TO THE COPS, SOME CRIMES JUST SEEM LESS IMPORTANT THAN OTHERS
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 Muoz 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. Muoz 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 Muoz 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.
Jeff did more than that. For a full week, Jeff ranged the sleazy avenues of downtown Phoenix where the male prostitutes stand under street lamps preening for hungry motorists. Jeff passed out his business card and told the slim hookers about the vicious attack, which wasn't news to the hustlers. The word was all over the street. Their only question was whether Jeff was some kind of troublemaking cop. Finally, someone chose to trust him, and after seven nights of hanging out, Jeff was led to Michael Anthony Senecal, the 25-year-old victim of the machete assault.
Eleven days after the beating and robbery, the police arrested two of the suspects. The third was booked a month later.
For the next year, Jeff made sure that the victim was present for all the court appearances, hearings and red tape of judicial proceedings. This past April, a judge handed down ten- and five-year terms for the kidnaping assault.
Jeff's part in breaking the case was never revealed. He did not pat himself on the back with his column in Echo. Instead, he urged his gay and lesbian readers to cooperate with the authorities.
"By developing these relations, working within the court system and protecting ourselves from dangerous situations, we finally may be able to put gay bashers where they belong. . . . It is up to us to foster that relationship."
Mark Colledge, 31, a member of the tongue-defying Criminal Justice Liaison Committee of the Arizona Human Rights Fund, is another man who believes in working "to foster that relationship."
Following the sentencing in the machete case three months ago, Colledge announced the formation of an antiviolence project to encourage the gay community to report attacks.
Mark, too, has a personal story about terror.
Just three weeks prior to the sentencing of Senecal's attackers, Mark was jumped in Tempe. Colledge and a friend were surrounded by five young men, some of whom were juveniles, on North Mill Avenue. The bully boys screamed and yelled about "fucking faggots" and threatened to shoot Mark. When Mark tried to flee, his companion was knocked to the ground and beaten, whereupon the assailants lowered their pants and urinated all over the cowering homosexual. When the two gay men made it to their car, they were chased at high speeds by the punks through the streets of Tempe.
A license-plate number led police to the home of a suspect who eventually admitted a role in the incident. The suspect had a stunning alibi. He claimed he was the true victim because when he and his four friends went to the Tempe park to "preach the gospel," the five of them were jumped by the two slightly built gays.
Mark was unable to clearly identify his assailants, and his case resulted in no convictions, even though police had a license number, a suspect who admitted involvement and an alibi that defied all common sense.
Mark, who had also served on Phoenix's Human Rights Commission for three years, did not pound his chest or cite his own tale of horror when he announced the formation of the antiviolence project following the machete conviction.
Mark, like Jeff, believed gays ought to work quietly as they labored to open doors and minds in the justice system.
Less than four weeks after the antiviolence project began, Phoenix Police Chief Dennis Garrett stamped it with the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. He "commended" and thanked Mark, in writing, for his work.
While the note was certainly pro forma, it is difficult to imagine Garrett's predecessor, Chief Ruben Ortega, making such a gesture.
Chief Garrett is of a different breed from Ortega. Questioned by city bureaucrats, Ortega once joked that the only problem with queer bashing was that there wasn't more of it. Chief Garrett is credited with a more enlightened approach, forsaking cheap publicity and promoting neighborhood policing. He's even said his department was prepared to hire gays. But the middle-management cops who came to power under Ortega, and who are still in place, are not always receptive to Garrett's reforms. It is obvious that for too many officers, gays and lesbians are not a welcome addition to the community that Garrett speaks of when he proposes "community policing."
Within nine days of Chief Garrett's May 27 letter to Mark, the police department's small reservoir of good will evaporated completely in local homosexual ranks. The fallout left Mark and Jeff wondering what, if anything, Chief Garrett actually stood for.
@body:On the weekend of June 5, the Valley's gay community celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York.
Stonewall is a high holiday for homosexuals. On June 5, 1969, the drag queens rioted in Greenwich Village to protest police raids on a homosexual bar. It was the birth of a movement.
On this year's anniversary, the measure of progress included the New York Times covering the Big Apple's Gay Games as a sports event, not a curiosity.
Many gay revelers in Phoenix marked the silver anniversary of Stonewall by celebrating late that Saturday night and early Sunday morning at an after-hours club at Eighth Avenue and Madison. Dancers took to the floor of Chupa, an underground club that attracted homosexuals in large numbers even on an ordinary weekend night. The deejay jacked up the techno-funk, and lights flashed as the 25th anniversary of resistance to cops raiding queer bars built to a heady finale.
At that precise moment, a massive police force rushed through the door, busted the manager of Chupa, herded and humiliated the club's steppers and served notice that Chief Dennis Garrett's progressive policies are only the opinion of one cop.
