Billy Jack Gaither
Billy Jack Gaither, 39, was killed Feb. 19 by two men who claimed to have killed the man because of his sexual orientation.
S Y L A C A
U G A, Ala., March 5 — Friends say
Billy Jack Gaither didn’t deny being gay, but he also didn’t flaunt his
sexuality around his hometown, a quiet textile community in central Alabama.
Police said Thursday that two men who claimed to be angry over a sexual advance by Gaither plotted his murder, beat the 39-year-old man to death with an ax handle and then burned his body on a pyre of old tires.
“He was a good person. He didn’t deserve this,” said Donna McKee, a waitress at a bar Gaither frequented on weekends.
Steven Mullins, 25, and Charles Butler Jr., 21, were arrested this week and charged with murder. They were each held on $500,000 bail.
of Another Slaying
The case reminded gay rights groups of the brutal slaying of Matthew Shepard last October in Wyoming. The college student died following a beating near Laramie that police said was motivated in part because he was gay.
“There are a lot of people still out there who believe gay and lesbian people are a threat,” said Bruce Steele, editor of The Advocate, a news magazine for gays and lesbians. “Until that is educated away, these sorts of things will continue to happen.”
Alabama is one of 19 states with hate-crime laws that don’t cover offenses related to sexual orientation. The charges against Mullins and Butler carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. A grand jury could indict the men on charges punishable by death.
Mullins and Butler, who apparently knew Gaither from going to the same bars, claimed the textile mill worker made a pass at them in early February, Deputy Al Bradley said. The two then plotted his murder, the deputy said.
Mullins telephoned Gaither and the two picked up Butler at a nightclub where he was participating in a pool tournament, authorities said.
Beaten, Corpse Burned
The men went to a secluded boat ramp, where Gaither was beaten and thrown in the trunk of his own car. Gaither was taken to the banks of Peckerwood Creek, where many area churches used to hold baptisms.
Bradley said two tires were set on fire with kerosene atop a concrete platform overlooking the slow-moving water.
“They took him out of the trunk, took an ax handle and beat him to death. Then they put the body on the fire,” said Bradley.
Gaither’s burned-out car was found the next day on a country road.
Butler’s stepmother today said Butler had told family members he was involved in the killing. But Butler placed much of the blame on Mullins, saying he believed they were only going to beat up Gaither, Terry Butler said.
Don’t Believe Suspects’ Story
Friends of Gaither’s said they did not believe he would make a sexual advance on the men.
“He didn’t ever put anybody in (an awkward) position,” said Marian Hammonds, who owns the nightclub where Ms. McKee works.
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Alabama learned of the Feb. 19 killing through a contact in the area and notified authorities, complying with a request to keep the slaying quiet so as not to interfere in the investigation.
“We wanted to make certain it was not one of those things that would be swept under the rug,” said David White, the group’s state coordinator.
State Rep. Alvin Holmes has filed a bill that would extend Alabama’s hate-crime laws to cover gays. Holmes said he was moved to file the bill by the Shepard slaying.
March 13, 1999
IF EVER there were a reason for toughening up hate-crime laws, the gruesome deaths of Billy Jack Gaither and Matthew Shepard make the case.
Mr. Gaither made sexual advances toward a man whose response was to beat and burn him to death. The Alabama murder forced the nation to confront a new atrocity just when it was coming to grips with other violent expressions of hatred in the last year.
Mr. Shepard, who was also gay, died in October several days after he was found beaten and tied to a fence post in Wyoming, and James Byrd, Jr., was lynched and dragged to his death in Texas last year because he was black.
Two men are being held on murder charges in Mr. Gaither's death. After meeting him at a bar, they locked him in the trunk of his car, drove it to a deserted boat dock, bludgeoned him to death with an ax handle, then threw his body onto a pyre of burning tires.
The 39-year-old victim was one of four sons. He lived with his ailing parents and faithfully provided for their care. Although neither of them knew that their son was gay, he was an adult who chose to live his life the way that he did, and that was his business.
While it is right that the two men responsible for the hideous crime be charged with murder, they can't be charged with a hate crime because the Alabama statute only covers hate crimes committed as a result of race, religion, ethnicity, and disabilities.
