what people need to remember when they think of him. And when they think about not talking to the detective they need to remember what kind of a man my son was.”