On July 25, 2004, Cunniff saw the Old 97's play at the Gypsy Tea Room, along with his two daughters--Courtney, then 15, and Caitlin, then 18. The shirt he wore that night spoke of his urban cowboy swagger: a picture of Johnny Cash flipping off the camera. Cunniff perched near the back of the venue as his daughters bolted up front, and he stayed there most of the night, talking with friends and strangers, sipping scotch and water, until something happened that would change his life forever. The incident, now notorious, left him unconscious and bleeding on the concrete floor, his scalp sliced open and his neck broken. It only took 10 seconds. Maybe a couple minutes. It all depends on whom you believe.
Almost exactly a year later, Cunniff is learning to walk again, while the man who attacked him, 29-year-old Jesse Chaddock, faces 19 years in a Texas prison, convicted of aggravated assault and engaging in organized criminal activity. Lots of crime happens in this city, although few stories have captured the public interest like this one. But it is a tricky story to tell, because what happened was so fast, so unexpected that all anyone seems to agree on is the commotion, the blur of bodies, the hideous thwack that sounded like a bowling ball hitting the floor. Certainly Cunniff doesn't remember much about the incident at the Gypsy Tea Room. He remembers falling; he remembers waking up; he remembers thinking he was dead. And then everything goes black. He was out for a while after that. He woke up in the hospital, finally, when the staple gun punched into his head.
After he left the Gypsy Tea Room that night, Jesse Chaddock called his friend Scott Beggs. "Some asshole started a fight in your bar," he told him. "I'm sorry, but it was unavoidable." Chaddock was on his way to July Alley for another drink. It was still early.
Days would pass before anyone understood the extent of Cunniff's injuries--far less how they occurred--but Beggs remembers his exact thoughts when he got that call: "Jesse Jackass got himself in trouble again." Beggs and Chaddock had been friends for years, but less than two months earlier, in the Gypsy parking lot, Chaddock had helped his friend beat a skinhead unconscious. Beggs was used to fighting--a Gulf War veteran and a former bouncer, he'd seen it most of his life--but Chaddock's behavior was starting to wear thin. "Jesse's got a good heart," he says. "But his head, man."
Although he has since quit the company, Beggs was then the talent buyer at the Entertainment Collaborative, a conglomerate that owns several downtown properties. What that technically means is that he booked the shows, paid the bands, made up the guest lists each night. In reality, it means Beggs ran the Gypsy Tea Room. He'd worked clubs in this town for more than a decade, and he was known as the kind of guy who didn't bullshit. Not everyone liked Beggs, but most everyone respected him.
What everyone didn't know, however, was that Beggs used to be a skinhead. Depending on what day you ask him, he still is. These days, it would be hard to call him a racist--his daughter is part black and his current girlfriend is part Hispanic. But to him, "skinhead" is a way of life, something that lingers in your bones long after the hair on your head grows back. It's about standing tall. It's about being a man. It's about not taking any shit from people.
The night of the Old 97's concert, Beggs put Chaddock on the guest list. This wasn't unusual. According to his testimony, Chaddock had done flooring work for the club and, typical of the nightclub industry, he was paid primarily in comped tickets and booze. ("To our knowledge he wasn't there as payment for work he'd done," says Erick Schlather of the EC, which is facing a civil suit filed by David Cunniff. "He was there because he was a friend of Scott Beggs.") At the show that night, Chaddock met three guys: Judd Horn, a bouncer and alleged skinhead who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs around 300 pounds; Terry Shanks, a squinty little guy with a tattoo of a dagger running down either cheek; and Sean Tarrant, a man whose name will forever be bound up with Dallas' ugly legacy of violence.