Somewhere at the bottom of Grasmere Lake is an Egyptian-made assault rifle with an empty clip. It was manufactured in Cairo and then shipped to Scottie's Guns & Militaria on East Colfax Avenue, just a short walk from the elegant Park Hill home where Justin Green grew up and where he was living with his parents in the summer of 2000.
Green, who was then twenty, had a job shelving books at the Central Denver Public Library. He would drive by the gun store in his Mazda MX6 on his way to work. One day, on an impulse, he went inside.
He was mesmerized by the Maadi MISR knockoff AK-47 in the display rack. It was black and gleaming and looked just like an A to the K, the assault rifle lionized in a thousand gangster-rap tracks as the weapon to sport when you absolutely, positively have to kill every last muthafucka in the room.
Green didn't have any muthafuckas he needed to kill. He was a privileged only child, going to college, with two loving, generous, still-married parents -- his father a high-tech engineer, his mother a lawyer.
But like a million other well-educated, well-off white kids raised in the 1980s, Green developed a taste for gangster rap and a corresponding fetish for exotic, high-powered weaponry. Able to quote Robert Frost and Ice Cube with equal authority, he knew the difference between a MAC-10 and an AR-15 even though he'd never fired a gun more powerful than a squirrel rifle. "I've always been attracted to rap music, and gangster rap, especially," he says. "I think I suffered from a lot of ennui, and gangster rap was like a fantasy realm where things such as honor and life-or-death situations and excitement was very much a part of daily life. I was attracted to it for the same reasons farm kids in Iowa and Kansas are listening to rap: because it glorifies hardship, and I grew up without any."
He paid $500 for the semi-automatic, twenty-round-capacity assault rifle.
"I bought it just because I could," he says. "It seemed like such an extreme thing to own. Guns always had a taboo allure for me, and this wasn't just any gun. It was an AK."
Green's parents favor strict gun-control laws. When Green was young, his father inherited a collection of antique shotguns. He gave them away because he didn't want his son growing up around any firearms, not even collector's items.
"We never dreamed Justin would bring a gun into our home," his mother says. "It was such a violation."
Green kept his assault rifle hidden in a ski bag beneath his bed. He held private showings for select friends he'd known for more than a decade, since they were classmates at Graland Country Day School.
"When I'd bring it out, no one was like, 'Hey, man, put that away. You shouldn't have that,'" he remembers. "Their universal reaction was, 'That is so cool. Let me hold it.' And then, 'Let's go shoot it.' They respected it, and they respected me for having it."
Three times in the first three months after he bought the Maadi, Green and five or six friends, young men and women, drove out to the plains around Watkins and blew the hell out of hay bales and beer cans and old TVs. Then the novelty wore off and the weather got cold, and Green didn't fire the gun again until the night he panicked and threw it into Grasmere Lake. The night he shot his life full of holes.
It was Saturday, September 7, 2001. Green had moved out of his mom and dad's house three months earlier and was living in a rental near the University of Denver, in the 2200 block of South High Street. He was a sophomore at the University of Colorado at Denver, with a heavy course load in history and religious studies. Classes had just started.
The Maadi was in the back of his closet. It was unloaded.
"I tried to be a responsible gun owner," Green says.
Carson Vaudrin had just moved in with Green that week. The two had been friends since grade school. Vaudrin was the overweight kid Green stuck up for when other kids made fun of him behind his back. Green was the small, bookish one Vaudrin protected from bullies. The only trouble they'd ever gotten in together was when they were fifteen and they'd shot up Vaudrin's mom's tomato plants with a borrowed BB gun.
Vaudrin had a prescription for Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug commonly prescribed by psychiatrists. When Green woke up that Saturday around noon, he popped two of Vaudrin's pills, waited about an hour, popped five more and went back to bed. He woke up at dusk. His brain was cloaked in pharmaceutical velvet.
Green had been partying hard -- too hard -- for nearly two years at that point, drinking and smoking weed with a nihilistic vengeance born of an ever-deepening depression and sense of disillusionment. It began after he graduated from high school, when he left Denver for the University of Vermont.
"I always had this romantic notion of a quaint New England college education, where I'd be wearing khakis and a sweater," he says. "But when I got there, I felt alienated, out of place. I was expecting to find an intellectual community, and instead, it was just a big fraternity school." He had just broken up with his girlfriend of two years, a NCAA champion athlete. He was down on the world and himself. He started drinking every night.
