Longform

RECKLESS ABANDON

IF YOU LIVE in the inner city, it isn't difficult to imagine that you will become the victim of a crime. At least, it hasn't been difficult for Chris Schilling and Jeff Weaver to imagine it during the nearly three years that they've lived in the historic Story District, south of McDowell and right next door to the Papago Freeway. They have seen some of their neighbors preyed upon by burglars in this close-knit neighborhood of charming, restored houses that's close to the heart of downtown Phoenix, and they have known that they aren't themselves immune from the worst aspects of the Nineties.

What they haven't imagined was that, if crime came knocking, they would be completely defenseless.

They haven't imagined that they would be hit again and again by the same thief-a guy with a knife and a criminal record, a sizable grudge and a fixation upon their jewelry and stereo equipment.

They haven't imagined that, in the wake of the damage, they would not only be abandoned by the Phoenix Police Department, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and the County Attorney's Office-the law officers Schilling and Weaver turned to for protection-but outright accused by them. They haven't imagined that, while the man who robbed them was set free, they would be nearly arrested themselves, instead.

Most of all, they haven't imagined they would be left feeling that the police and the prosecutor's office accepted the excuses and accusations of a convicted felon above their own story because they are gay.

That is how it happened last month, however, during a drawn-out conflict of confusion and revenge. And that is how Schilling and Weaver feel, at the end of another confrontation between the gay community and the police that has their Story District neighbors leveling discrimination charges at a police department that has been accused of it before.

Sharon Hunnicutt, the president of the Story Preservation Association, recounts a meeting that a group of neighbors called with the police in order to discuss the way Schilling and Weaver have been treated, and says, "We asked them if they have a different standard of protection for heterosexuals and gay people, and they said they didn't. But I think they must."

So this is also a story about the way the members of the gay community and their champions continue to perceive that gays are treated unfairly, because they have been unfairly treated in the past.

Based upon both documented and undocumented incidents, the Phoenix police through the years have been accused of keeping files on suspected homosexuals, of harassing them with threatening "walk-throughs" at gay bars, of arresting them on public indecency charges while ignoring "straight" offenders, and of paying too little attention when homosexuals are the targets of crime. Although the relationship between the gay community and the police department has improved slightly in recent years, gays usually react with earned paranoia when they're dealing with law enforcement agencies in Maricopa County. On that level, this is a story that should perhaps concern the supporters of civil rights.

But its most alarming message is simply not about equality. This saga of urban fear-of crime compounded threefold by the mishaps and misjudgments of prosecutors and police officers who are sworn to protect the citizenry and who engage in frantic finger-pointing when they do not-contains many elements that could have happened to anyone.

THE BAD LUCK of Jeff Weaver and Chris Schilling didn't begin last month, although it certainly worsened then. Their lives took the first radical downward turn about 18 months ago, when Weaver, who is 33, developed the symptoms of AIDS.

They have been together for eight years, and they took the hit together. Weaver, self-employed as a restorer of automobiles, was soon forced to stop working, and his tall body withered to 120 pounds. His friends and family members say that he was far from defeated, though. Both he and Schilling decided, with remarkable optimism, to enjoy to the fullest the time that they have left together.

"We are very, very proud of them," says Weaver's mother, Jean. "Not very many people would be handling it like this when they know they are going to die. Jeff has handled this very, very well up until this robbery."
They have simply gone on with their lives, not as though nothing has changed, but as though the changes haven't bankrupted them of pleasure. They have, for instance, continued to be active in the Story Preservation Association, opening their immaculate house filled with antiques as part of the neighborhood's home tour and spearheading the Story entry in Phoenix Art Museum's annual Festival of Trees. Their neighbors have taken more than casual notice of their continuing involvement. "They are very, very kind, considerate men, and everyone thinks very highly of them," says neighbor Hunnicutt. Which may be one reason the robbery was so upsetting to everyone.

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Deborah Laake