After a Drive-by Shooting Changed His Life, Maxwell Williams Remains Resilient

In February 2022, a random act of violence at Old North bar Dick’s Den left a young man partially paralyzed. His remarkable response to the shooting made a lasting imprint.

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Monthly
Maxwell Williams enjoys playing the guitar he keeps in the office of his Madisonville apartment in Cincinnati.

Few things are white or bright or plastic at Dick’s Den. It’s a warm, low-lit, lived-in space with antique ceiling tiles and weathered wood everywhere—walls, floors, frames. Black and white photo collages and vintage ads for Old Crow whiskey hang in a seating area three steps down from the pool room near the High Street bar’s small corner stage, where jazz musicians like Joe Diamond and Wally Mitchel became local legends.

In the last 20 years, tall cranes have turned countless properties around Ohio State University into shiny new structures. Former High Street dive bar Bernie’s Bagels & Deli/The Distillery is now a Target, for instance. But Dick’s Den has managed to elude the long arm of development, changing imperceptibly for nearly 60 years in the North Campus neighborhood that now goes by Old North.

Bluegrass jams and late-night jazz shows are a constant at Dick’s, attracting all types: undergrads and recent grads from campus-area rentals, crusty jazz heads, Old North neighbors, and the regulars, some of whom bring their own pool cues. The best seats to take in the music are along the built-in wooden bench that sits across the room from the stage, just below a big picture window that faces High Street and features the venue’s iconic neon sign that reads, “WHY NOT?” That’s where 24-year-old Maxwell Williams and two of his buddies, Dan Filler and Sera Kitchen, are sitting the night of Monday, Feb. 14, 2022.

It’s Valentine’s Day, and a jazz trio—guitarist Derek DiCenzo, drummer Maxwell Button and bassist Jeff Ciampa—starts its first set around 10 p.m. An hour in, DiCenzo performs a solo rendition of “My Funny Valentine,” but rather than end the set on a ballad, the band launches into an upbeat number. Button and Ciampa begin trading solos back and forth when an errant, slapping sound interrupts. At first, Button and Ciampa assume a pool cue or a music stand fell over. But then someone starts screaming obscenities, and a young man is on the ground. The music stops.

“Call 911! Oh, my God! Get a doctor! Is there a doctor?!”

“I’ve been shot. I’ve been shot. I’ve been shot,” Williams says from the floor, calmly but insistently, his half-finished beer on the table above. He asks a nearby patron to put a sweater over the wound on his back. But something else is wrong, too. “I can’t feel anything,” Williams says.

His friends notice a single, bullet-sized hole in the front window. The gravity of the situation begins to sink in. Patrons crouch down, wondering if more gunfire is coming—if they’re next. From the stage, Button dives to the ground, grabs his phone from his cymbal bag and calls 911 while curled in a corner.

As the threat of danger fades, Dick’s Den is quiet other than the low murmur of friends and strangers tending to Williams, who remains level-headed and stoic, occasionally mentioning that he can’t move his legs. For a gunshot wound, there’s a surprising lack of blood. Dick’s Den co-owner Tim Ackerman, who was behind the bar during the shooting, clears tables and chairs to make way for emergency personnel. Button, still in shock and feeling profoundly helpless, looks on from the pool room with the other musicians. Is this young man dying in front of his eyes? Should he turn away and let Williams have a more private, dignified death with his close friends? What’s the right thing to do?

Paramedics arrive within minutes and transport Williams, still lucid, to University Hospital at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. Hours later, after patrons have left and the police have taken witness statements, the bar is mostly empty other than a few emotionally shaken stragglers and co-owners Aaron Snyder and Ackerman, who asks Filler if he wants or needs a hug. “I’ll take one,” Filler tells Ackerman, “but I can’t give one back.”