"We came out for parents' weekend, and he spent most of the time asleep in the back seat of the car," his dad remembers.
Green dropped out during his second semester and returned home in March 2000. He stayed wild. One night police found him walking backward in traffic down Montview Boulevard. His face was bashed up; he'd blacked out. His parents paid the bills, then came down on him hard. They demanded he get his shit together. They grounded him like he was twelve and not twenty. He bought the Maadi as a stark act of rebellion, but otherwise, he seemed to shape up. He enrolled at UCD and got nearly straight A's his first semester. After that, his parents let him move out.
"We thought he needed to grow up, and part of that was living on his own," his mom says. "Like a lot of parents, we looked at his grades, and we thought, 'Well, if he's getting good grades, then he must be doing just fine.' We were actually that naive."
Study your ass off, party your ass off, drink a forty-ounce while you write a killer essay. That was Green's philosophy.
After Green finally got out of bed early that evening, he and Vaudrin left their house on foot. They came across a dachshund without a collar, looking hungry and lost. Green picked up the tiny dog and carried it to the nearest liquor store, where he bought a half-liter of vodka, a bottle of champagne and a forty-ouncer.
"I drank it all within the next two hours," he says. Green is not a big guy -- five-foot-seven, about 135 pounds -- and Xanax is one of those medications with a sticker on the bottle that warns, "Do not take with alcohol."
Green was out of his head.
The friends lived next to a household of DU lacrosse players. A week before, Vaudrin, who's a bit of a hothead, had nearly gotten in a fight with one of the athletes.
"The lacrosse guys were having a party outside their house the day all the DU freshmen moved in, because we both lived right across the street from the freshmen dorms, and they were checking out the new crop and whatever," Green says. "One of them was spraying his dog down with a hose, and somehow he sprayed Carson's pants, and they wound up getting into it."
The lacrosse players were throwing a kegger that night, and Vaudrin and Green debated whether to go. They decided that free beer and company trumped the risk of trouble and walked over, dachshund in tow.
"Everything was cool," Green says. "One of the guys who lived there came up and said that the guy who had turned the hose on Carson was really sorry about the whole thing and wanted to apologize. He said that guy was at this other party that night, just like four blocks over, on Lafayette Street, and that we should go over there and make peace."
They took him up on the suggestion. "We dropped the dog off back at our place, and I drove us over there, because it was raining and we didn't want to walk," says Green. "We parked and went into the back yard and met up with the person who'd had the conflict with Carson, and he said he was sorry for the misunderstanding, and then he invited us to go inside and have a beer."
Two men arrived and appeared to know no one associated with the household. I noticed that while here, they spent more of their time together and not in and amongst the rest of us. One of them was a heavier guy and the other a shorter, younger-looking fellow. It appeared that the two had begun conversing with some girls and out of that started an argument. They were being disrespectful to the entire household and became even more agitated and uncooperative when confronted. They began threatening us with "homeboys," who were going to come and "kill us all." One man, the smaller one, left the party, while the other heavyset guy remained on the property and continued to instigate trouble. Just as the bigger guy appeared to relax a little and get ready to leave, the little guy showed up in the street and shots rang out. I saw him faintly. The flash from the gun distracted me. The heavy guy yelled threats of guns, homeboys and death. Both guys did not fit in and made the entire night awkward.
-- witness statement of Adam Arterbery
Within minutes, Green was at the center of a ruckus.
"I went in the back door and downstairs to where the keg was, and there was this girl at the keg, and I said, 'Hi, my name's Justin,' stuff like that. And all of a sudden, her boyfriend comes out of this other room and he gets all in my face, and he's saying, 'Hey are you flirting with my girlfriend?' I was like, 'No, I'm not. I'm just trying to get a beer, and she was standing here.' He kept insisting that I was hitting on her, and he got three or four of his friends, and they surrounded me and started pushing me around. They were all big, over six feet tall, and I was feeling pretty intimidated, so I yelled out for Carson. He's like six-foot-three, 270 pounds.
