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.