News of the seemingly random drive-by shooting at Dick’s Den spreads quickly in Columbus, though not because gun incidents have been rare in recent years; the city recorded more than 200 homicides in 2021, 90 percent of which were shootings. But no one ever expected to hear “Dick’s Den” and “drive-by shooting” in the same sentence. Amid what felt like an endless string of senseless gun violence, the incident sent a jolt through neighborhoods where the veneer of relative safety began to crack.

But while this shooting ended in tragedy, it didn’t end in death. The bullet pierced Williams’ spine in between his shoulder blades, paralyzing him from the nipples down. Initial headlines focused on the unlikely setting of the shooting and the resulting paralysis of the victim, but the far-reaching, emotional resonance of the incident can be traced back to Williams’ response, which arrived the next morning in the form of posts on Reddit and the Dick’s Den Facebook page.

“Hey all. I’m writing this from my bed at OSU hospital now. The last 12 hours have been a whirlwind and the scariest time of my life. Just wanted to say that I’m OK, I’m in good hands, and Max Button was a fantastic drummer last night,” Williams posted to Reddit from his cellphone, detailing the bullet wound in his spine. “I was able to hold myself up with my arms (thank God I still have them), but the prognosis for any recovery of function in my legs is... well, the doctor didn’t say zero?”

“The love and support from strangers in this time is truly beautiful,” he wrote on Facebook, thanking Filler, Kitchen and random patrons who used their clothes to cover his wound. “The only thing I can do moving forward is take life one leg, er, wheel at a time. While there are some hobbies like rock climbing that I’ll never be able to do like before, there are plenty of activities you can do with a good mind, some good arms and lots of patience. I’m looking forward to regaining as much independence as possible. Love you all.”

After a night out with two friends ended in a life-altering gunshot wound, Williams was filled with gratitude. He seemed to have reached a level of acceptance that most people would hope to achieve over the course of years, but this was the next day. Where did that resilience come from? How was he able to summon it so quickly? And now, a year later, when the reality of a lifelong, likely irreversible injury has sunk in, is Williams’ winsome outlook still intact?

➽ Lots of kids like to read, but Maxwell Williams’ childhood curiosity was insatiable. No matter how many books he devoured, he could somehow recall every fact from every page. During Little League games, he had a habit of chatting up his first-base coach about the distance from Earth to the moon, the size of Pluto and anything else he’d learned that week.

“It’s so annoying,” says Max’s younger brother, Charlie Williams, laughing. “He’s the smartest guy in every room he’s ever been in.”

Growing up in the northeast Cincinnati suburbs of Loveland and Maineville, Tim and Lisa Williams’ middle child tried various sports, but they didn’t take. Once he started at St. Xavier High School, though, Maxwell zeroed in on other interests, like musical theater and choir. At the same time, he developed a love of computers, building his own at age 15.

After his 2016 graduation from St. X, Max followed his older sister, Claire (Williams) Georgin, to Ohio State. While studying data analytics, he also got into rock climbing when he went looking for a hobby after a breakup. “I’ve always been the kind of person who has a lot of interests that I dabble in, but climbing was one of the first times that I got really deep into something,” he says. “I found a lot of joy in climbing, especially because of the social aspect. It’s a great way to make friends.”

At Ohio State, Max lived with some buddies in an Old North house on Maynard Avenue they dubbed the Maynard Manor. He appreciated the area’s live music scene, with walkable venues like Dick’s Den and Spacebar. A year after his 2020 graduation, Maxwell moved a mile south to Chittenden Avenue while working as a data engineer for Nationwide Insurance, a job he loved. Midway through 2021, he also began chipping away at a master’s degree in computer science through an online program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Feb. 14, 2022, was Valentine’s Day, but to Max it was more notable as the day after the Cincinnati Bengals lost the Super Bowl. “Talk about being kicked while you’re down. First the Bengals lose, and then you get shot,” Max quips. Going to Dick’s Den “was like therapy,” he says. “Dan and I would talk about what was going on in our lives, what was frustrating us.”

