WHY THIS YOUNG MAN'S DEATH MATTERS
He is dead and he is cremated, but the tragedy of Michael Despain's short, troubled life is not over. In death, Michael has achieved an awful notoriety as Phoenix's first hate killing, a crime category law enforcement began tracking in 1990. Michael's memory, however, is now the hostage of a police department which ignored the gay bashing that led to this young man's murder.
After examining police records, it is obvious that the cops knew all along that Michael Despain, 24, was the victim of a homophobic beating on the evening he was burned to death (To the Cops, Some Crimes Just Seem Less Important Than Others," July 28). The police had interview after interview, some secretly conducted with video cameras, others captured on tape recorders, in which witnesses recounted the assault on Michael that occurred just prior to the arson that burned his body beyond recognition.
On the night of his death, two people, using a pipe, threatened to kill Michael because he was a fag.
This terrible motive for Michael's death made no impression upon the Phoenix police.
Michael's homicide was initially listed by police as merely one more violent crime in South Phoenix.
It was, of course, so much more. If white men in sheets lynched a black man, no one would dare ignore the issue of race by dismissing the hanging as simply another brutal incident. But that is precisely what happened in Michael's death; the homophobic nature of his murder was swept under the rug.
Though required by federal and state statutes to specifically note hate crimes, police let this killing slip off the radar screen.
When local community leaders met with police administrators, the activists were completely in the dark about the evidence the cops already had that the homicide was rooted in gay bashing. The police kept this critical information to themselves.
Naively, like good citizens, Mark Colledge, Jeff Ofstedahl and other gay activists brought the police one flimsy lead--an overheard conversation--that they thought suggested Michael was murdered because he was a homosexual.
All the men asked was that the cops follow up on their information.
The police refused.
When I first wrote about Michael's murder, I was shocked that the police would not bother to track down the lead. I just assumed the police would look into every tip in a murder case. But now it all makes sense.
Instead of responding to the gay activists' concerns, the cops led Colledge and Ofstedahl around by their noses. Police administrators grudgingly reclassified the paperwork listing the incident as a hate crime, but continued to ignore the gay bashing.
The cops did not bother to pursue the tip from Colledge and Ofstedahl because evidence of gay bashing as the motive for the homicide would interfere with the neat and tidy bow the police had used to wrap up this case.
The cops had already arrested a teenager for Michael's death.
Observed leaving the scene of the fire, this kid had no credible motive for killing Michael. Nonetheless, the 16-year-old was the designated fall guy.
But the 16-year-old wasn't the only one seen leaving the site of the blaze. He was accompanied by the two gay bashers who'd attacked Michael and threatened to kill him. Of the three, the two bashers had the only motive for torching Michael, but only the kid with no motive was arrested.
Not surprisingly, the case against the teenager was so weak that he was ordered released.
Today, no one is in jail for the vicious slaying of Michael Despain.
He's just one more dead queer.
@body:Michael Despain's last hours on Earth were not spent playing Scrabble. It was a night of reeling, wild emotions and reckless acts that are difficult to explain even when you know that crack cocaine was present.
Michael rented a bedroom in an apartment occupied by Denise Street, a crack abuser who could not even recall the victim's last name when questioned by police.
The evening of his death, Michael and Denise were joined by her friends, Omar Wells and Lonnie Smith.
According to law enforcement's own files, this is what happened that night:
The three men got into a heated fight culminating with a threat to shove a pipe up Michael's ass.
Denise, who witnessed the brawl, told police that Michael was threatened with the pipe because he was gay.
After being roughed up, Michael fled at approximately 3 a.m. to the nearby apartment of Denise's sisters.
Both women told the cops that the two hoodlums often harassed Michael, going so far as to steal his food from in front of him because "he was gay." Michael was in tears the night of the attack. He wanted his antagonists to leave him alone. The two women returned to Denise's place, where they asked Michael's tormentors to leave.
As the two thugs departed, they told Michael they were going to kill him.
Outside, in a nearby field, Omar and Lonnie ran into Denise's brothers, Jermaine Kelly and the 16-year-old, Tyrone Davis.
Jermaine told police that Omar and Lonnie both warned that they intended to get Michael.
Tyrone would tell his sisters the same story, but then deny it when questioned by the police.
For some unexplained reason, Omar and Lonnie were readmitted into the apartment where Denise and Michael lived. We may never know why. One of the toughs was Denise's lover, which may explain it. Maybe it was the drugs.
Omar and Lonnie claim the dispute with Michael settled down, and, as the sun came up, everyone crashed. Denise and Michael were upstairs in their respective bedrooms, while Omar and Lonnie flopped in the living room.
At approximately 10:30 the next morning, Denise woke up with smoke filling her apartment. She escaped out a second-story window and watched from the sidewalk as Michael Despain was burned to death.
Neighbors saw Omar Wells, Lonnie Smith and Tyrone Davis, together, leaving the scene of the fire.
