No Place to Rest : They wanted the charm--and the security--of life in a small town. But it all went tragically wrong for Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill, killed, perhaps, because they were in love.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is a town of grassy hills dotted with barns, a shopping mall where Sears is the big draw and a downtown, draped in winter frost and Christmas lights, five blocks long. No wonder legions of Californians have been driving in over the Siskiyous, plunking down their savings for a house or a small farm, and staying.

Since Jerry Lausmann moved here in 1942--he's been mayor five terms, only one man ever tried to run against him--Medford has busted out from a town of 11,500 to more than 55,000.

Five years ago, Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill left the increasingly uneasy atmosphere of Colorado Springs, Colo., where people objected to their lesbian lifestyle, to live in a small town where merchants in the stores would know who they were and they'd see faces they knew on the street when they went outside.

It worked. The two women started a successful property management business and got elected to the board of their church. They gave lectures at the schools on lesbian lifestyles and appeared on TV on behalf of local gay rights causes. They bought an old Craftsman-style house and fixed it up, cooked elaborate Mexican meals from scratch, became a pair of doting grandmas to Ellis' 3-year-old granddaughter.

They slipped into a friendly network of gay men and lesbians from places like Los Angeles and San Francisco who had found that, like much of the rest of America, they wanted a safe and comfortable place in which to grow old.

Veterans of urban violence sadly will find little to shock in the finale to their story: The bodies of the two women were found earlier this month in the back of Ellis' pickup, their hands and feet bound together with duct tape, each shot twice in the head. But in Medford, a postcard town suddenly forced to examine its own underbelly, there is much about the past weeks that has shaken what it imagined about itself.

Although Robert James Acremant--the 27-year-old suspect arrested Dec. 13 in the case--reportedly said he shot the women during a robbery attempt, gay rights organizations throughout the country have demanded a fuller explanation. And Medford itself has had to come to terms with a growing intolerance toward homosexuality.

The deaths of Ellis, 53, and Abdill, 42, come at a time when Oregon has narrowly defeated two statewide ballot measures prohibiting special legal protections for homosexuals--and conservative groups have launched new campaigns in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Medford and surrounding Jackson County are among the jurisdictions that approved local anti-gay rights ordinances in 1993, although the measures have since been tied up in court.

Nationally, gay rights organizations say the move to limit legal protections for homosexuals has led to a surge in violence against gay men and lesbians. Anti-gay murders have nearly doubled in the years since such initiatives emerged in Oregon, Colorado, Idaho and Maine, and a total of 151 anti-gay murders were reported nationally from 1992 to 1994, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

"Although a suspect has been apprehended, much to the relief of all who knew the couple, we as a community have many unanswered questions and persistent concerns," the task force said in a statement Thursday. "Like many in the Medford community, our concerns and suspicions about the motives of this crime cannot be fully assuaged until we understand the connection between anti-gay prejudice and the risk of hate crimes against gay people."

The case of Ellis and Abdill has prompted gay organizations to demand a Justice Department inquiry into the link between hate crimes and anti-gay ballot initiatives, and it also has drawn a flood of financial contributions from around the country into Medford, where the couple's friends are hoping to build a gay community center.

At a memorial service for the two women last week, Lausmann declared Medford a hate-free city, and city leaders have launched a series of meetings with the community to determine what that will mean and how it can be implemented. Flags around the city were flown at half-staff last week.

"Whatever happens, this case will have had a lasting effect," Lausmann said in an interview. "There's been a very slowly growing groundswell of this kind of thing [intolerance]. But this case has brought a lot of understanding between the gay community and the straight community. There was so much sorrow and revulsion over this thing that it's just not going to go away."

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Ellis and Abdill met in Colorado, where Ellis was working as an obstetrical nurse and Abdill got a job in the same doctor's office. Ellis was divorced, with two children, but the two women realized that the bond of friendship between them was growing into something more, and they committed to each other as lifetime partners.

Wanting to get out of Colorado, they joined Abdill's mother in Medford, where she had started a real estate school. Once there, they started their own property management business, hiring Ellis' daughter Lorri to work in the office.