There were no lurid violations of the law that night at Chupa. People were dancing. There were some underage kids, some open containers and the sort of rule-breaking you'd find at any saloon.
The effect created by the raid was as raw as if police officers reported to work decked out in Klan sheets on a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Bob Heygi, a well-known member of the gay community, was inside Chupa when the police burst in.
"All of a sudden, 25 to 30 police officers surrounded us on the dance floor. The deejay was told, 'Pull the plug. Now!' They announced the place was closed and we had to leave. Outside, there were another 20 or so cops. It was like they were filming an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. It was pure harassment."
Nothing in the police report appears to justify the overwhelming, multi-agency show of force.
The police were simply sending a Western Union telegram: Phoenix isn't New York.
During the raid, the cops were their normal smooth selves. People were called "sweetheart" and "faggot."
One customer was repeatedly asked his HIV status. What's the point of that question? To remind the poor bastard that he faces an agonizing death?
The harassment was meanspirited enough that local promoter Vince Johnson, who arrived when the raid was in progress, filed a formal complaint through his Snell and Wilmer attorney.
Last week, Johnson's lawyer, Victoria Stevens, said the police acknowledged her client's beef and found the motorcycle cop involved guilty of unprofessional conduct.
Writing on behalf of Chief Garrett, David L. Bennett, commander of the Organized Crime Bureau, noted that the "allegation of conduct unbecoming an employee has been sustained against officer J.H. Patterson" and that he "will receive department discipline."
Commander Bennett later denied the raid at Chupa had anything at all to do with the anniversary of Stonewall.
"I wish we were that bright, that smart and that devious," Bennett told me. "This is the first I've heard of Stonewall, and the timing was a coincidence."
To local gay leaders, the silver-anniversary raid at Chupa merely served notice. Four days later, on June 9, the Despain fire underscored the practical reality of the police department's attitude toward homosexuals.
For activists like Mark Colledge and Jeff Ofstedahl, these events made them feel like their work with the police was so much window-dressing. When push came to shove, when gays bled and died, they were on their own.
@body:Mark and Jeff informed their police contacts on July 11 that a neighbor claimed Michael Despain was murdered in the arson fire because of his sexuality. The gay leaders explained that a witness had talked to a television reporter. Mark and Jeff were concerned because investigators had not labeled the Despain homicide a hate crime.
At two meetings, on July 11 and again on July 14, police spokesmen shifted the blame to cops at the crime scene. They pointed out that officers also neglected to report as hate crimes cross burnings at a Jewish deli and the desecration of a synagogue by the lightning bolts of Nazi SS storm troopers. It was nothing personal with homosexuals.
Nonetheless, when Mark and Jeff said a television reporter had interviewed a neighbor who claimed the Despain murder was a hate killing, the police did not act.
Detective Al Ramirez informed Mark and Jeff that if they located the witness and brought him in, the police would listen.
In other words, if the homosexuals would investigate and solve the crimes committed against them, the police would take it from there.
Last Friday, I went to Channel 15.
Virginia Silva is a reporter with KNXV-FOX. The station's news program is not yet on the air, but in anticipation of its debut, the crews are practicing the gathering of news. In that role, Silva covered the Despain fire.
A neighbor told Silva that the night before the fire, teenagers fought with the victim and threatened to come back and kill him.
"They didn't like the other guy cause he was gay," Silva's report quoted the neighbor.
Because Silva's tape was never broadcast, because it never will be broadcast, the public has no idea that the Despain homicide was a hate crime. The papers played it like a simple arson.
Detective Ramirez has finally reclassified the arson/homicide as a hate crime, but damned if I can tell what difference it's made.
Silva said not a single police officer has bothered to read her script or to ask her who the witness was.
The broadcaster said the neighbor was nervous about speaking to a reporter and so he refused to give Silva his last name. She knew him only as "Manny" and had no address for him.
On Monday afternoon, I drove over to the low-income housing project where Michael Despain died. A security fence still protects the perimeter of the burned-out apartment.
By knocking on doors, I eventually located Manny Garcia. He identified himself as the source on Silva's report.
Manny knew that 16-year-old Tyrone Davis was arrested for starting the fire. He said he knew something else.
Davis' sister shared the apartment with the victim. When the fire broke out, she climbed out a window and escaped the deadly blaze. Manny says he overheard the sister talking as she stood on the sidewalk watching her apartment go up in smoke. He doesn't know who she was talking to, but he does know this: She fingered her brother Tyrone.
"She said her brother and his friends came over to drink with her at the apartment the day before the fire. They beat the crap out of the white guy because he was gay and they threatened to come back."
Michael Despain, 24, was burned alive until he was unrecognizable, and not a single cop has bothered to get it right.
But a multi-agency law enforcement task force led by the Phoenix Police Department served notice on the 25th anniversary of Stonewall that the cops still think queers in bars need a good rousting.
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