By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
When the flames from the arson fire were put out last month, investigators discovered human remains in the upstairs bedroom. While dental records were the only way to identify the charred body of 24-year-old Michael Despain, there was one piece of physical evidence the fire did not destroy: The male torso had certain female body parts.
This clue should have alerted the Phoenix police that the case may have been more than a simple death by arson.
Indeed, the fire department's investigators listed the homicide as a "bias incident" on their initial report because the victim was a transsexual.
"You had to consider that possibility," said the fire department's Joe Bushong.
There was, in fact, another reason to identify the killing as a hate crime.
The day before the arson, the victim had been physically beaten by the teenager arrested for setting the deadly blaze. The beating took place, according to a neighbor, because the South Phoenix teenager hated gays.
Yet Phoenix police ignored this lead when it was dumped in their laps. They also initially refused to classify the homicide as a hate crime.
Today, seven weeks after the murder, the police still have not talked to the neighbor. I know this because I located the gentleman on Monday and he said, "The cops were too busy to talk to me."
For leaders in the homosexual community, it was not enough that the cops arrested a suspected perpetrator in the Despain killing. They wanted the proper words toe-tagged to the corpse: queer killing.
Under federal and Arizona statutes, law enforcement is required to keep track of hate crimes. The Despain case, however, was about more than just bookkeeping. It hit a nerve.
The local gay community has bled and died from violence surrounded by an enormous hush. Even though television has seized upon all forms of mayhem and gore as a boost to ratings, you just do not see gay bashing reported on the evening news, despite national policy studies that show a triple-digit increase in brutality against lesbians, bisexuals and homosexuals over the past six years.
And if you don't think the shoddy investigation of a transsexual hate crime constitutes law enforcement bias, consider this: The refusal of the police to label the June 9 arson/homicide a hate crime came just four days after the Phoenix police coordinated a massive raid on an after-hours nightclub that catered to a homosexual clientele. The raid occurred on the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, the day that marks the birth of the modern gay rights movement.
The timing of the raid coupled with the nonchalant investigation of a murdered homosexual are a one-two punch that staggered gay leaders who thought the police atmosphere had improved under the new chief, Dennis Garrett.
The raid and the murder are linked in the minds of gay leaders like a pair of ugly Siamese twins in blue uniforms telling homosexuals and lesbians to go to hell.
@body:Jeff Ofstedahl and Mark Colledge are two activists who have struggled to break down the mistrust that is a fact of life between law enforcement and gays. As a result of these two incidents, they now feel like they've been kicked in the teeth as a thank you.
This town needs Mark and Jeff. And so do the badges.
Let me tell you a story.
On January 30 last year, a carload of Hispanic men picked up a young gay hustler. They drove the male prostitute to a dark, remote stretch of dirt in Encanto Park and beat him to a pulp. They used a machete. They broke two full beer bottles across his forehead. They hacked him, stomped him, robbed him and then left him for dead. The victim eventually staggered to a nearby residence. Once bandaged and stitched at a hospital, the kid disappeared.
The next day, Miguel Estevan Mu¤oz phoned the police. He told the cops what had happened. He'd been along for the ride when his companions decided to "find a fag boy" and "roll a vestie," but he, Miguel, had not participated. Mu¤oz confessed because he was frightened.
Now the cops had a problem.
They knew all the details of the vicious crime, they even knew who did it; but they did not have a victim.
This is not unusual. When homosexuals are attacked, they are often reluctant to talk to police. The victims sometimes fear the notoriety; other times, they fear the reaction of homophobic cops. And while it may be illegal to attack, rob or murder prostitutes, try telling that to a street hustler.
It would have been easy for this atrocity to slip between the law enforcement cracks. There is not enormous pressure for these kinds of crimes to be solved.
If gay activists were worn out by the attitude they perceived in the police, there was one cop they could count on, one cop who knew the score.
When the Mu¤oz confession crossed the desk of Detective Al Shearer at the Hate Crimes unit, he began to put the pieces together. He also called Jeff Ofstedahl, 30, a reporter with Echo Magazine, a local gay publication. Detective Shearer asked Jeff to put the word out that the cops wanted to find the victim.