The day of the blaze, Detective Ed Reynolds applied for a search warrant.
On their affidavit, the cops, in their own words, spelled out the gay bashing that preceded Michael's death.
"According to Denise Street, Omar Wells and Lonnie Smith dislike Mike because they feel he is a transsexual. Omar and Lonnie got into a fight with Mike, pushing him several times and threatening to kill him . . . ," wrote Detective Reynolds.
In other words, when the police themselves had to explain to a judge what this case was all about, the cops, in plain English, described it as gay bashing.
But Omar and Lonnie, though initially detained, were not charged in this homicide. Instead, the police booked Tyrone. The cops arrested the teenager based upon nothing more substantial than allegations by, of all people, Omar and Lonnie.
These two tell the same story when it comes to fingering the 16-year-old.
Omar and Lonnie said their friend Tyrone showed up at Denise's town house at about 10 a.m. For no apparent reason, the teenager immediately tried to set his sister's carpet on fire, and when the rug would not burn, he torched the curtains.
All three then departed the burning apartment without a thought for the two people, Michael and Denise, asleep upstairs.
@body:The problem with this remarkable story is that nowhere in the extensive police record is there a single, credible explanation about why Tyrone would want to burn Denise's town house down, kill Michael Despain and take a chance on murdering his own sister.
The closest the cops get to a rationalization for buying Omar and Lonnie's self-serving concoction is that neighbors had also seen Tyrone leaving the scene of three other fires, two in nearby fields and one in an abandoned apartment.
The suggestion is that Tyrone is an arsonist. The trouble with this information is that in each and every instance, the neighbors also saw Omar and Lonnie departing the scene with Tyrone.
All three of these guys might enjoy playing with matches, but only Omar and Lonnie had threatened to kill Michael Despain.
Omar and Lonnie had to tell the cops something to explain why Tyrone would commit such an inexplicable act.
This is what they came up with: Tyrone said he was going to be paid $3,000 for torching his sister's place.
This is an incredible fairy tale. One look around these threadbare projects and it is obvious that no one here has seen $3,000 in one place in a very long time. If the arrest of Tyrone Davis meant that the cops got the wrong man, the jailing did at least clear the books.
This was a homicide on the wrong side of the river. Michael Despain died in a low-income housing tract in a fire that didn't merit a second thought in the press. The cops have enough to do without obsessing over crimes no one gives a damn about.
In fact, the slate on this one was wiped clean so fast that Newell Despain, Michael's dad, told me the cops never bothered to mention to him that his son was the victim of gay bashing the night he died.
"The police didn't tell me anything about that," said Newell Despain, catching his breath. "Are you sure?"
Michael's mother is separated from Newell. She lives in Prescott, and did not know anything other than that her son had perished in a fire. Breaking down in tears, Karen Despain said she'd never heard of Omar Wells and Lonnie Smith. In a world with any sense of decency, no parent would get this horrifying information from a columnist.
@body:I called Newell and Karen Despain to find out more about their boy. No one else seemed to know much about Michael.
What they told me only made things worse.
Some folks are dealt a better hand in life than others; Michael got cards no one could play.
After being beaten and abused as a toddler, Michael was abandoned.
Newell and Karen adopted the boy when he was 6.
"The state told us he had problems," said Karen.
The authorities did not overstate the case.
Michael Despain was retarded. Whether it was grade school, the Boy Scouts or the Boys Club, Karen said her boy could not cope, nor could these organizations deal with him.
"He was a loving child with a sense of humor, but he went through what all handicapped children go through with people's meanness," said Karen.
While he was articulate, he could not take care of himself. Finally, he was hospitalized. His doctor told Karen the boy was a hydrocephalic.
Michael eventually spent years in group homes. Though his mother and father both thought Michael needed a sheltered environment, when their boy came of age, no one had the power to keep him in a structured setting. "A year ago, he decided he was gay," said his mother. "I tried to explain the consequences of living on his own, but he wanted to experiment."
The state, no longer entitled to protect Michael from himself, armed him with a disability check. It was just enough money to buy the retarded boy his freedom, and, finally, his death. The predators pounced quickly on Michael. His mother explained that her son found himself in a physically abusive relationship with another man. Karen Despain had begun the difficult legal effort to get guardianship of her son.
"When we gave these people their civil liberties, people like Michael lost their safety," said his mother.
Karen Despain carried in her purse, every day, a letter from a child psychiatrist describing her son's complex problems. Whenever she became discouraged about the difficulty of getting legal custody of her grown boy, she would take the letter out and read it to herself.
The day her ex-husband called and told her that Michael was dead, Karen Despain took the letter out of her purse for the last time and put it in a final resting place. She does not ever want to read it again.
"I knew something was going to happen to Michael," she said. "I used to talk about it with his case manager. We both thought Michael would get one of life's little bounces, something that might bring him to his senses . . . not this."
