A Local Life: John Nucci, 50, paralyzed chef who survived 1989 attack

February 11, 2012

John Nucci called himself “the guy who refused to be a victim.”

But in 1989, at a time when crime was raging in the District, he was the target of an act of gun violence that shocked Washington and left him paralyzed from the waist down.

Mr. Nucci died Jan. 5 at Washington Hospital Center in the District of complications from the gunshot wounds he suffered 23 years ago. He was 50. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled his death a homicide.

On the night of Feb. 28, 1989, between 1 and 2 a.m., the 27-year-old Mr. Nucci had just gotten off work as a sous-chef at the Capital Hilton in downtown Washington. He went for a drink with a woman he was dating.

The couple were walking to a nearby parking lot where Mr. Nucci had left his gray Buick when two men emerged from behind a van. One of them put a gun to Mr. Nucci’s head and demanded a ride.

John Nucci, 50, became a chef after being paralyzed in a random act of gun violence in 1989. He died Jan. 5 at Washington Hospital Center in the District. (Family Photo )

While Mr. Nucci drove, according to news reports, the assailants sexually assaulted his companion in the car. They told Mr. Nucci to go to the Beltway, where they abandoned the woman on the side of the road.

The men then forced Mr. Nucci, at gunpoint, to continue driving around for several hours. He would later tell his family that they ordered him to take them to his family’s home in Silver Spring so they could rob his parents.

When he refused, the men ordered him to pull over on the side of the Beltway, just inside Prince George’s County near the New Hampshire Avenue exit. They told him to get out of the car. They already had his wallet, and with it his identification and address.

Mr. Nucci threw his keys across the road and tried to flee, but he was shot four times. One of the bullets hit his spine.

The assailants found the car keys and drove away, leaving Mr. Nucci for dead. Before losing consciousness, he crawled onto the road, where a driver spotted him and flagged down a trucker, who used a CB radio to call for help.

“I just said my prayers and went to sleep, and I was awakened by some guy who thought I was drunk until he saw I’d been shot,” Mr. Nucci told the Washington Times in 1990.

He was taken to the shock trauma center at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, where doctors did not expect him to live. He had several operations, including one on his heart, which was damaged by a bullet, and underwent intensive rehabilitation with occupational therapists and grief counselors.

In his dreams, he could walk. Two years passed, his sister Elise Nucci Thompson said, before he dreamed about himself in his wheelchair.

Over time, Mr. Nucci built up enough strength to go back to work. With Bob Rood, the owner of the Flaps restaurant chain in Montgomery County, where Mr. Nucci had worked earlier in his career, he started a temporary employment agency for restaurant workers.

But Mr. Nucci had always hoped to open a restaurant of his own. In 1994, he moved from Silver Spring to Leonardtown, in St. Mary’s County, where his friends and family helped him start Willows Restaurant and Tavern.

“Because my legs don’t work doesn’t mean I don’t have my life,” he told the Washington Times. “Some people are born to be police, some people are born to be priests, and I’m born to be cooking.”

Mr. Nucci lived behind the restaurant in a house he renovated and made wheelchair-accessible with help from his friends, including Billy Hayes, his housemate for years. “He was the brains,” Hayes said. “I was his legs.”

Mr. Nucci cultivated a loyal clientele at the Italian-style restaurant, which served — as he once put it — “everything from bar burgers to pan-seared duck.” In a 1999 review, Washington Post food critics Molli and Andy Yood called his cuisine “imaginative yet traditional.”

In the kitchen, Mr. Nucci used a customized stand-up wheelchair that, with several straps, kept him on his feet at the counter. He called himself the “Robo-Chef.”

In recent years, business began to fall off as chain restaurants moved into the area. Mr. Nucci also began to suffer from infections and various other ailments.

He closed Willows several years ago but recently leased it to a couple who reopened the restaurant under the same name.

John Attilio Nucci was born June 16, 1961, in Silver Spring. His father, an engineer, and his mother, a trained bacteriologist, were the children of Italian immigrants. As a teenager, he worked as a dishwasher and line chef at local restaurants. A graduate of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, he received a certificate from a culinary institute in Baltimore in 1983.

Survivors include his three older sisters, Elise Nucci Thompson of Lusby, Stefanie Nucci Vogel of Columbia and Anne T. Nucci-Sack of the Bronx.

In August 1989, Kelvin M. Smith, then 21, pleaded guilty in D.C. Superior Court to counts of armed kidnapping, armed robbery and armed burglary in several crimes, including the attack on Mr. Nucci. He was sentenced to 85 years to life in prison.

Mr. Nucci sometimes visited schools to talk about the effects of gun violence. “I’m not bitter at the guys who shot me,” he said in 1990. “These guys had no conscience, no soul. I just hope they do now.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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