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Jewish Journal

From Valley to Vegas, Phillip Wells is remembered

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

March 21, 2012 | 4:49 pm

Sandra Kaplan, left, keeps photos of her slain son, Phillip Wells, right, all over her home.

Sandra Kaplan, left, keeps photos of her slain son, Phillip Wells, right, all over her home.

It was Patrick Hoffman’s first time in a gay bar, and he was terrified. Until he met Phillip Wells.

Wells was tending bar at the Rainbow Club West in Knoxville, Tenn., that night some 10 years ago, and he flashed Hoffman his signature oversized smile.

“I wasn’t old enough to drink, so I walked up to the bar and ordered a soda. And Phil said, ‘This is your first time here, isn’t it?’ And he introduced himself and he had that big grin. He just had a way of making everyone feel welcome,” Hoffman said.

Last fall, Wells, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, was gunned down while tending another bar, this time at The Garage in Las Vegas, in the early-morning hours of Nov. 14. Tracy Kauffman, Wells’ ex-boyfriend, was arrested hours after the incident for allegedly unloading two clips into Wells.

Kauffman was scheduled to appear at an arraignment in a lower court in Clark County, Nev., on March 20 and expected to enter a plea, according to the Clark County district attorney’s office. Kauffman’s attorney, a public defender, could not be reached for comment.

On March 16 — what would have been Wells’ 37th birthday — Wells’ mother and stepfather and an army of friends dedicated a bench and tree in Wells’ memory at Sunset Breeze park in Las Vegas.

Wells’ friends also a threw a “Night of 1,000 Dollys” show at the Escape Lounge in Las Vegas in Well’s memory, encouraging everyone to come dressed in something Dolly Parton, the object of Wells’ obsession.

“He was very passionate about anything that he loved,” said Jeremy Logan, one of many friends from Knoxville who flew to Los Angeles for the funeral at Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills in November. Wells was buried in a prayer shawl and a pink yarmulke, and his friends placed a Dolly Parton blanket in the grave.

Sandra Kaplan, Wells’ mother, who lives in West Hills, saved some of Wells’ Dolly Parton memorabilia, along with his telescope, his photo albums and a daily gratitude journal Wells had been keeping since he was a child. She found on his dresser a small chai necklace he got when he was 8 years old.

Kaplan still can’t believe she refers to her only child in the past tense.

She keeps her home filled with images of her son. Directly over her television, a photo of him looks down on her, his smile dominating the frame. A magazine article from 2011 hangs on a nearby wall, featuring Wells in the “Sexiest Gay Vegas” awards, his muscles bulging from his T-shirt.

A large painted portrait of him as a 3-year-old, with blond curls and an angelic smile, dominates a sunlit wall with a view of the Valley.

Wells was a challenging child and teen, according to his mother. His father left when Wells was an infant, and Kaplan’s second husband, Stuart Wells, adopted Phillip but also became estranged after they divorced. Kaplan raised Phillip alone for most of his elementary- and middle-school years, and she struggled to get him to go to school, though he was clearly very bright. He didn’t have a bar mitzvah, she said, because getting him to Hebrew school would have been impossible.

When Sandra married Larry Kaplan in 1990, Phil and Larry developed a strong relationship. Wells told Larry he was gay when he was 14, before he came out to his mother. Sandra said she and Larry were always unconditionally supportive of Phil.

“I wasn’t surprised when he came out. I was happy he told us so he could be open about it,” she said.

Still, Wells had a tough time in high school, and after he graduated, he moved to West Hollywood, going through a series of jobs and eventually learning to be a graphic artist. But he found that being a bartender allowed him to become immersed in the gay community, and he was good at it because he loved people so much.

“He always shook hands [with] a customer if he had not served them before, and typically went around to the perimeter and exterior to build a rapport with them,” Guy Sheets, owner of The Garage, told Las Vegas Night Beat, a monthly publication. “If I were a patron, that would make me feel so at home and at ease.”

Wells met Tracy Kauffman at the XYZ bar in Knoxville, where Kauffman was part owner. Kauffman hired Wells as a bartender, and the two start dating. Kauffman was 14 years older, and the two had a fraught relationship from the start, according to Kaplan.

A December 2009 letter to Wells from the Knoxville Police Department indicates that Wells may have been a victim of domestic violence. They had complex financial and employment arrangements. The two never lived together, but Kaplan says that Wells tried to get out of the relationship several times and Kauffman kept him entangled.

Hoffman said he and Wells had to hide their own relationship out of fear of Kauffman.

Wells left Tennessee in 2010 to make a fresh start in Las Vegas, where he and his three dogs moved in to his uncle’s house.

Kauffman allegedly flew from Knoxville to Las Vegas a week before the shooting. According to a police report, when Kauffman began shooting, Wells ran from the bar to a back storage room. He was shot four times in the front of his body, and around 15 times in the back and back of his head.

The group Impositive.org, which helps people who are HIV positive, spearheaded a successful fundraising drive to pay for Wells’ funeral expenses.

Kaplan said she is attending support groups and private therapy paid for by a victims of crime group, but each day is difficult for her. She hopes to raise enough funds to dedicate a bench and tree in Wells’ memory at a park in Knoxville by his next birthday.

“I’m still crying all the time. I’m doing the best I can, but he was my only son,” she said.

Wells’ friends lament the light that was lost.

“I didn’t think there was anyone who could ever bring themselves to hurt Phil, because everyone loved him,” Hoffman said. “He was a pillar of our community. I know that sounds cheesy, but he was. He was a constant — you knew that wherever he was, that was a good place to be.”

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