NORWALK, Iowa -- Joel Davis became a household name in 2017 when he and two others set fire to the historic Cedar Bridge in Madison County but his family says he was worth far more than a mugshot.
Joel Nathan Davis was born on April Fools Day, 1999 a date seemingly fitting for Randy and Tanya Davis’ silly boy.
“He was just a very happy go lucky, silly person,” says Joel’s father Randy Davis. “A lot of the photographs you see he’s making the funny faces and doing those kinds of things. He had a very good sense of humor.”
Since childhood, Joel’s biggest dream was to become a United State’s Marine, like his great grandfathers.
“He’d try on his Marine uniform and wear his Marine ring and he just, from the time he was about five or six started to really focus on the military,” says Joel’s mother Tanya Davis.
While still in high school, Joel enlisted in the U.S. Army after convincing himself he wasn’t good enough to become a Marine. But his passion for the beloved branch never left and six months later, after many “vomit inducing” workouts, Joel finally enlisted into the Marines’ delayed entry program.
It’s there he’d meet Alexander Hoff.
In his blog, Joel says the pair immediately clicked. Bonding over alcohol and lonely hearts.
The night of the bridge fire, Joel says he had a gut feeling something bad was going to happen.
“I remember thinking I don’t recognize him because I know Joel’s friends, you know his normal friends, and so I kind of made a mental note to ask him about it later on but it was that night that they went out and got blackout drunk and did the bridge,” explains Tanya.
The pair met back at the scene the day after the fire. Joel says he didn’t remember what happened the night before and had to see it for himself.
“He came home a couple hours later and walked in the door and we were like what’d you do? What happened? And he told us everything and was crying.”
Joel was arrested for arson days later and spent nearly two weeks in jail before being allowed to graduate. He describes going back to school as a “living hell”.
“He wouldn’t even go to the gas station that was half a block away unless he had glasses and a hat and a hoodie, just trying to disguise himself,” said Randy.
People yelled “bridge burner” as Joel walked across the stage for graduation, but that was nothing compared to what was said online.
“Those words, words hurt. Words kill. That’s why it was important for me to have words behind us today. To battle back against that,” explained Randy.
Joel ultimately pleaded guilty to second degree arson and finally had the chance to apologize in court.
“The people of Winterset, Madison County and the state of Iowa I’d like to issue my deepest apology to you all. I will not excuse responsibility or try to justify my actions based on the fact that I was severely intoxicated that night,” Joel exclaimed in court.
Joel received a deferred judgement. Meaning if he successfully completed a five year probation, the crime would be wiped from his record. But he carried guilt with him every, single day.
“I tried to tell him son there’s a lot of people that are going to be upset and that’s part of the medicine you’re going to have to take,” said Randy.
“I encouraged him to forgive himself and he said mom that’ll take years if it ever happens” said Tanya
And it never did…
“(He said) my entire future is ruined. What I wanted to do as a career is ruined. I’ve let my parents down I’ve let the state down, I’ve let the country down, I’ve let the Marines down.”
“I tried to tell him you know son we all messed up when we were young we learn from it, we grow from it and he said dad you’re not on Wikipedia,” Randy said with a tear.
If you google Joel’s name, you’ll find several articles about the fire but his family says that doesn’t define who he was.
“He’s not a psychopathic arsonist, he’s a dumb kid who made a stupid mistake when he was blackout drunk. And it was a dreadful mistake and we’re very sorry,” said Tanya
Randy and Tanya say on the outside, Joel seemed as though he was healing, but he kept the deepest struggles to himself.
“He didn’t want to burden us. I think that he felt that he had kind of taxed us out.”
And days after posting his heartfelt blog, Joel grabbed a gun, drove out into the country and took his own life.
“I just think he had a moment of weakness and just kind of let everything cave on him” said Tanya
And the lives of Joel’s loved ones came crashing down…
“I just feel like I’m in a nightmare or a dream or something. It just can’t be real that we’re not going to see him in our lives anymore or see him on this earth.”
“To lose something that is 50 percent your DNA. something that you’ve spent 19 years investing in. All your hopes and dreams are wrapped up in. I love the way the bible describes children as arrows that are shot into time that you’ll never see and my arrow is broken.”
We asked Randy and Tanya what they would say to Joel if given the opportunity.
“That I love you. That I forgive you. And that you were worth it all and I’d do it all again,” said Randy.
“Even knowing the outcome I’d do it all again in a second. He was the best kid to raise i just couldn’t ask for a better kid,” shared Tanya
Joel’s legacy will live on, thanks to the gift of organ donation. “He told us all the time he’s prepared to give his life for a medal, and he did.”
Randy says the trauma team at the hospital was in tears because when Joel arrived after the shooting -- on his wrist was a green organ donor bracelet.
“His gift resulted in three life saving surgeries we’ve been told and maybe more to come.”
So for anyone struggling with self worth, the Davis’ urge you to remember.
“Our mistakes don’t define us. Our past isn’t our future. That our worth is so much more than that and that good things are right around the corner, no matter what you’re going through. No matter what you’ve been through. There’s still bright days ahead.”
Joel’s loved ones have created an online community for anyone who needs support. You can find the “Know your worth”page in memory of Joel on Facebook.