If Barbara Groom hadn't been craving a pint of Häagen Dazs after a movie, she wouldn't have driven into the parking lot of Ray's Food Place in Eureka; she wouldn't have seen two men fighting there; she wouldn't have tried to stop them by yelling and inching her car into the fracas; and she wouldn't have seen one of those men -- 36-year-old Andrew Pease of Eureka -- get fatally stabbed in the stomach.
Groom owns the Lost Coast Brewery and Café, where, earlier that same night (Friday, Feb. 6), men matching the description of the alleged murderers attempted to rob an employee at knife-point, according to Groom. She said the men were caught briefly on a parking lot security camera trying to rob a Lost Coast employee with a hunting knife identical to the one that would later be used to kill Pease. The men's car -- a white Volkswagen Jetta -- also matched descriptions of the car used in a string of at least five robberies or attempted robberies that culminated in the murder of Pease, according to police reports. Groom recounted her experience in a phone interview last week with the Journal.
First, the incident at Lost Coast: "It was over in, like, three seconds," Groom said. "Our employee was there in his car. The driver [of the Jetta] got out and was eyeing him," Groom said. The employee got out of his car and walked toward the back door of the restaurant. "Then the other guy got out and confronted him over by where our garbage cans are and asked for his money," Groom said. The assailant was wielding the hunting knife, she added, but the employee refused to comply. "He pushed the knife away and ran inside," Groom said, describing her employee's actions as pure instinct.
Groom was in the movie theater when all this went down. She knew nothing of the crime spree that had taken place all over Eureka that night. So when she saw two guys "wrestling" in the Ray's parking lot, she assumed they were "just a couple of guys fighting over a girl or something. I didn't realize one of them was being assaulted." She rolled her window down and yelled for them to stop, then tried to pull her car between them. In the tussle, Pease fell onto the hood of Groom's car before the battle went upright again. When Groom saw another car approaching, she instinctively put her car in reverse and backed away. The car didn't belong to a fellow shopper, though; it was the white Jetta.
"That's when the stabbing happened," Groom said. In the flurry of motion, Groom said she couldn't tell exactly which blow (or blows) caused Pease's death. The assailant then jumped into the Jetta, which sped away, she said. Groom got out of her car and saw Pease bleeding from his stomach. He was coherent and sitting upright, Groom said, and he gave her a look she described as, "I can't believe this is happening to me." Since Groom didn't have a cell phone on her, she yelled at a kid who was hiding behind a nearby car to call 911. The kid, who she later found out was a developmentally delayed charge under Pease's care, just stared at her.
Groom ran inside Ray's and shouted, "Call 911. There's been a stabbing in the parking lot." She said she had to repeat herself before people realized that she meant it. "This woman who looked like she was a nurse ran out," Groom said. "She looked like she knew what she was doing." When Groom returned to the parking lot, she saw that Pease was bleeding profusely and had apparently gone into shock. Someone told her that the attackers had driven to a nearby hotel, so Groom got into her car and tried to track them down, but they were "long gone," she said. Groom returned to the parking lot and waited, along with the crowd that had gathered, for the police to arrive. She remembers seeing one witness holding onto Pease's bloodied name tag. Pease was taken by ambulance to St. Joseph Hospital, where he died of his wounds.
Groom, perhaps in shock herself, proceeded into Ray's, bought her ice cream, then went home and ate it. "It wasn't so traumatic [at the time]," Groom said of witnessing the stabbing. "More so the next day when I was thinking about it, and when I was reading the paper and saw [Pease] was such a nice guy." Though she witnessed the event up close, Groom said she could not identify the men because it all happened so quickly. On Tuesday of last week she went into the Eureka Police Department and gave a detective a full account of her memory of the incident. "The detective thanked me and said I filled in a lot of holes," Groom said.
The accused men -- John Lewis Way, 30, of Eureka, and James Robert Stanko, 26, of Santa Cruz -- have pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, robbery and attempted robbery and are currently being held in the Humboldt County jail. A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 26. Pease, an aspiring teacher and Army veteran, left behind a wife and two sons.