Near-death experience is life-affirming

Jason Auslander
The Aspen Times
Aspen attorney David Bovino in his downtown office last week.
Jason Auslander/The Aspen Times |

The violent, bloody Tuesday night that radically changed Aspen lawyer David Bovino’s life began with dinner and a movie.

Bovino and his then-fiancee were vacationing at her family’s Indian Ocean beach house on South Africa’s east coast 60 miles south of Durban for about three weeks. It was Aug. 16, 2006, and they’d been spending their days surfing and relaxing while waiting for Bovino’s fiancee’s U.S. visa to come through.

“The place is called Leisure Bay,” Bovino said during a recent interview in his sun-soaked, downtown office. “It’s a resort-type community comparable to Malibu, but it’s even more beautiful.”

It was about 10:30 p.m. that Tuesday night when the couple was nearly ready for bed. Bovino was sitting at his computer working on his law school thesis, when his fiancee, Jessica Webster, walked onto the veranda to look out at the ocean.

Not long after, “I remember hearing loud noises like firecrackers,” he said. “I heard voices, then I heard Jess scream. I went to the door to see what was going on and was immediately confronted by three black men.”

Bovino had lived in South Africa for three years off and on at that point and knew what this meant. The country had been plagued by extremely violent home invasions in which black street thugs known as “tsotsis” would break into homes and rob, torture, rape and kill the occupants.

The men were able to access the secure property by digging a 5 to 6 foot hole underneath a fence. Bovino didn’t know they’d already shot Webster as they rushed the home, and that she was outside with serious injuries.

The three men, all between the ages of 18 and 24, barged into the house. He later learned that two others were on the property, but he didn’t see them.

“Jess said, ‘Dave, I’m all right’” he said. “One of the first things I said was, ‘I’m an American. Don’t shoot me.’”

One of men then put a gun up to the outside of Bovino’s right thigh and pulled the trigger. The bullet went in and out of his right leg, then tore into his left groin area and lodged in his left thigh.

“My legs were stinging,” he said. “I said, ‘I have money. Don’t kill me. We can work this out.’”

He told them the money was in the master bedroom. One man went with him into the bedroom and grabbed Bovino’s Rolex watch and a couple hundred dollars’ worth of South African currency. The man kept beating Bovino over the head with a wine bottle.

“I’m trying to fend off these blows … and I think, ‘I’m going to die,’” he said. “My life flashed before my eyes. It really did happen to me. You’re about to go through a wormhole (thinking) that it’s over.

“(You’re thinking), ‘We’re gonna die, and for what?’ I remember thinking material things are so not important.”

That’s when the man in the bedroom with Bovino began gathering belts from the closet. He tied Bovino up with them, though he didn’t do a very good job. The other two men in the house were running around grabbing whatever they could to steal, and Bovino was alone with the man in the bedroom.

Having read newspaper accounts of previous South African home invasions, Bovino said he knew that torture, rape and death were just around the corner. He said he’d resigned himself to his fate when a primal urge, a spirit to survive rose up in his brain and ordered him to fight for his life.

“He’s still on top of me, beating me,” Bovino said. “And I just exploded into this guy with everything I had.”

The man had been holding the gun on him, and when the two began to wrestle, he fired. The bullet hit Bovino in the chest, nicked his aorta and lodged behind his stomach.

Still, he was somehow able to get the gun away from the man and climb on top of him. The two wrestled on the bedroom floor, and Bovino said he was able to roll the guy into the bathroom.

“I took his head and bashed it I don’t know how many times on the bathroom floor,” he said.

That was enough to knock the man out. Bovino got to his feet, walked out of the bedroom and down the hallway to the main room, where he could see the other two men grabbing items to steal. He was about 15 feet away from the men when they saw him.

“They see me and they start unloading (firing their guns) on me,” he said. “Again, I think I’m dead.”

Miraculously, he wasn’t hit. Police later found 11 rounds embedded in the concrete wall behind him. Bovino said it was like the scene from the movie “Pulp Fiction,” when a man bursts into the room and fires an entire clip at Samuel Jackson and John Travolta’s characters without hitting them.

Bovino was somehow able to get the front door partially open and ran outside. The two men gave chase, firing their guns at him. He began running up the driveway and down the road, sprinting for his life.

Bovino ran to a nearby house, where a large British family was vacationing. He was wearing boxer shorts and a T-shirt and was covered in blood. The family let him in, called police and two men went back over to the home with rifles and knocked down the front door. The four conscious men inside ran, while the fifth, who was still knocked out on the bathroom floor, was arrested by police.

Webster, meanwhile, had been able to pull herself into the home from outside. Bovino said that once the adrenaline wore off, the pain set in. He credits being in the best shape of his life as one of the main reason he was able to fight and run with the bullet wounds.

“Their intentions were to hold us hostage, torture us and kill us,” he said.

Bovino spent two months recuperating in South Africa after the incident, and was able to walk without many problems after about a month.

“Physically I was OK,” he said. “Mentally, it was harder.”

Webster was paralyzed from the waist down after one of the bullets hit a vertebrate. Hearing the doctor tell her about the paralysis was one of the worst moments of his life, he said.

After two months, Bovino decided to come back to Aspen, where his parents live. Webster wanted to stay behind in South Africa with her family. The couple called off their engagement.

And despite knowing that he saved both of their lives that night, Bovino struggled with survivor’s guilt, agoraphobia and post-traumatic stress disorder. At times, he said he wasn’t sure he wanted to live.

But family, friends and the greater Aspen community came to his rescue.

“This was the perfect place for me to begin healing,” said Bovino, who grew up in Aspen and Ohio. “People said, ‘You’re safe here.’ There was an outpouring of support for my family and myself.”

He became involved with Challenge Aspen and the Wounded Warrior Project, which helped him deal with the trauma he experienced. He also took comfort in the mountains and the healing power of the outdoors.

But, most importantly, Bovino said he met his current wife, Claudia, and her then-5-year-old son, Frankie.

“She taught me faith in God and faith in goodness,” he said. “And this 5-year-old boy was the one person I could relate to and talk to.”

All of those things allowed him to get his life together, finish law school and become strong again. The couple got married three years ago and now have a two-year-old daughter, Bella.

Bovino is still friends with Webster, his former fiancee, who has become a renowned artist and can walk with the help of crutches.

Bovino said he knows the experience nearly a decade ago will never go away. However, as bad as it was, he said it instilled a passion to fight for victims and the knowledge that control of one’s life is an illusion.

“At the end of the day, … I wouldn’t be the same person without that experience,” Bovino said. “Now I can take things that seem pretty awful and remember when I thought I was going to die, and that allows me to take a breath and get back at it.”


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