Focusing my camera lens on John Lee as he lay bloodied, bruised and broken in his hospital bed at Lakewood Ranch Medical Center was one of the most surreal moments in my career at the East County Observer.
Since the news broke of Lee’s attack Aug. 25, in the parking lot of Braden River Elementary School, reporters had been scurrying into the ER to hear Lee recount the road-rage beating he suffered in front of his 10-year-old son at the hands of one of his River Club neighbors, John Sabin. (Incidentally, Sabin was an educator — a math teacher at Lee Academy for Gifted Education in Tampa last year.)
Lying shirtless with cuts on his face and his right arm in a sling — and pausing frequently to catch his breath because of a punctured lung — Lee retold his tale in front of TV crews, with reporters scrawling in their notebooks and amid the flashes and clicks of still cameras.
Reporters asked the obvious: Why did he become so angry? Tell us what you remember of the attack.
As I stood there at about 4:30 p.m. — nine hours after the attack — my first question was different: Have you spoken to your son?
Lee turned his head to me.
“No, I haven’t,” he almost whispered.
Lee said Sabin continued to beat him until his son attempted to put himself between the two men. After Sabin fled, Lee pulled himself up and stumbled into the boys bathroom. He cleaned himself up the best he could and then walked his son to the cafeteria for his before-school program.
“I think he was OK at that point,” Lee said of his son.
Maybe. Hopefully. But I would be surprised if his son doesn’t have at least one nightmare about this incident.
Manatee County Sheriff’s Office reports state Sabin had been tailing Lee — who said he was driving 35 mph in the 30 mph zone — for most of the two-mile drive on River Club Boulevard. At several points, Sabin had attempted to pass him on the two-lane, but Lee blocked him.
Lee mentioned in retrospect, he should have been more “mindful” that his son was in the car. Probably. Was his “defensive” driving seasoned with a dash of antagonism? Perhaps. But one thing is crystal clear: Lee did nothing that morning to deserve the beating he endured.
Longtime East County Observer readers may remember my own road-rage experience. It was January 2003, and a driver tailed me on State Road 70 from Braden Run to the Creekwood Crossing shopping center. As I exited my car, the driver grabbed a hammer and started chasing me, screaming racial slurs and obscenities.
I hopped back in my car, called 911, and deputies pulled the man over less than one mile away.
I wrote a column about the experience and, later that week, received the most surprising phone call of my life. The driver — a reader — called to eat crow. He stammered on his end of the line and finally asked me, What can I do to make this right?
Nothing, I told him. There really isn’t anything you can do.
That was the truth. At the time, I was only 24 years old. My son wasn’t with me. He wouldn’t be born for another five years.
Lee isn’t so lucky. Unlike my incident — from which I escaped only with a great story to retell — Lee has actual damage. Damage to his body, to his mind, to his son’s mind. There are crimes for which to pay here.
According to sheriff’s office Public Information Officer Dave Bristow, Sabin turned himself in — seemingly a sign of remorse.
But Sabin’s subsequent postings on Facebook reveal differently. After one of his friends posted “Free Mr. Sabin” as his status update, Sabin responded: “Guys, there are two sides to every story and cannot discuss the specifics. It’s driving me crazy not to defend myself, but I have been advised not to speak.”
Later, he wrote: “Just a thought, and this has no bearing on me whatsoever: Has the loser of a fight (even if he started it) ever been arrested?”
Mr. Sabin: I do realize there are (at least) two sides to every story. But frankly, as a father, it’s hard to conjure a situation in which you are justified in harming a 10-year-old boy by beating his father right in front of him.
That all said: I believe you have a side to the story. My phone number is 366-3468, Ext. 304.
I’m all ears.