James Newman, 58, briefly talks about his injuries incurred in a 1982 robbery of the convenience store where he worked in downtown Chattanooga.

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Searching for saviors

Sometimes it's hard for James Newman to find the right thing to say.

When he speaks, the words come out haltingly as he forces them out one or two at a time with a murmur.

He reaches back into his memory to find the name of a city he used to live in or a girl he used to date, but the phrase gets caught somewhere between his mind and his mouth, slowing conversation to a crawl.

"Murna. Murna," he repeats over and over, eyes closed, as he searches for the word "Murfreesboro" while sitting on his porch swing.

His health issues aren't limited to speech. The entire right side of his body doesn't respond to commands as well as it should.

His arm is permanently crooked up to his side, and his fingers are bent and locked into a tangled fist. His leg won't bend properly, forcing him to shuffle slightly as he walks around his home.

A palm-sized, raised area on the left side of his shaved head marks the source of his problems — the place where a bullet ripped through his skull 34 years ago, scattering bone fragments throughout his brain.

He knocks on the steel hidden under his skin with a knuckle.

"Plate," he says.

James shouldn't be alive today. In fact, if it weren't for the quick thinking of three good Samaritans, three kids who weren't even in their double digits, he wouldn't be.

He owes them his life, but he doesn't know who they are.


On March 7, 1982, Newman was 24 and working as a clerk at a Beverage Center Package Store on Market Street. He had plans that night to meet a friend who was in Chattanooga for the weekend once he got off work.

The two were planning to go dancing.

But late that afternoon, a man walked into the store brandishing a pistol at Newman, who was working alone. Newman refused his demand and instead went after the robber's gun.

While fighting, he was shot in the leg. Then his shoulder. Then the top of his head. Finally, the robber stood over James and shot him twice more in the face, just two inches left of his nose.

"A Sunday," James remembers. "Shot five times."

James said he would have died had it not been for three children — two girls, ages 5 and 8, and a boy, 6 — who found him bleeding to death inside the store.

According to an article from The Chattanooga Times, the children told police they had just bought candy from the store and left when they ran into a man thought to have been the robber, who gave them $1 each.

He said, "That's for school tomorrow."

With the money in hand, the children went back to the store for more candy and found the injured Newman. The oldest girl called police and made sure James got help while the others ran home.

The thief fled on foot with an unknown amount of money. A month later, Mike Wofford, 33, was arrested and charged with armed robbery and felonious assault in the shooting, records show. But in June of that year, the indictment was dismissed without prejudice.

Newman said he was told the children were too young to testify and weren't named in court. No one ever identified his saviors to him, and he never knew how to track them down.


In the days after the shooting, family and friends feared he wouldn't pull through.

"I was contacted by the Red Cross first," his brother, David Newman, 56, said. "I wasn't in town and they told me, 'He's not going to be alive when you get there.'''

But he did live. And now, at 58, he's retired and spends his time playing chess and Rook in a nearby park or fishing the Elk River near Manchester, Tenn. If he pulls open his right-hand fingers from their constant fist, he can place a pole in the hand and clutch it.

For a man who almost died after being shot multiple times, James is remarkably buoyant about his condition. Cheerful, even.

He's bought a small home in East Lake, just down the block from where he grew up, and is remodeling the kitchen with David Newman, who lives with him. Now they're just waiting on a set of marble countertops to arrive.

The two of them sit on their porch some afternoons and watch the traffic go by or peek up at the birds that have made their nest in a hanging planter. With his left hand, James Newman will pet his bulldog Bruno — a present from several neighbors who pitched in and bought the animal for his birthday two years ago.

"Originally he was right-handed, you know. He had to learn how to do everything left-handed," David Newman said as his brother nodded in confirmation.

David Newman said he helps with basic chores and some conversation. He's learned how to communicate with his brother better throughout the years, even if some words still prove difficult for him to think of or say.

"Except for when he gets mad at me," he says with a laugh as his brother elbows him. "Then he has no problem talking."


James Newman has come further than anyone thought possible in the wake of his shooting.

After decades of going through every kind of rehabilitation imaginable, from visiting a speech therapist for two years to spending several months at a hospital in Murfreesboro to relearn how to walk, he managed to piece his life back together.

He got back on his feet and found work, first at a nearby Goodwill and then as a custodian at TVA. He saved enough money to buy his own house, and David said that, as the oldest of five children, James remained connected and supportive with everyone.

"Really, he helps the whole family out," he said.

But there's still one piece of closure missing, and, after all these years, all he wants to do is find the three unknown children — adults, now — who got him help that day in 1982. The three people who saved his life.

He wants them, whoever they are or wherever they may be, to know he hasn't forgotten about them or what they did. He said if he ever does manage to track them down, he has one thing to tell them.

"Thank you."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at or 423-757-6731. Follow on Twitter @emmettgienapp.