The night they shot and killed Chris Haney, the Bernal brothers went out to celebrate: Robert Bernal, the elder brother, was going to be a dad. Months later, during sentencing, witnesses for the defense lamented that he’d only get to see his daughter through bulletproof glass.
Haney’s friend Kayla Premack was at that hearing. She recalls when Haney’s father-in-law took the stand and spoke of his granddaughter — Haney’s daughter — who was then five years old. “He said [Robert Bernal’s] daughter might never see her dad except behind glass,” she recounts, “but Lydia will never see her dad again.”
Haney, Gothic Theatre bartender and perennially affable fixture of the local metal scene, was shot to death by the Bernal brothers during an altercation in a Denny’s parking lot in April 2013.
“The sentencing was horrible,” Premack remembers. “To sit there and listen to their family get up there and talk about how they wouldn’t hurt a fly — to see their faces — it was horrible. They showed a video from that night at the Denny’s. It showed the older brother running through the restaurant knocking things off tables, throwing things around, and you see Chris coming toward him with his arms raised. He worked in venues, and he knew how to diffuse situations, to get people to take it outside.”
Haney had broken up plenty of drunken tussles in his 36 years; an eleven-year Gothic veteran, he’d been face-to-face with thousands of people who’d had a few too many, and nearly as many called him a friend. He was a warmhearted dude who believed in shaking hands and settling beefs, and he didn’t mind jumping right into the mix — a quality that made him a familiar face to many, many people.
“He was one of those guys, you might not know his name, but you’ve seen him,” says John Baxter, who knew Haney from 3 Kings Tavern, where they were both regulars. “We used to talk metal — he had a vast knowledge of the local scene — and he was just this infectious personality, passionate and loving with anyone who was around. I was actually living right down the street from that Denny’s when it happened, and I woke up to the news in just complete and utter shock.”
Baxter is also the central figure of local promotion and management juggernaut ZetaKaye House, which, among other projects, puts out This Ain’t No Cowtown, an annual compilation of Denver talent modeled on punk-rock mixtapes of yore that includes everything from music to comedy to spoken word. “It’s like the Pepsi challenge,” Baxter says. “I usually get about 150 submissions from bands all over the state and even some from out of state, and it’s like, ‘Uh, sorry’.... And some of them are friends of mine, and some I’ve never heard of, and some are real basement tapes, like you can hear a baby crying in the background. I try not to be biased, and I listen to them all blind. And every year I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m just giving myself more stuff to do’ — but it’s worth it for the moment where it’s like, ‘This is amazing.’”
Now in its seventh iteration, the compilation has become a staple of the scene; last year, Baxter collaborated with Colorado Public Television's music-and-comedy showcase Sounds on 29th, drawing heavily from This Ain’t No Cowtown’s lineup. Four more Baxter-curated episodes air this month — just in time for Cowtown’s latest, which should be released at the end of the month.
Proceeds for each volume — which ZetaKaye sells on a name-your-price basis — have traditionally gone toward a worthy cause; this year’s will go to Go Do Some Good: The Chris Haney Memorial Fund. “They started the fund right after all this happened to secure some finances for his daughter,” Baxter says, “and they did extremely well with crowdfunding, but when you look at the number and you look at the age of the daughter, that doesn’t last very long. My hope is to further help them along.”
Baxter is far from the only one involved.
“I’m a ‘give-me-a-task’ type of person; it helps me cope,” says Premack, who wound up working with Haney after he befriended her. “He remembered anything about anybody he met,” she says. Since assisting with a benefit at the Gothic immediately following Haney’s death, Premack and mutual Haney friend Kindra Headrick have coordinated efforts to maintain the fund, including the recent dedication in Eisenhower Park of the Chris Haney Memorial Tree.
“I took it really hard,” Premack says of Haney’s death. “We all took it really hard. He was a light in our lives; he brightened everybody’s day. There were times I’d be so mad at the world, and all he’d have to do was just say one thing, and it would make my day better. He would do this for anybody. I do it for him.”
Longtime friend and 3 Kings co-owner Jim Norris, who’s also been active in fundraising efforts, agrees. “I’ve been in the creative industry a long time, like twenty years, and I’ve known a lot of exceptional people, but no one at the level of Chris Haney,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of ODs, a lot of drunk-driving deaths — I’ve lost dozens of people I was close to. You’d think at some point I’d get desensitized, but Chris has really stuck with me. For me, it’s just…I just miss him.”
For Norris, Haney’s death had a particularly heavy impact because of the sheer, senseless tragedy on all sides; he feels for Haney’s family, he says, but he also feels for the Bernal family, noting that both brothers were involved with gangs and that the younger brother, Paul, was carrying a gun because he believed a contract had been placed on his life. Paul Bernal is currently serving an eighteen-year-sentence for second-degree murder, to be suspended following six years in the youthful-offender system; Robert Bernal, who pulled the trigger, got 48 years. “The sentencing was sad,” Norris says. “So many lives are ruined.”
Still, Norris and Premack and others hope to see something worthwhile come out of Haney’s passing — a goal both believe is worthy of Haney, whose life, for them and many others, has come to stand for seeing the good in people and for forgiveness, no matter what.
In an eerily prescient Facebook post he wrote in response to the Boston Marathon bombings, which had devastated the nation just days before his death, Haney unknowingly composed a heartbreaking last will and testament, the philosophy that provided the name for his memorial foundation and continues to guide it. In the wake of his death, it reads like a prophecy:
“Bad things are gonna happen. I know this from what I know about the history of our world. Truth is they have always happened and I surmise they will keep happening. Which SUCKS because deep inside everyone knows how all of this is gonna end. Love wins. Love will always win. Remember the everyday heroes who only know to help. Forgive those who do harm. They are adrift and will know love soon enough. Rejoice in the good that happens whenever, wherever, and see the worst as only a means to that end. Now go do some good. It comes back, ya know.”
Baxter hopes that’s true. “There’s a lot of good in the world,” he says. “I have to believe that. Otherwise, I’m sunk.”
Contributions for This Ain’t No Cowtown (A Colorado Comp), Vol.7, are being taken through Sunday, August 9, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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