It was a scene common on the curbs of Lakewood: As last call sounded on the Friday before Easter, the crowd spilled from Johnny Malloy's onto Detroit Avenue to drunk-dial, drunk-text, and plot their routes to the Taco Bell drive-through.
Standing among the partyers, Jim Trabert thumbed a text message as he waited for his friend, Matt Hockey, to emerge from the sports bar. It'd been a long night: Trabert and Hockey had finished their shift, loading boxes for UPS, just three hours before, then hoofed it the four blocks from Hockey's apartment for a session of post-work boozing.
As they talked that night, Trabert sensed he was losing his wingman. Hockey had just celebrated a milestone birthday, and Trabert noticed a change. "You turn 30, and you kind of take stock of your life," says Trabert. "It just seemed like, to me, he was starting to feel that going out was getting old."
As the bar emptied, Trabert saw Hockey walk into the cold. Behind him came a man Trabert also recognized: a young, shaggy-haired guy who, minutes before, had been lobbing slurred insults at Hockey inside the bar. Trabert had missed the spat's origins, but hadn't thought much of it either. Drunken trash-talking, after all, is what men tend to do around 2 a.m. in Lakewood.
"I didn't take it seriously," he says. "Anybody who's from Lakewood knows that getting in a fight on Detroit outside of Malloy's is ridiculous."
Trabert watched Hockey turn around to briefly face his new nemesis, but Trabert was certain they wouldn't fight. At 5 foot 9 and 160 pounds, Hockey was a diffuser, a guy who walks away. But then — as Hockey turned to do just that — the man swung wildly, Trabert says, landing a fisted shot to the back of Hockey's head. From his position on the sidewalk, 10 feet away, Trabert watched his friend fall face-first onto the snow-covered pavement.
Trabert rushed to help. But as he got his arms around Hockey, he felt himself fly forward; he'd been hit from behind. He turned around to see the man who'd dropped Hockey scurrying away with his friends to the parking lot.
As Trabert helped Hockey to his feet, a man driving past who'd seen the fracas stopped and offered them a ride. Trabert put Hockey in the passenger seat and walked toward Hockey's place, the driver following slowly behind. By the time they made it to Hockey's apartment, a Lakewood police officer, tipped off by a bystander, was waiting for them.
Hockey still seemed groggy from the punch, so Trabert was surprised to see him climb out of the cab on his own and refuse the cop's offer to drive him to the hospital. They headed upstairs. Trabert tried to convince him to change into dry clothes. But he could persuade him to remove only his boots and jeans, and then helped him under his white comforter. By 5 a.m., Hockey was fast asleep. Trabert drove home.
"I thought he'd wake up in the morning with a bump on his head and say, 'Jesus, that guy was an asshole,'" Trabert tells Scene a few days later, his voice dropping. "I'll carry that guilt with me for a long time."
In the den of Jean Verlotti's Wellington home, pictures on memory boards chart the course of her only son's life. There's Matt on skates, his small frame swallowed by pads, smiling for his youth hockey photo. There's Matt's son, Ethan — Verlotti's only grandson — with his head back and his mouth open wide, in a fit of gleeful hysterics, while Dad tickles his belly.
"Every picture I have of them," she says, "is those two goofing off."
Since Matt graduated from Amherst Steele High in 1996, Verlotti has kept in touch with her son by phone, but his schedule didn't always allow for face time, she says. Working nights at UPS allowed Hockey to spend his mornings taking classes at Tri-C, where he was a few credits shy of an associate's degree in business.
They did always meet for Easter. But this year, on the Saturday before their brunch, Verlotti called Matt a dozen times, with no answer. Around 10 that night, she and her husband drove to Lakewood to see whether Matt was home. His car was still in the garage, and there were no tire tracks in the snow leading down the driveway. But Matt wasn't answering his doorbell. Verlotti told herself he must be out. It was Saturday night, after all.
But on Sunday morning, with Matt still not answering the phone, Verlotti called her ex-husband, Matt's dad. Martin Hockey headed to his son's apartment and, after a downstairs neighbor let him in, found his way to the third floor. Matt's door was ajar and a strong odor filled the place; Matt's cat had defecated on the living-room floor, and the gas space heater was on full blast. Hockey walked to the bedroom, but he didn't see Matt, just the white down comforter covering his bed. He checked the kitchen and bathroom. Nothing out of place, no sign of anything gone awry. Then he went back to the bedroom. This time, he pulled back the comforter.
"By the grace of God I didn't get in there Saturday night," says Verlotti. "I wouldn't have been able to deal with finding my son."
At Ripepi Funeral Home in Parma, the line to see Matthew Hockey extends out the door. Friends and family file past his mom and dad, past his old hockey jerseys, and past his son, Ethan, his seventh birthday just a week away. Of the few conversations taking place, one in the lobby centers on the "asshole that did this."
Four days earlier, 23-year-old Derrick Dykas turned himself in to Lakewood police. A native of Ypsilanti, Michigan, Dykas works for a Michigan-based cable company, says Lakewood Police Chief Timothy Malley, but was on a job in Columbus at the time of the fight and in Lakewood for the weekend. His single drunken punch — the sort of thing that happens, or almost happens, outside Lakewood bars every weekend, with little fanfare — had been freakishly punishing: It fractured Hockey's skull and caused blood to pool up behind his brain until it killed him.
Dykas was arraigned in Lakewood, posted $100,000 bond, and is now awaiting indictment by the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office. (He couldn't be reached for this story.) But aside from the lone conversation in the funeral-home lobby, Hockey's death has lacked the normal backlash of vigilance that often accompanies such fluke deaths. No one has questioned the bar's security or the Lakewood police's presence on Detroit Avenue. They've focused instead, it seems, on mourning Hockey, in tacit agreement with Chief Malley and his assessment that nothing could have been done.
"You're not gonna prevent that," Malley says. "It was very quick, very fast, and it was over in seconds."