Confronted with charges of a cover-up, Navy officials have confirmed that a sailor about to be discharged because he was homosexual was beaten to death more than two months ago by a shipmate.
Navy officials in Japan said that Seaman Allen R. Schindler, 22, may have been a victim of gay-bashing, allegedly killed by a fellow sailor assigned to the Belleau Wood, an amphibious assault ship with a home port in Japan.
Lt. Kenneth Ross, Navy spokesman in Hawaii, refused to discuss what provoked the killing except to say that gay-bashing "is also being looked at as a possible motive." For now, Navy prosecutors are viewing the case as a murder, he said.
At the time of his death, Schindler, a radioman, was being processed for an administrative discharge because he was an acknowledged homosexual, Ross said. Family members said that Schindler, a four-year Navy veteran and native of Chicago Heights, Ill., joined the Navy despite its no-homosexuals policy because of a desire to serve his country.
Coming as President-elect Bill Clinton is planning to lift the ban on gays in the military, the case is stirring strong feelings. Gay rights advocates are urging Clinton to take swift action to legitimize the presence of homosexuals in the military, and have accused the Navy of trying to cover up circumstances of the killing. The killing occurred in October, and the Navy waited until gay rights groups demonstrated in front of the Pentagon in December before announcing a few details of the crime.
Schindler was beaten to death in a public restroom three blocks from the Navy base at Sasebo, Japan, on Oct. 27, at 11:19 p.m., Ross said. Officials have released few details of the incident, refusing even to reveal the cause of death or whether a weapon was used.
However, Schindler's mother, Dorothy Hajdys, said in an interview that her son was beaten beyond recognition. Hajdys and her daughter, Kathy Eickoff, said they were able to identify him only through tattoos on his forearms.
Hajdys said all but two of Schindler's ribs were broken, and both lungs and his brain had hemorrhaged. She also said that Schindler's penis was lacerated in the attack. The autopsy report listed the cause of death as "multiple blunt force injuries from head to trunk," Hajdys said.
Tanya Domi, spokeswoman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington, said her group has asked the attorney general-designate and secretary of defense-designate of the incoming Clinton Administration to investigate the killing.
In addition, James Jennings, who was Schindler's lover in San Diego, where the ship was based until August, has written to Clinton, protesting his friend's death and urging Clinton to proceed with plans to lift the Pentagon's ban on homosexuals in the military.
"It is absolutely senseless for someone to die because of who he is. . . . (Schindler) didn't choose to be gay, but he did choose to serve the country he loved. I know what must be done and only you can do it; lift the ban," wrote Jennings, who served four years in the Navy.
Jennings said that Schindler called him regularly and complained about being harassed on the ship because he was homosexual.
"He would walk down the corridors and other guys would yell stuff like: 'We gotta do something about these faggots on the ship,' " Jennings said.
Hajdys said her son referred to the ship as the "Helleau Wood" in his letters.
Rick Gonzalez, a former Navy lieutenant who served 4 1/2 years, said Schindler also complained that he was constantly questioned about his homosexuality by other sailors on the Belleau Wood. Gonzalez, a San Diego resident who said he is gay, said he knew Schindler for almost two years and spoke with him by telephone two days before he died.
Ross said that Schindler never reported any harassment to Capt. Douglas Bradt, the Belleau Wood's skipper, or the ship's chaplain. But another gay sailor who expressed concern for his safety was removed from the Belleau Wood on Oct. 28--the day after Schindler died--because of "the uncertainties of Schindler's death," Ross said. At the time, the captain felt that "it was prudent to transfer him ashore," Ross said.
Hajdys, 46, an accountant for the Salvation Army in Chicago Heights, said she fears for all gays in the military if Clinton succeeds in lifting the ban on homosexuals.
"After what happened to my son, the biggest thing I fear is if Clinton clears the way for homosexuals to join the service. I fear for their lives," Hajdys said. "I don't know if my son was really a homosexual. But even if he was, is that justification for someone to kill him?"
Terry M. Helvey, 20, an airman aboard the Belleau Wood, has been charged in the death of Schindler. He is awaiting the start of the military's version of a preliminary hearing.
A second sailor, Charles A. Vins, 20, was also arrested in connection with the beating. Vins, an airman aboard the Belleau Wood, was charged on two counts of failing to report a crime and resisting arrest. He plea-bargained with prosecutors--waiving his right to counsel--and agreed to testify against Helvey, of Eloise, Mich.
Vins, of Sturgis, Mich., was convicted on the three counts and sentenced to one year in custody. But according to Navy documents, prosecutors agreed to limit his prison time to four months in exchange for his testimony.
Ross said Vins did not take part in the assault, but a report of the incident said Vins had admitted to just that. "During interview with Naval Investigative Service (agents) suspect (Vins) confessed to the assault and provided information which implicates (Helvey) as possible conspirator and or accessory," said an Oct. 28 Navy document obtained by The Times.
Another Navy document said witnesses reported seeing two men assaulting Schindler.
"The witnesses observed two individuals assaulting a third person. As the witnesses approached the scene, the two individuals conducting the assault fled," said the document. The victim was identified as Schindler.
Hajdys and gay-rights advocates blamed Schindler's death in part on the military leadership's outspoken opposition to admitting homosexuals in the military.
In recent weeks, Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. Carl Mundy, Marine Corps commandant, and Admiral Frank Kelso, chief of naval operations, have publicly opposed Clinton's plans to lift the Pentagon's ban on homosexuals.
Homosexual rights advocates said the positions of top brass tacitly encourage gay-bashing within the ranks and in the fleets. Hajdys said the leaderships' opposition to enlisted gays sets a tone for other service men and women. She mentioned the unidentified Marine at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station who was asked by the Navy Times what he would do if he learned a homosexual lived in his barracks. "I'd have to kill him, I guess," the Marine was quoted as saying in the publication's Jan. 4 edition.
"I don't believe Powell, Kelso and Mundy would encourage people to beat up others," said gay and lesbian spokeswoman Domi, 38, a former Army officer. During her 15 years in the Army, Domi was a paratrooper and commanded a company of military police in Hawaii. "But I don't think they understand that by saying what they do, they are in fact setting people up for gay-bashing," she said.
In a statement released by a spokeswoman, Kelso said: "I do not believe that I or the other service chiefs inadvertently condone or encourage harassment against homosexuals by simply answering questions about our opinions on lifting the ban on gays in the military.
"I believe the current Department of Defense policy on homosexuality is best for the readiness of our armed forces. But I do not in any way condone violence or harassment against homosexuals or anyone else."