Hard Knox or Scott free?

Atlanta clubs and bands help guitarist fight the law

Friends and family describe Scott Rogers as the kind of guy who hated to go to bed — the one who was constantly leading the charge, creating the plan, promising that the payoff was just over the next hill.

He brought that sort of leadership to his corner of the Atlanta music scene — as lead guitarist for spy-rock instrumentalists the Penetrators, as the creative force behind the popular annual retro-fixated music and movie festival Drive-Invasion, as the designer of album covers, the creator of Internet discussion groups and an ever-present figure among the community of locals whose tastes tend toward classic cars and vintage guitars.

So last May, when Rogers died in a car wreck on his way to go jam with a buddy, his loss left a gaping hole in the scene.

Almost nine months since the accident, Rogers’ friends are hosting a two-fisted benefit this weekend in East Atlanta, simultaneously at the Echo Lounge and The Earl. (Two more will be held Feb. 20 at the Star Bar and Feb. 21 at 9 Lives Saloon.)

The shows, however, aren’t aimed at raising money to aid Rogers’ widow (he wasn’t married) or kids (he had none). And they’re not designed to create some sort of memorial in Rogers’ memory. The benefits, in fact, are for the man who was behind the wheel of the car when Rogers was killed. They’re meant to help him raise money for the legal fees he’ll accrue in his battle to beat his vehicular homicide rap.

Among Scott Rogers’ closest friends was Johnny Knox, a respected local rockabilly guitarist and leader of the band HI-TEST. He’s also the guy facing one to 15 years in prison for Rogers’ death.

Knox and Rogers were buddies from the time Rogers first moved to Atlanta from Alabama in the mid-’90s. They shared a love for early rock ‘n’ roll; Knox occasionally filled in with the Penetrators, and they played together frequently. They also shared a passion for old cars. Rogers drove a 1965 GTO before it got rear-ended by an SUV, and Knox drove a 1963 Ford Galaxie until May.

In recent years, their friendship often manifested itself in the form of Knox serving as Rogers’ chauffeur. “Seems like I was always carrying his ass around, going to pick up posters or some crazy adventures,” Knox says.

A decade back, Rogers had cracked his skull falling off a skateboard. He recovered, but doctors said another head injury could ignite serious problems. Sure enough, after Rogers got hurt in a car accident years later, he started having occasional seizures. In recent years, with the possibility of blacking out at any moment, Rogers had stopped driving altogether. He got around pretty well, though, taking cabs or public transportation, and bumming rides with friends.

On the night of May 10, 2003, Rogers was hanging out at the Star Bar, walking distance from his home. Local band Gargantua was headlining. Knox had been over at the Echo Lounge checking out L.A. rockabilly band Three Bad Jacks. After that show ended, Knox and some friends hopped over to Little Five Points and joined Rogers at the Star Bar.

As the hour pushed 3 a.m. and friends started heading home, Rogers and Knox conspired to go back to Knox’s Lakewood-area house to jam. The two jumped into the Galaxie and headed to Knox’s house. As they crossed a railroad bridge on McDonough Boulevard, Knox lost control of the wheel. The car hit a railing, the passenger door popped open and both Rogers and Knox were ejected over the bridge onto the ground below. Knox was pretty badly beat up, with a concussion and cracked ribs. Rogers was pronounced dead at the scene.

Scott Rogers’ mom, Cheri Rogers, happens to serve as a grief recovery counselor at her church in Huntsville, Ala. Though her work provided no easy comfort when it came to dealing with the loss of her own son, she was able to apply some of her professional knowledge in important ways. In particular, she knew that families of those killed in accidents tend to feel an intense need for answers. And if loved ones don’t find those answers, they can find themselves stuck in the horror, obsessively racking their brains, unable to move on and cope with the loss.

So she made sure to ask a lot of questions right away — to investigating officers and friends who’d been with her son. She quickly reached a conclusion at which few mourning parents would likely arrive: It wasn’t the driver’s fault.