"Carson came downstairs, and he was belligerent drunk. I told him they were threatening me, and he started talking trash to them, saying, 'Why are you talking shit?' They told us to leave, and they followed us out to the back yard. There were like five or six of them by this time, and they were surrounding us, telling us they were going to beat us up. The last thing I recall in any sort of linear fashion is being really angry and freaked out, with all these guys following me into the street. After that, it's just flashes of memory."
Green is in his room, with his rifle at his feet, drunkenly struggling to load bullets into the clip. The dachshund is staring at him.
He is standing in the rain in front of the party house on South Lafayette. He is holding the rifle. He is chambering a round.
He is firing. He is aiming over the house because he doesn't want to hurt anyone, just freak them out, show them he's no punk they can just push around at will because he's smaller than they are. The front porch is full of people. A voice on the porch yells, "They're just blanks." Carson is shouting, "See what happens when you fuck with my homeboy?"
He keeps pulling the trigger. He empties the gun. He fires fifteen, maybe twenty bullets. He's not sure how many he managed to load.
"I remember I just wanted to scare them," he says. "And I remember thinking right after I finished shooting that I was probably going to prison."
Two gentlemen entered the house and began verbally assaulting people. When asked to leave, they began raising their voices and threatening people. Then one walked away from the house while the larger one kept arguing. After convincing the larger fellow to go out on the sidewalk, I was standing in front of the porch when I heard several shots fired. I turned and saw the smaller fellow with the visor holding a rifle and shooting towards the house. He yelled, "You fuckers wanna mess with my boy?" The smaller gentleman fired off a few more shots as I ran around the back of the house.
-- witness statement of Gianfranco DiRienzo
No one was hit. One bullet struck the south side of the east-facing house. The rest sailed into the darkness. The Denver Police Department received no reports of any person or property being struck by a stray bullet within a two-mile radius of the party. The police did, however, log multiple reports of shots fired in the 2200 block of South Lafayette.
When the first patrol car arrived on the scene, Vaudrin was opening the passenger door of Green's Mazda; the motor was running, and Green was behind the wheel. A police officer ordered Vaudrin to put his hands up and back away from the vehicle, and he complied. The officer then ordered Green to get out of the car.
Green did not comply.
He punched the gas and sped north up Lafayette, two police cars in hot pursuit. He ran three stop signs and then screeched into an alley between South Williams and South High streets. He sideswiped a dumpster, ripping the front fender off his car. The dumpster fell across the alley, blocking the path of his pursuers. Green got away. He was only a block from his house. He was soaring on adrenaline. He parked his car on the street outside, ran in and grabbed the dachshund. His plan was to ditch the gun in Washington Park, and he wanted the dog for cover.
"I thought if anyone asked me what I was doing, I could say I was out walking my dog in the park," he says.
Concealing the gun as best he could beneath his coat, he walked with the dog about nine blocks to Washington Park, went to the edge of the lake on the park's south side, and tossed the gun into the water. Then he walked home. "I was thinking there was no way I was getting away with it and I'd probably just completely screwed up my life," he says.
He was right on both counts.
As he approached his house, he saw police in tactical gear peering in the windows, the red laser lights on their automatic weapons dancing on the glass. He tried to play it off. He walked up and said, "Hey, what's going on?" The cops took him down. They cuffed him and put in the back of a squad car and drove him to the party house on South Lafayette, where only about 25 people identified him as the shooter. On his way to jail, Green joked around with the cop who was driving. "Well," he said, "I guess it was all that gangster rap."
The cop looked at him in the rearview mirror and laughed.
I see many criminal defendants in my job at the court, and I fundamentally believe that Justin is different from the typical criminal defendant that comes before the court. He has no history of violence or trouble with the law and is not a violent person. He is not predisposed to commit criminal acts or acts of mischief; in fact, the opposite is true in my opinion. He is a kind, respectful young man that I trust completely. Further, I believe that anything Justin did in connection with these charges is an anomaly that would not occur again. In closing, I believe that Justin is a good kid who deserves a second chance. If given that chance, I think Justin will shine in whatever career he chooses.
-- letter to Denver District Court from attorney Sharon Shahidi, clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Wiley Daniel
Justin Green's mother heard the phone ringing in the middle of the night, but she was half asleep and didn't get up to answer it.
"I woke up with a bad feeling really early Sunday morning," she says.
She had two new voice-mail messages.
