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A Gay Sailor’s Torment : Slaying: Three Southland entertainers who made friends with Allen Schindler only days before his murder in Japan tell of his pain.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Valan Cain went to Sasebo, Japan, last year to entertain U.S. troops and vacationing Japanese who flock to the seaside village for rest and relaxation.

With a five-month contract, the singer and dancer figured that his stint in Sasebo would provide him with plenty of good stories to tell back home in Irvine.

But the story Cain became embroiled in was not at all what he had in mind--the brutal slaying in October of 22-year-old Seaman Allen R. Schindler.

Slashed and beaten beyond recognition Oct. 27 in a Sasebo public restroom, Schindler has, in death, become a central figure among advocates and opponents of the proposed lifting of the ban on gays in the military.

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Cain was one of three gay entertainers--all from Southern California--who befriended Schindler in the last few days of his life, just a few weeks after he had “come out” to his commanding officer and word of his sexual orientation had spread throughout his ship, the Belleau Wood.

With Cain and the others, Schindler had finally found what he was so desperately seeking--fellow gays he could entrust with his most intimate thoughts, ranging from a crush he had on one of them to his difficult life aboard the ship he had nicknamed the “Helleau Wood.”

“We were his outlet,” Cain said. “He attached himself to us every moment he could. We talked three or four hours a night. He was so hungry to be around people who would understand him.”

Five days after he had met the entertainers, Schindler was killed--his skull crushed, all but two of his ribs broken and his penis lacerated. His head was repeatedly rammed into a porcelain and metal urinal, according to an autopsy report.

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In the wake of the killing, the three entertainers have become widely credited with pushing the Schindler slaying into the spotlight.

After reading in a Sasebo newspaper that the Navy claimed that the murder resulted from a “difference of opinion,” the men penned a letter to the military newspaper Pacific Stars and Stripes on Nov. 2 suggesting that the Navy was covering up a gay-bashing. Their letter unleashed a firestorm of controversy that is still flaring. By mid-December, the Navy acknowledged that Schindler’s sexual orientation might have been a factor in the attack.

“He could not be identified except for his tattoos,” said one of the trio, Eric Underwood, an actor and model who lives in New York and Los Angeles. “I realized Allen was a victim of a hate crime. . . . This wasn’t something the Navy should sweep under the carpet. . . . He was a good guy. He would never do anything to warrant such a horrible, horrible end.”

The Navy--which has arrested two of Schindler’s shipmates--said Thursday that the case is under investigation and that gay-bashing has not been ruled out as a motive. Airman Apprentice Terry Helvey, 20, will face a trial for murder, while Airman Charles A. Vins, 20, has been convicted of failing to report the attack and resisting arrest.

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“We are aware of the fact that Seaman Schindler was a homosexual and we are looking into the aspect of homosexuality being a motive,” said Lt. Commander Betsy Bird.

Rod Burton, 27, of Brea said that he, Cain and Underwood wrote the letter “so Allen didn’t die in vain.”

Illustrating that many heterosexuals in the military accept gays and lesbians in their midst, the entertainers say they were introduced to Schindler by several straight soldiers concerned about his welfare.

“They said: ‘We have a friend we want you to meet,’ ” recalled Cain, who was friends with the straight sailors. “They said he hadn’t probably talked to a lot of people who were gay in a while and probably would like the conversation and companionship.”

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Cain and Schindler were then introduced outside Captain’s bar--a karaoke bar in Sasebo. The entertainers said Sasebo did not have a gay bar.

Immediately, Schindler struck up a conversation with Cain, saying he was relieved that he was about to be discharged from the Navy because of his homosexuality.

“He hated the ship. . . . He called it a floating prison,” Cain said. “He was really, really looking forward to getting out.”

But Cain added that unlike another gay sailor aboard the Belleau Wood whom Schindler did not know, he “never felt threatened. He never feared for his life.”

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Schindler did tell the entertainers that shipmates sometimes used epithets.

“He said there would be times he’d be walking down the corridor and people would say: ‘Do you know there are faggots on this ship?’ as he was passing by,” Cain said. “He did say he felt lucky that he was not hurt . . . for being gay because he knew that other people had been.”

Schindler was transferred to the Belleau Wood in December, 1991, after serving on the aircraft carrier Midway.

Once on board the Belleau Wood, he heard a story that a young gay sailor had been burned after someone poured lighter fluid on him and then set him on fire because of his sexual orientation.

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The victim never reported the attack “because he didn’t want it to come out that he was gay,” Schindler told Cain.

Navy officials could not confirm the alleged attack.

Schindler also told Cain and Underwood about the day he revealed his homosexuality to the commanding officer of the Belleau Wood, Capt. Douglas Bradt.

“It was tough for him to do that, but he knew he couldn’t bear that situation any longer,” Underwood said. “When he told him, Allen said: ‘If I can’t be who I am, then who am I?’ ”

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Scheduled for a discharge soon, Schindler told the entertainers that he maintained a low profile aboard the Belleau Wood but word was spreading that he was gay.

“He was never loud about it but I think the wrong people got hold of the information,” Cain said.

Schindler, of Chicago Heights, Ill., spoke to Cain mainly about the problems he had being a gay sailor. To Underwood, he shared more of his personal life and his aspirations for his post-military career.

“He was just enamored of Eric,” Cain said.

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Underwood was happy to indulge Schindler’s questions about the show business life.

“The first night, we mostly spoke about me,” Underwood said. “He was really fascinated because (my life) was so different from anything he’d ever come into contact with before.”

Over the next few evenings, Schindler told more about his life--he showed Underwood his cartoon drawings, talked about his coming out to his mother and displayed photographs of a gay pride parade.

“Allen was an easygoing, gentle good guy,” Underwood said. “He had a certain zest for living. He wanted to find out what the rest of the world was like. . . . He was very curious,” Underwood said. “He had a lot to live for.”

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Schindler showed “before and after” photos of himself to Underwood, taking pride in a recent weight loss of about 25 pounds. Underwood said Schindler looked “all-American” and had “beautiful blue eyes.”

He talked to Underwood about telling his mother he was gay a year earlier.

“He said she didn’t really understand what it meant or what it was all about,” Underwood said. “She thought maybe he was joking.”

The next night Schindler was killed.

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Cain said he went to the public restroom where Schindler was slain and found blood all over the walls and inside the urinals. By the next day, someone had left a bouquet of flowers on the floor.

“I was completely shocked when I found out,” Underwood said. “I cried for three days in a row, off and on. Knowing Allen and knowing what potential he had and how he was trying to get his life together and pick up the pieces after the military experience, I just knew it was such a great loss.”

Underwood said Schindler would be thrilled to know that his death has become a focal point for gay activists trying to push for a reversal of the ban on gays in the military.

“He wasn’t ashamed of who he was,” Underwood said.

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