Charlie, who plays lacrosse at Cleveland State University, got the news first at 11:21 p.m. It was later than usual for Maxwell to call, given that Charlie wakes up around 5 a.m. for practice. But he picked up, and instead of his brother on the line, it was Filler telling him Max had been shot. Charlie called his big sister, who had just sat down to dinner in San Francisco, and Olivia Wade, Max’s girlfriend since 2019. (Wade, Filler and Kitchen declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Georgin was tasked with calling her parents. “It’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” Tim says. “You always worry about that late-night phone call.” Lisa’s brother drove the couple to Columbus, and Charlie joined them the next morning. Despite COVID protocols, Max’s brother and parents were able to spend some time with him before the surgery to remove the bullet, which went smoothly. “If you’re going to get a complete spinal cord injury, you should get it my way instead of being in a horrific car accident,” Max says.

On one hand, Maxwell was in the exact wrong spot at precisely the wrong time. A single bullet, presumably fired from a moving car, pierced the window and severed his spine between his T5 and T6 vertebrae. (“T” stands for thoracic.) On the other hand, doctors told him that if the bullet had been half an inch to either side, or if it had penetrated any farther, he likely would have died.

Online, Max’s Reddit and Facebook posts circulated far and wide. A family friend launched an online fundraiser to help cover medical costs, which led to more than $200,000 in GoFundMe donations. “The level of generosity that existed, I was absolutely blown away by it. … But how many people with spinal cord injuries didn’t have that to help them out?” Maxwell says. “My experience with my spinal cord injury—you cannot separate that from the privilege that I also experience as someone who went to a high school that had a really strong alumni network and a university that had the same. … When people use the phrase ‘white privilege,’ they don’t just mean that people are born with money. Part of that privilege is also [living in] communities that had the economic engine to support me through this.”

Maxwell stayed in the main hospital for about a month and spent around three weeks at Ohio State’s Dodd Rehabilitation Hospital. He learned how to transfer in and out of his wheelchair in various scenarios and acquired other skills he’d need to navigate life without any sensation in much of his body. Like anyone, Max had down moments during his physical therapy, but his family says he maintained a consistently positive outlook. “He’s always trying to pick up everyone around him,” Tim says.

“It helped that I only had the one injury. A lot of people, when they get a spinal cord injury, they get a broken neck or several broken back spots. They have immediate, whole-body misery to contend with,” Max says, adding that all the climbing he’d done helped, too. “I had a really strong upper body going into it.”

In early April, Max moved into his parents’ home in Maineville, which Tim and Lisa renovated to accommodate his wheelchair. In June, Max turned 25 and gained some independence by getting his driver’s license, and his girlfriend also moved in over the summer. After a few months, he and Wade were ready to strike out on their own; in October, they leased a beautiful new apartment in Cincinnati’s Madisonville neighborhood. (He hasn’t been back to Dick’s Den since the shooting, but only for logistical reasons.)

Friends and strangers have followed Max’s journey through periodic updates on Facebook via the Maxwell Williams’ Recovery Page. Each post elicits dozens of supportive comments, which Max appreciates. But there’s a certain type of comment—online and in person—that gets under his skin. “A lot of people say, ‘It’s so inspiring that you’re able to live your life.’ … And honestly, I want to tell them to shut up, because it’s not inspiring that I do basic things,” he says. “I don’t want to inspire people by surviving. I want to inspire people by thriving. … It will be inspiring when I am able to do something like go on a bike ride across the state of Ohio. Which would be sick to do.”

➽ One morning in December, Maxwell takes me on a tour of his Madisonville apartment, with natural light from huge windows streaming into the open living space. The shower still isn’t functional, though; a ramp is under construction. In the meantime, Max takes the elevator to the gym shower. But that is the least of his daily inconveniences.

Each morning starts with his bathroom routine, which involves catheterizing to release urine from his bladder—a process he repeats four to six times each day. Then he begins his bowel program. “If I don’t take care of whatever is coming down my bowels, it might make an appearance at some point on its own,” he says. “So every morning you try and get all of it out at once. It works reasonably well. I don’t have accidents very often anymore.”