"Yeah, uh, this is Ian, and Justin's really done it this time. He was involved in a drive-by shooting last night, and he was arrested and now he's in jail."
"Hi, it's Sean, and I think Ian may have exaggerated a little. It wasn't a drive-by, and Justin didn't exactly shoot anyone, but he is in jail, and we don't know exactly what's going on."
Green's mother called the police. After getting the runaround for what seemed like hours, she finally got a detective on the phone. He told her yes, her son was in jail; yes, he had been involved in a shooting; no, he had not hurt anyone. Green's parents posted his $25,000 bond, and he was released the next morning.
They hired an expensive lawyer who assured them that Justin wasn't going to do any time. All his friends said the same thing.
"Everyone was telling me, 'Don't worry, man. You're not going to prison. You're a white kid, your mom's a big lawyer, you didn't hurt anybody, they're going to cut you a break," Green says.
He expected kid gloves. He got iron fists. The Denver District Attorney's Office charged him with menacing, vehicular eluding and first-degree attempted murder. The DA wasn't buying his story about aiming in the air.
"He is slight of build, and my theory was he aimed directly at the house, but the kickback caused all but one of the bullets to go in the air," says Deputy District Attorney Diane Balkin, who prosecuted the case. "The intent [to kill] was there. It was just too much gun for him."
In the space of a few days, Green went from thinking he was going to skate to looking at sixteen to forty years in prison, the same sentence he'd have gotten if he'd actually shot and injured someone on that porch.
His parents hired a different expensive lawyer. Balkin dangled a deal: Plead guilty to a lesser charge of attempted aggravated assault with a firearm, and she would beseech the judge to give Green the minimum -- five years.
Five years was more time than Green might have faced had he been charged with date-raping a drunk girl at the party, or selling an eight-ball of cocaine there, or even breaking a bottle over the jealous boyfriend's head. But five years was the best he could hope for if he took the deal, because the involvement of a firearm automatically classified his crime as a crime of violence, whether or not anyone was actually hurt.
Green believes he was targeted for selective prosecution because he's white and his parents have money: "They wanted to take away the stereotype that people like me always get off."
"It's our responsibility to treat similarly situated defendants in a similar fashion," Balkin counters. "We don't go easy on gang kids who pull drive-by shootings in Five Points; why should we have gone easy on him? This case was about a gang-style crime that was unusual only because it happened in the neighborhood that it did, and the victims were who they were, and the perpetrator was who he was. But it all still came down to a young man who got in a fight at a party and couldn't control his anger and went and got a gun."
Green doesn't dispute that.
"Gangster rap teaches you that a gun is the great equalizer, and in the heat of the situation, I kind of felt like it was up to me to teach these people a lesson," he says. "I was like a gorilla pounding my chest."
But he still swears he was aiming in the air. "I am totally innocent of attempted murder," he says. "There's no way I was actually trying to kill anyone."
He thought about rejecting the deal and going to trial. But then he thought about how bad it looked that he had gone home to get the gun. He thought about the bullet that hit the side of the house and how he couldn't explain how it got there if he had been aiming over the roof. (He now thinks it was the first round he fired, which he vaguely remembers discharging prematurely as he was bringing the gun up.) And he thought about what he would sound like on the stand, testifying about how he was so angry at the jocks who were bullying him that he went and got a gun so he could show them how it feels. "I thought the jury would have Columbine on their minds," Green says.
He took the deal.
I have been an attorney for sixteen years and a prosecutor for most of those years.... I came into contact with many young people who, like Justin, have committed an act of what can only be described as a moment of excruciating stupidity. When you weigh the appropriate sentence for Justin, I respectfully ask that you consider that he is, for all his maturity, a young man who is vulnerable because he is so empathic and not hardened to his emotions. From the time he was young, he loved art and was not embarrassed to seek answers to spiritual questions. I know few adults who have a grasp of religious studies and philosophy equal to Justin's. He is a talented painter, a voracious reader, and a teacher of teenage children whom he cares for very much. When you make your decision, please bear in mind that Justin still has so much to offer and that his true character is one of caring and a desire to lead an honorable life.
-- letter to the court from former Denver prosecutor and current EPA lawyer Linda Kato
More than a year passed between the night Green fired the gun and the morning he went to prison. During that time, he moved back in with his parents, maintained a 3.7 grade-point average in his classes, and tutored underprivileged high schools students in the Upward Bound program. He stopped drinking except for the UCD History Club's weekly beer-soaked roundtables at the Wynkoop Brewing Co. His parents took him to Spain for three weeks. They also put him in counseling.
