Andrew Clarke didn't think much of the chatter at the local café where he grabbed his morning coffee May 7. Then he ran into Brett, the local vagabond who cuts grass and sleeps on a back porch in the same part of Westover Hills where Clarke lives, and where his good friend Jon Zanin used to live.
At the café people had been talking about a body found under the Nickel Bridge. Brett told Clarke that a detective had come by the house thinking it might be Zanin and had passed on his business card.
When Clarke called the police, they asked him to describe Zanin's tattoos and told him to prepare for the worst. Clarke left a message for Zanin's parents in Northern Virginia, and then headed to Zanin's house to let out his dog, a pit bull mix named Bling.
An hour or two later Mark Zanin, Jon's father, called back and Clarke told him what he knew. Shortly afterward, Fairfax County Police knocked on Mark Zanin's door.
"They have been extremely helpful," says Colleen Zanin, Jon's mother. Since then, Richmond Police have been trying to piece together what happened. In the immediate aftermath, speculation swirled about suicide or possible foul play.
"There wasn't a suicide, there's just no way," Colleen says. She worked hard to dispel that rumor. "I was devastated. It almost made an accident sound good."
She says police have concluded that her son's death was an accident. He had an elevated blood-alcohol level and the chain was off his bike. He had road rash on his body and a head injury that would suggest he had taken a spill. The night he died, he was coming home from a fundraiser for Food Not Bombs at the New York Deli in Carytown and still had over $100 in his pocket from the fundraiser.
As part of their investigation, police re-enacted the scene with a detective about Jon's size to see if he could have squeezed under the guard rail at the edge of the bridge. He couldn't.
Investigators told the family they figure Jon wrecked his bike on the way home, hence the road rash and head injury, and got up with blood in his eyes. Disoriented, he likely hopped the fence and fell onto the tracks, where he was killed on impact. His body was hit by a train later that morning. He was 27.
"In the final analysis, it doesn't matter how he died. It's how he lived," Zanin's mother says. "We see that barrier as a metaphor to his life: There was never a barrier he couldn't transcend."
The Zanins sold Jon's house to one of his band mates, and a former girlfriend has taken in the dog. Jon Zanin commemorative tattoos have become popular: lots of "J heart Z"s, Clarke says. Another friend plans to get a tattoo of Zanin's ever-present coffee mug. Prior to his death, Zanin had been preparing for a July show of his artwork at 821 Café, where he worked and which Clarke owns. Zanin's artwork will be on display at 821 through Aug. 5. S