Badly Beaten Photographer Keeps His Focus on Recovery
These things survived the violence:
His vision. His passion. His dreams.
One brutal moment changed the life of photographer Bill Jones. But like a thief who leaves behind a wedding ring, that moment did not rob Jones of every precious thing.
“First thing I’m going to do is get back into photography,” said Jones, 62, whose work has appeared in publications such as Jet and Ebony magazines. “I love the feeling of getting in the lab and doing my work. I love working with people.”
Jones is scheduled to be released from a hospital today, nearly three months after he was brutally beaten with a baseball bat as he washed his car in front of his Hyde Park house.
For nearly a month, Jones lay comatose at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center. His alleged assailant, Shai Alkebulan, 39, a former Compton Unified School District substitute teacher, has pleaded not guilty to a charge of attempted murder. He is being held in lieu of $550,000 bail.
The challenge now before Jones is to regain the life he once had. His will is strong, but the violence has left its fingerprints on his body. In the rehabilitation ward of Inglewood’s Daniel Freeman Hospital, he worked daily toward his goal: “To get myself together and be able to photograph the way I want to.”
He does not speak of “if,” but of “when.” And those who know Jones best expect him to do just what he says he will do.
“We all believe he’s going to do it,” said Jones’ daughter, Michelle Jones-Coleman. “My father is a very strong-willed person. He keeps saying, ‘It’s going to take some time but [I’m] going to be back out there.’ ”
At Daniel Freeman, Jones spent four to five hours each day working with therapists, relearning everyday functions--like holding and operating a camera--that once came as naturally as breathing.
On a hospital patio one recent day, Jones, who is right-handed, positioned the camera in his left hand while therapist Susan Terrell stood nearby, offering direction and assistance. With his walker braced in front of him, Jones focused on a hospital staff member, waited for just the right moment, and then gave the word.
“Now,” he said softly to Terrell, who clicked the shutter. “Now,” he ordered her again.
“How many times you want me to do this?” Terrell asked playfully.
“One more time,” Jones said. “Go ahead, it’s only film,”
This is not the way it was just a few months ago, when Jones photographed the biggest names in Hollywood on assignment for Jet and other publications.
Still, this is progress.
“He wasn’t able to do any of this before he got here,” said his wife, Reva.
The attack left Jones with skull fractures and severe bruises. When he arrived at the hospital July 22, he was unable to walk. His speech was slow and labored. His right side was paralyzed.
Now he walks with the aid of a walker and is regaining strength in his right side, and his speech and cognitive skills have improved, said hospital spokeswoman Kellye Tarelka.
Getting this far has been the result of his faith, the love of his family and support from a circle of friends wider than even Jones knew he had.
In the glitzy world of Hollywood premieres and awards shows, Jones was one quiet, calm voice that always managed to get the big names to stop for him, friends recalled. Over the years he got to know many of his subjects.
After the attack, some of those people phoned and sent cards and messages, not to Bill Jones the photographer, but to Bill Jones the friend.
“It surprised me,” Jones said. “I knew I had some friends, but I didn’t know I had that many. I want to thank them for their support and prayers because without it, I wouldn’t be here.”
On the day of the attack, Jones was scheduled to photograph a luncheon honoring youths, said the event’s organizer, Tony Wafford, an aide to Assemblyman Roderick Wright (D-Los Angeles).
“He was going to do it for free,” Wafford said. “Whenever I have called him he has never told me no, and never once handed me an invoice. Never.”
When Jones didn’t show up, Wafford, a longtime friend, called his home and learned what had happened. News of the incident rocked the circle of African American entertainment professionals.
They quickly organized themselves, spreading the word from coast to coast, working the phones, fax machines and networks usually used for other purposes.
When they asked her how they could help, Reva Jones made a simple request: prayer.
So Jones’ friends organized a candlelight prayer vigil outside King/Drew Medical Center, where Jones was first hospitalized. Actress Halle Berry soothed the gathering with an assurance that Jones “could pull through this and with love and prayers he would,” said Jones-Coleman.
Weeks later, entertainment promoter Roland Wirt, Wafford and others organized a fund-raiser at the Hollywood Athletic Club, attracting a host of celebrities, friends and family.
Singer Howard Hewett reminded the gathering that regardless of the bleak prognosis, God has the final say, Wafford said. Then Hewett sang “Amazing Grace,” moving some to tears.
“We had church in there,” Wafford said. “It was beautiful.”
Early on, even as he lay comatose, Reva Jones declared that her husband would survive. When he emerged from the coma after a month, his daughter was at work.
“They paged me to let me know that my father had finally said my mother’s name,” she recalled. “I was ready to take off running from work.”
Unanswered questions about the assault remain. Prosecutors have been unable to determine a motive for the beating. And Jones has no memory of the incident. Although Alkebulan, the alleged attacker, lives near Jones, the two men did not know each other, Jones-Coleman said. Alkebulan’s attorney declined to comment.
Jones will continue his rehabilitation as an outpatient, but he has already moved one step closer to returning to the world he once knew.
Recently, Jones and a therapist visited a camera shop on a field trip, part of the “community reentry” phase of his therapy. And he is hoping for more.
“There was some premiere and he was trying to talk one of the therapists into taking him there to take some pictures,” hospital spokeswoman Tarelka said.
And Jones is talking again about the shots of his dreams. One involves Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg and a few others.
“My ultimate photo, I don’t know when it’s going to come, is to photograph all the [black] Academy Award winners,” he said. “That’s gonna be down the road,” Jones said. “But that’s my ultimate shot.”