"I know it sounds so incredibly bourgeois, but we didn't know what else to do," his mother says. "He was exhibiting behaviors we didn't understand and we couldn't deal with."
Green's psychiatrist diagnosed him with schizotypal personality disorder, a "pervasive pattern of social and interpersonal deficits." She prescribed drugs, which leveled him out.
Now he looks back and tries to figure out what the hell he was thinking in the fall of 2001.
"I don't know if was a chemical imbalance or what, but I just felt like my life and upbringing were not satisfying to my inner self, to my soul, my heart," Green says. "I was in the midst of an existential crisis. I felt like I was just heading down this path that had been laid out for me by society, and I wanted to do anything I could, no matter how extreme, to tear myself off that path."
"He got what he wanted, didn't he?" asks his father. "He's living the gangster lifestyle now."
Green's been incarcerated since September 30, 2002, when Denver District Court Judge Morris Hoffman presided over his sentencing hearing.
By then, Hoffman had been inundated with letters and e-mails praising the sterling character and shining prospects of the young man whose fate he'd decree with a rap of his gavel. While it's typical for a judge to receive such entreaties before passing sentence, these petitioners were an unusually illustrious assortment: college professors, prominent attorneys, a federal court clerk, a criminal prosecutor, a Summit County commissioner, the director of Planning and Development for Crested Butte.
None of the supposed attempted-murder victims showed up for the hearing.
The proceedings began with testimony from Dr. Lisa Renner, Green's psychiatrist. Pamela Mackey, his lawyer, led her through a scripted series of questions and answers.
Her patient shooting a gun in anger was "very aberrant behavior," Renner testified. "Justin is a person who has been in one fight in his life, in elementary school. He seems very much a pacifist. He considers himself so."
"You know that Mr. Green is facing a minimum of five years in prison?" Mackey asked.
"I understand that."
"You know the judge has a range up to sixteen years?"
"Do you, as his treating psychiatrist, have any concerns about a long-term incarceration that is more than five years?" Mackey asked.
"I have grave concerns about that."
"Would you please tell the judge what those are."
"Certainly. A person with schizotypal personality disorder when stressed can become easily psychotic and lose touch with reality. My concern here is, the longer the prison term, the longer it will take Justin to be able to get treatment for this. And the longer he stays in prison, the more likely he is to reoffend. More particularly, this schizotypal personality disorder could be the prototype to schizophrenia. A very stressful setting, like prison, would definitely push that diagnosis along."
Green's grandparents were in the courtroom, and they listened as Diane Balkin seemingly honored the terms of the plea bargain and then with her next breath portrayed their grandson as spoiled and dangerous.
"I just want you to understand we are still committed to the five-year sentence," Balkin told Judge Hoffman. "We don't want the court to impose a sentence greater than that. But I feel I must address the issues that have surfaced. This case is about a young man with a temper who fired an assault rifle into a house with twenty people in it. I don't think we can minimize what he did.
"I think that, quite frankly, along the way, someone has done this young man a terrible injustice by making excuses for all of his behavior. I think his parents have been wonderful parents. But in many respects, they allowed him to not face the reality of what he is and what he has done. I think that the character letters in favor of his character are truly a tribute to his parents. I think they can be almost universally dismissed as relating to the defendant himself.
"Now we are further fueling his denial and lack of accepting responsibility by suggesting that his crime was due to some form of mental illness. I think, quite frankly, we have a young man who is mad, went home and got a gun and engaged in very violent conduct. He is very lucky that nobody died.
"And in saying that, I just want the record to be clear that we are still not asking for anything exceeding five years and urge the Court to honor the agreement."
Judge Hoffman began speaking.
"Let me start by just briefly saying what I often say in difficult sentences, and that is, we sentence people for what they do, not for who they are. Where I start in my sentencing, my thought is to try to construct a sentence that is a just desert with respect to the crime that was committed.
"In this case, Mr. Green got into some altercation at a party. He threatened to kill the people at the party. He went to his car, pulled out an assault rifle; he shot, I think, nine to ten rounds into the house. There were 20 to 25 people in the house at the time. He shot this assault rifle into the house. It is a miracle that nobody was injured or killed. This is as serious a crime as someone can commit without actually having a bullet strike someone."