Now is the time for hate-crimes legislation to be expanded to include offenses committed against individuals because of sexual orientation. After Mr. Shepard's death, the President called for Congress to make it easier for federal prosecution of hate crimes.
Conservative groups balk at the idea, arguing that
expanding hate-crimes laws would validate the gay lifestyle. It would do nothing of the sort. What it would do is further invalidate horrifying treatment of others.
It's one thing to have an aversion to certain lifestyles, but it is quite another to express that hostility to the point that it intimidates others or generates bodily harm.
Neither Congress nor the states need any more reason to weigh in on expanding hate-crimes laws to include violations toward others based on sexual orientation. The deaths of Billy Jack Gaither and Matthew Shepard underscore that Americans must understand that no level of government will tolerate these heinous acts.
SUMMARY: Memorials for the gay Alabama murder victim continue across the country and offer a chance to reevaluate current laws - but is anti-gay violence becoming so "regular" it will end up being ignored?
While perhaps 300 people attended a Birmingham, Alabama vigil for Sylacausa gay-bashing murder victim Billy Jack Gaither on March 9, a smaller outdoor gathering was also held that chilly night at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. The campus group Huntsville's OUTgoing Positive Experience (HOPE) was sad to be staging another candlelight vigil less than five months after their memorial for gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard; as vigil organizer Cindy Hughey said, "We are holding way too many of these. We can no longer sit by and let people be murdered."
"What is it going to take to make the Alabama legislature take us seriously, to make the Alabama general public take us seriously?" asked student Bruce Haga, as he urged participants to lobby legislators to add sexual orientation as a protected category under the state's hate crimes law. Referring back to Shepard's murder in October, Curtis Bathurst said, "I was angered last time. Now I'm scared. But we will not go back into the closet. We will not be afraid to be identified, to have our picture taken. What you see here tonight is light. It is the light of resistance."
Gaither's death also sparked a candlelight march by about 200 people far from Alabama in West Hollywood, California on March 7. Among those making statements at the rally were Governor Gray Davis, Speaker of the Assembly Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblymember Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles).
"Today, I am deeply grieved by the senseless murder of Billy Jack Gaither because it strikes at the very heart of what it means to be an American," said the governor. "Our nation was built on a foundation of inalienable rights and freedoms. If any man or woman cannot walk safely down our streets for fear of violence simply because of his or her sexual orientation, then none of us are truly free.... I join my fellow Californians and Americans in expressing outrage for this act of cowardice. And I reaffirm my commitment to keeping California a zero-tolerance state for crimes of hate based on sexual orientation."
Villaraigosa said, "As Speaker of the Assembly I can do no less than rededicate my efforts to eradicate the senseless and cruel hatred that took Billy Jack Gaither's life ... and James Byrd's life ... and Matthew Shepard's life. Even in the face of such brutality, they question the need for hate crimes law in Washington D.C.; they question the need for hate crimes law in Wyoming, in Texas, in Alabama... But here in California we set the standard, we are clear, we are united. We have a hate crimes law that says NO to violence against gays and lesbians against women and minorities."
But California's existing hate crimes law punishes crimes motivated by bias against racial and religious groups more harshly than it does those motivated by bias based on sexual orientation, gender or disability. That's something Knox hopes to change with a bill he's reintroduced in the legislature, AB 208. He explained that Gaither's attackers would receive no more than 25 years' imprisonment for the same crime in California, while a racially-motivated murder would result in life imprisonment. Knox said, "How many more will be slaughtered before the legislature says the killing must stop?"
Further demonstrations in reactions to Gaither's murder are planned for San Francisco on March 13 and for New York City on March 15. But thus far no such action is planned in Boston, where a vigil was held for Shepard, according to the gay and lesbian newspaper "Bay Windows." Don Gorton, chair of the Massachusetts Governor's Task Force on Hate Crimes told the paper that, "I haven't sensed the same level of reaction that we witnessed in response to the Matthew Shepard case, but people nevertheless are very aware of and very troubled by this latest murder. It seems there is now almost a regularity about these brutal murders that occur around the country based on sexual orientation." Gorton believes Shepard was someone people could identify with, particularly because of his youth (he was 21 when he died), while information about Gaither was slower in coming. But Boston's Task Force on Hate Crimes' annual "Stop the Hate" media campaign was already scheduled to begin in the coming week.
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