And Karen Despain, who has talked so bravely about her son, can go no further without crying.
"I don't want him hurt anymore, even in death. He was hurt so much when he was alive. I'm 90 miles away; I trusted the police to do their job." @rule:
@body:We do not know so terribly much about Michael Despain. He saw a want ad in a paper advertising a room for rent, and perhaps it seemed like a haven from an abusive relationship.
It is not very likely that Michael Despain ever had the time to grasp clearly the danger lurking in his new neighborhood.
He called his mother on June 2 to tell her about his new home. Seven days later, he was dead.
Even these thin scraps of biography were unknown to the gay leaders who met on three separate occasions with police administrators, hoping to prod the authorities into investigating the possibility that the arson/homicide was a hate crime.
Nor did the community leaders have any thought that the police already knew full well about the gay bashing of Michael Despain. The homosexual and lesbian activists simply brought to the police a somewhat credible allegation from a television reporter. Wouldn't the police please follow up on the tip?
No, the police would not.
Gay leaders met again with police brass after my first column on the Despain homicide and, once more, they were confronted with the question that the cops had been throwing up to them from day one: We already have the perpetrator, Tyrone Davis, in jail; why does it matter if the murder is investigated as a hate crime? Why, indeed?
Many of you who are reading this column have made it clear that you ask the same question. Others are more direct. You write in your letters that you are exhausted by the whole notion of gay victims. The very idea offends your religious and moral sensibilities.
But I cannot believe that any of you actually tolerate feral packs of man-boys preying upon the weak.
And, no, it is not enough to simply arrest the Tyrone Davises of this world. Or the Omar Wellses and Lonnie Smiths.
There must be a proper entry in the ledger.
By tracking crimes, we can stay ahead of trends. We can also decide how to respond to problems--like gangs--that might otherwise go unaddressed. But there is more to keeping track of hate crimes than simple law enforcement efficiency.
I have a friend whose grandmother is nearing 100. To this day, nearly 30 years after her son's death in Vietnam, she still wells up with tears because our government was unable to produce her boy's body.
There is no peace for survivors until there is a final accounting. Until we know the truth, no matter how bad the truth is, we do not rest.
We have a fundamental yearning to lend order and to make sense of our tragedies.
Likewise, when the tragedy of violence without provocation occurs, it disturbs our very being.
Such acts must also be tallied and ordered.
This is how we understand ourselves.
From the first moments of life, we make judgments on how our hands are placed upon our children, whether in love or in discipline. We are particularly concerned about the innocent.
And the victims of hate crimes are innocents.
Anyone who is attacked because of his age, color, gender, nationality, religion and, yes, because of his sexuality, is an innocent.
Every bit as innocent as your child.
Hate crimes are not acts of greed or lust.
The victims have nothing we covet. They cannot behave in any way to protect themselves. The targets of hate cannot change their skin color, their god or whom they love to suit the rest of us.
They are truly defenseless, because it is their very life, not their acts, that provokes violence.
Now, you may strongly disagree with this point of view. The fact of the matter is, however, that homosexuals and lesbians should not have to go to the police with their hats in their hands begging for help in these matters. The law is their law, too.
The police had no right to hide the gay bashing of Michael Despain from the boy's parents. The police had no right to hide this violence from gay and lesbian leaders. And less than 24 hours after the cops' insistence that the hateful nature of this killing was irrelevant because the perpetrator was already in jail, Tyrone Davis was released for lack of evidence.
He joined the other two punks--Omar and Lonnie--on the streets of South Phoenix, where the number of helpless victims has been reduced by one.
@body:"I spoke with Michael on the phone the night he died," said his mother. "I told him, 'I love you and I care about you, Michael.'
"Michael told me the owner of the building was going to throw the other renters out."
But the owner did not move fast enough. Denise, the crack head, was already inviting Omar and Lonnie into her apartment as Michael spoke to his mother.
"Michael met people easily," said Karen. "He was so very open. But he was easily intimidated and very vulnerable."
This is the boy who was burned so badly that when a police officer first saw the body, he thought it was the cadaver of a black man.
Michael was exactly what Omar Wells and Lonnie Smith needed to sharpen their canine teeth on: a retarded, gay man/child lately given to women's dresses and a pretend identity as Rolanda.
Karen has more comforting memories of her feckless Michael. She talks of the church full of people at his service, the joyous chaos of an old paper route that was too much for her boy, the deep happiness even a troubled life brings to a mother who cares.
She is also the kind of Christian who worries about the well-being of Omar, Lonnie and Tyrone.
Karen Despain got to tell Michael she loved him on his last day. Not many mothers can say as much.
But she still has questions the police need to answer before she rests.
The fact is, next Wednesday, Karen would surely have called Michael to wish him a happy 25th birthday. And I don't believe that she herself knows how she will get through that day.