Hoffman's comments indicated a disturbingly loose grasp of the facts for a criminal judge about to pronounce sentence: No bullets were fired "into the house."
The judge continued: "When I was reading this file last night, I did not recall that the people had agreed as part of the plea bargain to recommend a minimum of five years, and what I had put down as my presumptive sentence -- after I go through the file, I write down what I think I am going to do -- I had written down ten years.
"I will depart from my original intention, but I think five years is not sufficient. Given the seriousness of this offense, I cannot in good conscience give him the minimum, despite the prosecution's recommendation.
"Mr. Green, you are sentenced to seven years."
Ever the romantic, Green tries to view being an inmate in the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, the oldest prison in the state, as similar to being a Buddhist monk in an ancient monastery. "No women, no alcohol and no luxuries, but lots of meditation," he says. "In here, every day, all day, I'm walking a tightrope over a pit of despair. Staying busy helps me keep my balance."
To that end, he's taking a computer-assisted design class, and he's been writing short pieces recording his observations on prison life . Green's also been reading prison classics -- anything by Dostoyevsky or Kafka, and Slavomir Rawicz's The Long Walk, about a group of prisoners who in 1941 escaped from a Siberian gulag and tramped all the way to India.
"I'm really into the archetype of the long journey right now," he says. "I've been reading a lot of Carl Jung, and about his concept that life is a journey toward wholeness, and that being complete and knowing yourself really isn't reached until the end of life, and you need to respect the journey. You need to find solace and happiness just from the quest itself. And I wasn't doing that. I wasn't respecting life's journey. And I've realized I need to turn my attention toward just appreciating the experience rather than constantly grasping for the ultimate."
But it's hard to appreciate the experience when you're trapped behind walls laced with razor wire, while the kids you grew up with are studying behind walls adorned with ivy.
"I've lost touch with most of my friends," Green says. "They're on totally different paths now. They're going to Ivy League schools. We all came from the same branch of the socioeconomic tree, but my life is over in that sense."
He thinks maybe he'll pursue a degree in history when he gets out, maybe try to get a job as a teacher or try to be an artist. He rekindled a childhood love of painting during last summer's trip to Spain, when he and his parents visited a famous museum nearly every day. In the weeks before he reported to prison, he painted dozens of pieces, working in feverish bursts. And in a few more months, he'll be able to apply for an art-supplies permit so that he can paint in his cell. "I'm trying not to over-think what happens next," he says. "I've realized there is such a thing as being too smart for your own good."
After he was arrested, a psychiatrist tested Green and determined that he has an I.Q. of 150. He's a genius, and not the first genius to discover the hard way that there's a crucial difference between intelligence and wisdom.
Green's lawyer filed a motion for reconsideration of his sentence. It was denied in early February. In late March, he got a prison tattoo of an ever-seeing eye. "I did it to be initiated into the prison subculture and to have a souvenir apart from heightened neurosis," he says.
He was caught getting the forbidden tattoo and sentenced to twenty days in solitary confinement. "I'm looking forward to it for spiritual reasons," he wrote Westword the day before he went into the hole. "I might be able to finally meditate all day long in lotus position in search of elusive epiphanies."
Alone with this thoughts in the night, he tries to convince himself that prison is the best thing for him. He tells himself that he is lucky to be alive and to only be serving seven years instead of twenty, or thirty, or life. He tells himself that he's lucky one of those jocks at the party didn't have a pistol tucked in his waistband, because that jock would have had every right to shoot him down in the street like a rabid dog. He tells himself that he was hell-bent on self-destruction, and that if he hadn't been sent to prison, he would have gotten behind the wheel drunk one night and killed himself and maybe someone else. He tells himself he's fortunate he didn't paralyze or kill anyone when he was spraying bullets like they were brilliant comebacks to an insult.
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He tells himself he got what he deserved, but he doesn't believe it.
"I think that if I would have actually hurt somebody, I should have definitely spent some time in prison. But I can't force myself to make the connection between my actions and having to spend five, six, seven years in prison. They say, 'Well, you were acting crazy. You could have killed somebody.'
"Right. But I didn't."