The two women quickly eased into the community, becoming outspoken activists in the fight against the two anti-gay rights initiatives in 1992 and 1994. They appeared on television and at fundamentalist Christian churches, bringing the message that biblical scripture does not condemn homosexuals.

"They were tremendously brave in quiet and unobtrusive ways," recalls friend Laura Hamilton, who came to Medford from San Francisco a few years ago because of its comfortable, small-town atmosphere. "They weren't hugely public or anything. But they were eloquent one on one."

When two friends were dying of AIDS last year, Abdill and Ellis went to their home daily, bringing meals, changing bedpans, adjusting IVs and working in the yard.

"I spent a lot of time with that family, and I never heard any one of them say anything negative. It was always just a whole lot of love," said Rhonda Loftis, a transplant from Long Beach. "They complemented each other, their personalities. This is how I'm going to memorialize them: Michelle was the flame that burns, and Roxanne was the candle that supported her, and gave her this energy and fuel to shine."

The two women were frequently seen toting around Lorri's daughter, Hannah, who called Ellis "grandma" and Abdill "baba." Cherie Garland, a close friend of the couple whose own two children are homosexual, made Hannah a T-shirt playing off the booklet often waved around by anti-gay groups, "Heather Has Two Mommies." The T-shirt Hannah wears says, "Hannah Has Two Grandmas."

Garland is another immigrant from Southern California--from Pomona. She said she has encountered a rising homophobic sentiment that has been part of the backdrop in Medford. A few years ago, she and her husband began getting anonymous calls about their son. "Is that bastard queer son of yours dead yet?" the man said. "Why don't you take a gun and shoot him?"

"The ignorance is astounding. Absolutely astonishing," Garland said. "Last night my husband talked to his sister in Texas. He was explaining to her how wonderful these women were and why we were grieving. Her response was, 'Well, I hope you're not going to turn gay.' He was undone. Just undone."

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The Portland-based Coalition for Human Dignity has tracked a number of ultraconservative, racist groups operating in the Medford area, including a chapter of the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, Christian Identity, the Ku Klux Klan and two citizens' militias.

The Oregon Citizens Alliance, the powerful conservative group that sponsored the two previous anti-gay rights ballot initiatives and is collecting signatures for a third, has said it has no connections to any violence against homosexuals. But director Lon Mabon said sentiment in Oregon is even stronger now in favor of legislation prohibiting special legal protections based on sexual orientation.

"I think we'll be successful," said Mabon, noting that last year's initiative fell just short of 49% of the vote. "I think more people are realizing what we said eight or nine years ago, that there's an agenda to make normal in American culture certain sexual behaviors. There are more instances of diversity training, more things coming to light about multiculturalism, that homosexuality is presented as normal in AIDS education, and there's nothing in place, nothing in the law, to stop it."

Medford police say they have no evidence that the two women's murders were a hate crime, but they are not yet ruling it out.

"We're going to take it very slowly, not jumping to any conclusions," said police spokesman Sgt. Mike Moran.

Although Acremant, the suspect, has told several people that he had simply intended to rob the women, he has also said it "crossed my mind a couple of times" that they were lesbians. The families and representatives for the gay community here say the facts don't fit with a simple robbery, and the authorities admit there are lingering unanswered questions.

Police believe Ellis made contact with her killer at 11 a.m. on Dec. 4, when she made an appointment to show a rental property in northeast Medford. She failed to respond to frequent pages from her daughter later in the day, and at 4 p.m., Lorri got a vague call from her mother saying she was going shopping. Lorri was disconcerted; it wasn't like Ellis to simply go off shopping on a busy day and not respond to pages.

At 5 p.m., Abdill said she was leaving the office to go help Ellis, whose car reportedly wouldn't start. No one knows if the call came from Ellis or someone else. Later, Lorri drove over to the complex where her mother was going to be showing the apartment and saw the pickup, but said it pulled away from her as she tried to follow it.

Neither woman was ever seen alive again. Ellis' truck with the two bodies in the back of it was found in a parking lot on the other side of town three days later.