In contrast, Max says the wheelchair isn’t as big of a problem. “If you look up what people with spinal cord injuries really want in terms of regaining function ... it’s not walking. We really don’t care that much about walking. It’s always bowels, bladder and sexual function,” he says. “You can do a lot in a wheelchair, but there is no fix for being able to pee when I want to. There’s no fix for being able to use the bathroom the way I want to. And there’s no fix for being able to orgasm.”

His siblings are in awe of Max’s ability to maintain the same hopeful outlook and sense of humor amid all that. “When I think about myself in his position, if I couldn’t do these things anymore, I’d feel like a shell of myself. He’s amazing,” Charlie says. “You got to find a way to cope and get through it, and sometimes just being who you were before is the best way to do that.”

“Maybe it’s one of those things where you have this near-death experience, and you were able to come out on the other side and you’re just so happy to be here,” Georgin says.

Tim credits Lisa for Max’s kindness and his outward focus. “She’s always doing for others,” he says.

“For a lot of people [with spinal cord injuries], the first year is really rough. And it has been, don’t get me wrong. But over time, people get back to a baseline,” Maxwell says. “I can still do basically anything I want to in life. Yes, some things are harder. Some things are impossible. But the spinal cord injuryis not what stops you from doing things.”

Max’s engineering brain has come in handy, too. He’s a practical, solution-oriented person, and for this injury, he quickly accepted that there is no current solution. “I am not going to recover function, so I might as well move on with my life,” he says.

Max also doesn’t spend much time thinking about the person who shot him, but his father still hopes to find the perp. In the aftermath of the shooting, the Columbus Division of Police said a witness saw someone fire a shot from an older model Lincoln LS. Dick’s Den co-owner Snyder helped collect surveillance video from neighboring businesses, which revealed a 2000-2003 gold Lincoln LS near the bar just after the shooting. Detective Randy VanVorhis says the case is still open, but “no new evidence has been located.” (Anyone with info can contact CPD’s Felony Assault Unit at 614-645-4141 or Central Ohio Crime Stoppers at 614-461-8477.)

“Our community really rallied around us, and we all believe that this was a totally random act of violence,” says Dick’s Den co-owner Armstrong. “There have been some bands that took some time off before coming back, which is totally understandable.”

Button still plays regular gigs at Dick’s, though he hasn’t been quite the same since that night. “There’s a small amount of fear all the time that I’m going to get shot,” he says. But he’ll never forget the kindness Williams showed in his note the day after the shooting, when he complimented Button’s drumming. “I’m just some guy who plays drums,” Button says. “But he took the time to take the spotlight off of him and put it on somebody else, and it happened to be me. It spoke to his character.”

Max doesn’t let the past haunt him; he keeps busy. “When I am bored is when my mind goes to places that I don’t like going to,” he says. He still works for Nationwide remotely, though part-time at the moment while he focuses on finishing grad school this year. He plays multiple instruments and keeps fit using the gym at his apartment complex. And he travels, too. Last year, Maxwell flew to Las Vegas for his brother-in-law’s bachelor party, and in the fall he went to California for his sister’s wedding.

As Max noted in his posts the day after the shooting, he can’t rock climb the way he used to, but that hasn’t stopped him from pursuing the hobby. In October, he went to the Adaptive Climber’s Fest in Red River Gorge, Kentucky, and in November he visited a guy in Joshua Tree who developed an adaptive climbing system. “It’s extremely dangerous and totally up my alley,” Max says. Thanks to a grant from the Kelly Brush Foundation, he also ordered a souped-up, all-terrain handcycle. “It’s going to be badass,” he says. “I’m excited for all of the outdoor activities that it’s going to enable.” An ultralight wheelchair is on the way, as well, which will make getting in and out of his car much easier.

“I’m firmly in the ‘this is my life now’ phase,” Maxwell says. “I don’t think I’m ever going to fully understand why it happened, but I don’t really need to understand it to be happy.”

This story is from the February 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.