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The Pizza Guy

John Stambaugh's life ended tragically, but his memory lingers.

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"When we came outside, the pizza guy's car was running, and all the car doors were locked," said resident Christina Ames. "His back window was shattered, and we called police." -- from The Commercial Appeal, September 9, 2002

It's a nondescript apartment parking lot, a block from the hip restaurants of Cooper-Young, only a few yards from the Java Cabana coffeehouse. Not the kind of place you'd expect to die.

But John Stambaugh, 20, a student at the University of Memphis, died here on Sunday, September 8th, killed by a shotgun blast through the rear window of his car after delivering a pizza.

Three days after the shooting, a candle in a glass cylinder burns near the wire fence edging the lot, the centerpiece of a makeshift memorial. There are notes from Stambaugh's friends, a vase of fading yellow roses, a bunch of fresh daisies. One card is inscribed with a verse from a Pixies song:

In this land of strangers,

there are dangers,

there are sorrows ...

I am leaving tomorrow.

The day after the shooting, I received a call from my son in college in Connecticut. "Did you hear about John Stambaugh?" he said.

"No," I said, then thinking, Maybe yes.

"He was killed yesterday."

I'd seen the story about the pizza-delivery murder in the CA and had recognized John Stambaugh's name as the same as a high school friend of my son's. But I'd dismissed the connection, since the article said the driver was 24 years old. The John Stambaugh I knew couldn't have been more than 20.

"Are you sure it was him?" I asked. "The paper said the guy was 24."

"It was him, Dad."

Ten minutes later, my daughter called from college in Florida. "Dad, did you hear ... ?"

"Yeah, it's horrible."

"I just remember him being such a happy, smart guy," she said. "I remember him at a Mighty Mighty Bosstones concert at the Daisy. He loved that band so much then, and they invited him up onstage. He was so happy ... . Remember when we used to give him rides home from school?"

"Yeah, I remember. I remember."

At the railroad overpass on Central near Cooper, I pull over to take a picture of a graffiti memorial to Stambaugh. It reads, "We love and miss you friend." As I shoot, a jogger stops to watch. He's not happy.

"You know that's gang graffiti, don't you?" he says. "They're doing that everywhere around here."

"Actually," I say, "it's a tribute to the pizza guy who was killed last weekend."

"I bet the gang that killed him put that up there."

"I don't think so, my friend."

At Cafe Olé, I ask some of the employees if they knew John. Many of them did, and they give me phone numbers of others who knew him. I talk to John's friend Luke Hall.

"I knew John for a couple of years," he says. "We just hung out together, you know. Drank beer, went to school, went to concerts. The usual stuff. We were going to start riding our bikes to school to try to get in shape. He was really into psychology."

I ask Hall if John ever expressed fear about doing his job. "No," he said. "And it's funny. He got a friend a job delivering pizza, and the guy quit after two days. John teased him about being a chicken. John just didn't worry about stuff like that."

It's Friday night at the David Mah Gallery in Cooper-Young, two blocks from the murder scene. It's an eclectic show -- nudes, landscapes, three portraits of Barbie dolls. The opening-night crowd circles upon itself, going inside, then out onto the sidewalk, drinking wine, smoking, discussing art and artists, gossiping.

I run into a friend who has a son who also went to White Station High with John Stambaugh. "How are you?" I ask.

"This is the first day I haven't cried," she says, looking as though she's about to cry.

"It's so sad. He used to come to my house for dinner all the time," she says. "He was a vegetarian, so I'd have to come up with something different so he could eat with us. I remember saying one time, 'John, I give up. Just go in there and fix yourself something.' He was such a great kid."

Services for John Stambaugh III were held on the beach in St. Petersburg, Florida, last Saturday. He was 20 years old, a music lover, a psychology buff, a vegetarian, a friend, a son, a great kid.

A pizza guy.

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