Advocate Without Pier

Jeff Ofstedahl became the Valley's most visible gay activist, turned Echo Magazine into a political force, and carefully planned his departure for four months of sailing and finishing a novel. Then his doctor called.

Jeff Ofstedahl is sipping a tall glass of beer at Wink's, and for the third time in as many minutes, someone comes up to ask him the same question.

"What are you still doing here?"
Each time, it's asked with the same tone: a mixture of surprise and admiration.

Everyone at the bar seems to know about Ofstedahl's plans, that by now, the well-liked former general manager of Echo Magazine is supposed to be out to sea, navigating his sailboat up the California coast.

So what is he still doing in Phoenix?
Ofstedahl, 34, smiles and talks about unspecified obligations, about part-time work that's keeping him in town and about visiting his boat in San Diego on weekends.

His questioners respond by giving him pats on the back and bear hugs. If the clean getaway Ofstedahl had planned has been derailed, it only gives him an opportunity for even more of the adulation he's received since announcing his departure as the Valley's most prominent gay activist and journalist.

There was no fanfare in the straight press as Ofstedahl stepped down. But in the gay community, news of his hiatus spread fast: Ofstedahl was quitting to pursue a lifelong dream to sail from San Diego to Vancouver and back.

Three weeks ago, Ofstedahl wrote his final column after six remarkable years running Echo, a magazine that, under his stewardship, had gone from a seamy, thin volume of sex ads to a well-read journal of gay and lesbian politics and news. Along the way, Ofstedahl had helped to organize some of the gay community's most important struggles and uncovered some of its most important stories.

Including his own. Ofstedahl had shared with readers his personal struggles with the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, and his evolving relationship with his family over his gay orientation and activism.

But a grueling schedule had begun to wear him down. He was ready for a break after his stint writing much of Echo's copy, managing its business affairs, arranging for its production and even distributing it.

So for several months, Ofstedahl conspired with the magazine's publisher, Bill Orovan, to make himself obsolete, waiting and planning as Orovan hired two people to do much of the work Ofstedahl had done single-handedly.

On Friday, May 15, Ofstedahl went to the magazine's offices for his final day of work.

While at the office, Ofstedahl received a phone call from his doctor with news that would ruin his carefully laid plans.

He had cancer.
Ofstedahl undergoes surgery later this month to remove a squamous cell carcinoma, a malignant tumor, and he faces a summer of radiation treatments and chemotherapy instead of a sea voyage. Ofstedahl says his doctor has told him his survival chances are excellent. (Despite nine years living with HIV, Ofstedahl says he shows no symptoms of AIDS, and the cancer is apparently unrelated to the virus.)

He has told few people about his illness.
At Wink's, friends unaware of his situation rib him about his early retirement. "Please get a job, Jeff," says one.

Then another man approaches him.
"You don't know me," the man says. "I just wanted to tell you how much you've meant to me and to everyone in the community. I read about your leaving. I just wanted you to know how much you've meant to us."

Ofstedahl thanks him and reaches out a hand, but the man has his arms around him before he can react.

Jeff Ofstedahl looks like a cop.
The street people who saw him after midnight every night for seven nights were sure he was a cop, and wouldn't give up what Ofstedahl wanted to know.

It was 1993, and the reporter was searching streetwalker haunts, asking everyone he saw about a male prostitute who had disappeared.

Ofstedahl didn't know the man's name or what he looked like or where he was from. He only knew the man probably had distinctive marks on his body.

Machete wounds.
On January 30, several men had picked up the prostitute, taken him to Encanto Park and jumped him. They had beaten him, hacked him with a machete, broken full bottles of beer across his forehead and stomped on him. They were pretty sure their victim was dead when they left him.

Miguel Estevan Munoz was sure the guy was dead, anyway. And when he called the cops the next day, he wanted them to know that he'd just been along for the ride and he didn't want to get blamed for the murder he'd seen his friends commit.

When Phoenix police went to the park looking for the body, however, they didn't find one.

A detective in the department's Hate Crimes Unit telephoned Ofstedahl and asked for his help: They had a confession and the names of suspects, but no victim.

For the next week, Ofstedahl walked central Phoenix streets passing out his business card, asking hookers if they'd heard about the attack and knew what had happened to the victim.

Finally, on the seventh night, someone decided to trust Ofstedahl even if he did look like a cop, and led him to 25-year-old Michael Anthony Senecal, the very much alive victim.

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