Police now believe Ellis was with the suspect all afternoon. There was nothing wrong with her car, they said.

After widespread publicity about the case, a woman who had moved to Medford from California three weeks earlier with her son phoned a police tip line to say she believed her son, Acremant--an MBA graduate from San Francisco's Golden Gate University and an employee at a trucking company in Los Angeles until May--might have committed the murders.

Police contacted authorities in Visalia, where Acremant had also lived earlier this year, and found he was also under investigation there in the Oct. 3 disappearance and suspected homicide of one of his friends. He was tracked down to a Stockton motel room a week ago and arrested.

In a jailhouse interview with the San Francisco Examiner in Stockton, Acremant said he tried to rob the women because of his frustration when he couldn't find another position after quitting his job at Roadway Trucking in Los Angeles. He said not having money became "a major stressor," and he broke up with his girlfriend because he didn't have enough money to visit her in Las Vegas.

He told the newspaper that he planned to get money from the property management firm by luring Abdill and Ellis to a vacant apartment. Killing them was simply a sudden impulse, he said, but he also admitted he knew and didn't like the fact that they were lesbians.

"I don't care for lesbians," he said. "I couldn't help but think that she's 54 years old and had been dating that woman for 12 years: Isn't that sick?" He added, "That's someone's grandma, for God's sake. Could you imagine my grandma a lesbian with another woman? I couldn't believe that. It crossed my mind a couple times, lesbo grandma, what a thing, huh?"

In a subsequent interview with the Oregonian, Acremant said there was a common thread to the killings of the two women and his friend, Scott George, who police believe Acremant shot before coming to Oregon. After Acremant told his father where he had hidden George's body, police Monday morning found a body believed to be his at the bottom of a mine shaft on the father's ranch outside Stockton.

"You have to know something about pathology, something about signatures," Acremant told the Oregonian. "The definition of a mass murder is more than two murders as part of the same act. What was the act? That's the big question."

Authorities in Tulare County believe Acremant also burst into the home of a 20-year-old family friend there the day before his arrest last week, handcuffing her, holding her at gunpoint and demanding money.

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Leaders of Medford's gay community say they still aren't convinced the killing of Abdill and Ellis was simply a robbery.

"We know the killer enacted a deliberate, calculated process of entrapment. We know the killer wanted both victims. We know that money and credit cards were left at the scene. We know that the murderer killed the victims execution-style--bound at the hands and feet, gagged and blindfolded before being shot twice in the head at close range," community leaders said at a news conference last week. "We want our suspicions to be addressed, and we need our concerns to be laid to rest so we can move on in peace."

Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. John Bondurant said he is less inclined than he was to consider the killings a hate crime. But he also said he does not believe the intent was simply a robbery.

"I can't say for sure, but I personally don't believe that robbery was the motive," he said. "It may have been part of it, but there's just too much evidence there that doesn't point to a robbery. There's no property of theirs that he took. There were purses, wallets, jewelry, cell phones and money that was not taken. So that to me does not point to a robbery."

The arrest, meanwhile, has done little to ease the fears of lesbians in Medford, who wonder whether the small town haven they longed for is as safe as they believed.

"There's a tremendous sense of fear, and I don't think it's ended because of this arrest. [Acremant] represents a faction we all know is in this community and in this country. For me personally, he's just one of many people out there who mean me harm, and that's something I go through my day with consciously," Hamilton said.

She added that she often gets "weird looks" when she pulls into a convenience store, and then realizes it's because of her bumper sticker, which says, "We Are Everywhere."

"There are people out there who are aggressively threatened by me driving around with that bumper sticker," she said. "I came from the Bay Area, where there was more vocalized outrage. Here, it's more subtle."

Robert Bray, spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in San Francisco and a friend of Abdill and Ellis, said the case reflects the kind of problems typical in conservative small towns.

When the two women moved to Medford, "I remember wondering why would they do something like that, move to a place like Medford? But I realized they appreciated those same small-town values that everybody else does--a close-knit community, everybody takes care of each other," he said. "Until the time comes when we know that gay people can live safely in small towns, then our souls will never rest easily."

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