“The most amazing thing was there was no struggle within me about whether to forgive Johnny,” Cheri Rogers says. “We’d heard Scott talk so fondly for years about Johnny, what a great friend he was. I understood he was happy to be with Johnny that night. And I knew Scott, and he could talk anybody into doing anything. He was the kind to convince Johnny to stay up later than he wanted to. So there just wasn’t anything to forgive. Parents always look for somebody to blame and they never look at their own child. I’m not blaming Scott, but I know the way he lived his life. He was never ready to go home.”

Scott’s brother Brian Rogers, also a member of the Penetrators, knows Knox well. After the accident, Brian told his mother that Knox was the safest driver of all Scott’s friends. He believes Scott would find the idea of punishing Knox ridiculous.

“Scott himself was a big proponent of people taking personal responsibility for their actions,” Brian says, “and he would tell you he was the one that made the decision not to wear his seat belt.”

Many of Rogers and Knox’s mutual friends have reached the same conclusion: Knox might have fallen asleep at the wheel, but he wasn’t driving recklessly or impaired by alcohol.

“So many people have said they’ve never seen Johnny drunk in their life,” says Clete Reid, who plays with Knox in Cletis and His City Cousins.

“I’ve never even seen Johnny drink a whole lot,” says Sonoramic Commando bassist Rodney Bell, who was with Knox at the Echo Lounge and Star Bar that night. “And I know Johnny doesn’t do drugs. As to what caused the accident, there’s really no telling. I would go before a judge and say that Johnny wasn’t drunk.”

Whether or not Johnny Knox was actually drunk, blood tests taken after the accident show alcohol was in his system. So, regardless of what anyone thinks — even the family of the victim — Knox’s lawyer believes the Fulton County district attorney will attempt to charge him with DUI.

Erik Friedly, spokesman for the district attorney’s office, doesn’t know anything about Knox’s case because it hasn’t yet been brought before a grand jury. But his office has dealt with a remarkably similar, and more high profile case involving Atlanta Thrashers star Dany Heatley, whose car crash last September resulted in the death of his passenger, teammate Dan Snyder. Though Snyder’s relatives have forgiven Heatley and don’t wish him to be punished, the district attorney’s office is still investigating how it will pursue that case.

“While the district attorney always consults with surviving family members and weighs their opinion in making a decision, that in and of itself cannot determine whether or not we prosecute a crime,” Friedly says. “For instance, even if you have a rape victim who may not want to go forward, that’s just not an option [for us] because sexual offenders tend to repeat their offense.”

The Rogers family has taken an active role in supporting Knox as he now faces prosecution. In a letter submitted to the court on Knox’s behalf, Cheri Rogers and her husband, John, write, “To punish Johnny in any way ... would only be compounding an unfortunate situation and would unnecessarily penalize Johnny. ... We are overwhelmed by the loss of our son Scott. ... Believe us when we say, to seek some measure of justice against Johnny McGowan [Knox’s real name] would be a travesty as well. His depth of pain and suffering about this situation is exceeded only by ours.”

Lately, the most excruciating part for Knox has been the uncertainty. He wasn’t actually arrested until late October — five months after the accident. He spent two days in jail, posted bail, and has since been waiting for word of when his case might appear before a grand jury.

“I shouldn’t feel depressed, but lately I have been,” Knox says. “I’m a make-plans kind of guy, but I can’t make plans. I was thinking about going back to school, but I can’t make plans. We finished our record five months ago, but I can’t get excited about it because I don’t know if I’ll be around to support it. I feel like there’s an ax that Fulton County is holding and at any moment it can fall, so what’s the incentive to wake up in the morning?”

Knox will likely wait another month or two before the grand jury hears the charges. At that point, assuming there’s an indictment, the case would actually get rolling.

Already, though, the legal bills have been mounting. An effective defense would cost Knox in the tens of thousands, far more than he could earn between his nighttime gigging and daytime construction work.

That’s where the benefit shows come into play. While all of them together will likely raise only a fraction of what Knox will need to pay his lawyer, organizers such as Echo Lounge booker Alex Weiss figure every bit helps.

Weiss, who sees the benefits as a celebration of Rogers as much as a fundraiser for Knox, says, “Knowing how Scott’s family was feeling about the whole thing, and speaking with Johnny and his wife, finding out how much it’s going to cost them, it just seems like the right thing to do.”