It’s been almost one year since Jovani Tovar lay dying on the sidewalk of lower State Street.
When Tovar left a bar that Dec. 9, 362 days ago, at 1:40 a.m. he was 22, a Santa Barbara City College student, a rugby player, an aspiring chef and he had a girlfriend. When he saw Shannon Chillies, a member of the Los Angeles Crips gang, punch 22-year-old Karen Cole in the nose, Tovar stepped in to help her.
Tovar didn’t know Chillies was a Crip. He didn’t know Chillies had a gun. Chillies shot him twice in the chest.
Jovani Tovar died.
In the days and weeks that followed, Tovar’s friends and family left flowers around a makeshift memorial on that sidewalk. Some say he died a hero, but mostly those who knew him just miss him. A year later, they still do. This weekend, they’ll gather to remember him together.
Tovar’s girlfriend Julie Skon and friend Luis Puicon are organizing the events. This Friday night, friends and family will gather at the James Joyce, where owner Tommy Byrne is donating all proceeds towards the Jovani Tovar Memorial Fund. Saturday, a rugby tournament will be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Tovar’s honor, followed by an intimate dinner with close friends and family at Chad’s, the restaurant where Tovar was assistant chef. After dinner, Club 634 will be charging a $5 cover charge and $2 for bottled beers. Those proceeds will also go towards Tovar’s memorial fund.
Skon said all proceeds collected for Tovar’s memorial fund will go toward the Santa Barbara Rugby Association and the Santa Barbara City College Hotel, Restaurant and Culinary Program, which Tovar attended.
“The money collected for Jovani’s memorial fund is going towards his passions. Jovani loved rugby and to cook,” she said. “I couldn’t think of anything more that he would want.”
Byrne said he is donating profits to Tovar’s fund because some of his employees were close friends of Tovar and last year’s incident “really took a toll” on people close to him and his business.
“Jovani was a very good customer and friend of ours. When Luis and Julie said they were doing this, I suggested I would like to do a night here,” he said. “It was a big blow to us here. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, just trying to help someone.”
Skon said in addition, there will be bowls set out at the James Joyce for donations towards the memorial fund.
“I think it’s really good for all of his friends and family to get together and celebrate his life like this,” she said. “He had such a huge influence on so many people who loved him.”
Tovar was shot after gunman Shannon Chillies and his cousin Ravanne Bey were kicked out of the back exit at Kennedy’s Bar on State Street because of a minor grapple with other patrons. The two men, both from the Los Angeles area, walked back onto State Street past Kennedy’s at which point Chillies forcibly bumped into Cole as she was exiting Velvet Jones. When Cole turned to confront Chillies, the two began to argue. A friend of Cole’s stepped in to her defense.
Chillies responded by punching Cole’s friend and Cole in the nose. Off-duty bouncer Michael Carroll and Tovar rushed to Cole’s aid. While Tovar stayed next to Cole, Carroll pushed Chillies into the street. Chillies pulled out a six-shot revolver and fired five shots. One bullet hit Carroll in the leg and two hit Tovar in the chest. Two other bullets were shot into the crowd of people that had gathered around the commotion, but found no target.
Two Santa Barbara County police officers, Kenneth Kushner and Rashun Drayton, were on their way to Velvet Jones when they noticed the initial confrontation developing. At the sound of gunshots, the officers ran to find Chillies still holding the weapon. When Chillies was unresponsive to the officer’s orders to put down the weapon, Kushner fired three shots at Chillies and killed him. Santa Barbara detectives determined that Chillies was affiliated with the Los Angeles Crips gang.
The days that followed the incident brought hundreds of residents to the site in front of Velvet Jones where a makeshift memorial was set up with photos of the Tovar.
Friends and family from Tovar’s hometown in Piedmont are traveling down for the memorial events this weekend.