Alabama Town Stunned by Nation’s Latest Hate Slaying
People here never dreamed they’d become famous for hate, not in a town that prides itself on being the birthplace of Jim Nabors, TV’s lovable Gomer Pyle.
But now, residents in this rural part of central Alabama must cope with the news that two local men have committed the latest hate crime to horrify the nation.
To a growing list of nationally mourned victims--including Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student in Wyoming, and James Byrd Jr., a 49-year-old black man in Texas--officials here are adding the name of Billy Jack Gaither, a 39-year-old gay man whom one woman called “a sweetheart.”
It happened Feb. 26. Gaither left his Sylacauga home for an evening’s fun with two straight friends, unaware they had allegedly been plotting his murder for two weeks, ever since claiming he offended them by making sexual overtures.
The men, 25-year-old Steven Eric Mullins and 21-year-old Charles Monroe Butler, gave full confessions this week, telling police they bludgeoned their friend with an ax handle and then burned his body with a stack of old tires.
The crime prompted an outraged statement Friday from President Clinton.
“In times like this,” Clinton said, “the American people pull together and speak with one voice because the acts of hatred that led to the deaths of such innocent men are also acts of defiance against the values our society holds most dear.”
A local resident on an off-road romp found Gaither’s body Feb. 27, lying in a remote area of Coosa County called Peckerwood Creek, about 30 miles south of here. The creek is where Christians have held baptisms for years.
“There’s nothing there but dirt roads and trees and a creek,” said Sheriff’s Deputy Al Bradley.
Sylacauga, where Gaither and the suspects lived, is a quiet town of 13,000 people, about 50 miles south of Birmingham. Rockford, where the suspects were being held, isn’t even that big.
“We’re mostly country people,” Bradley said. “There’s only about 500 people inside our city limits. We don’t have a traffic light per se. We got a four-way stop in town that has just a caution light. Most everybody has chickens and cows, and everybody has a dog.”
Folks were stunned, he added, to learn what had happened in their midst.
Gaither was last seen Feb. 19, at the Tavern, a Sylacauga roadhouse where he was a regular. A low-slung country-and-western bar with two dartboards and a dance floor, the Tavern was filled with his friends, who included the owner, Marion Hammonds, one of his frequent dance partners.
“He didn’t ever put anybody in [an awkward] position,” she told the local newspaper. “People didn’t know he was gay. I danced with him all the time.”
“He was a sweetheart,” said Donna McKee, a bartender. “He had a good soul. He was very social. Though I never saw him come in with anyone, he had a lot of friends here.”
McKee said she used to needle Gaither about his fastidious appearance. “I used to tease him about his dark glasses and his well-combed hair. I wanted to mess his hair up. He was always meticulous.”
In nearby Alexander City, where Gaither worked for years at the Russell Distribution Center, which manufactures sportswear, a co-worker said he was a pleasure to be around.
“We were shocked,” said Jennifer Thompson. “He was a very nice person to work for, and he was well-suited to the job he had.” Gaither was a supervisor at the distribution center, she said.
Of the suspects, she added: “I’m a Christian, and I can’t say, ‘Hang them.’ But I sure would like to.”
The two suspects are being held in lieu of $500,000 bond. They face a March 17 pretrial hearing, and both are waiting for lawyers to be appointed. Mullins was unemployed; Butler was a construction worker.
Bradley said the police case was helped when Butler couldn’t sleep and confided to a friend about his part in the slaying. “He was having trouble in his conscience,” Bradley said.
Local officials who saw the crime scene may have trouble sleeping too. They called it the worst they had ever run across.
“It’s very bad,” Bradley said. “I’ve been in law enforcement going on 17 years, and I’ve seen a lot of things, but this is tragic. Because somebody is the way they want to be, you just want to take them and kill them and burn them up?”
Mark Potok, spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, said Americans are deluding themselves if they think Shepard, Byrd and Gaither have been the only victims of hate crimes in recent months.
“The level of violence and the ferocity of the violence has been really remarkable,” he said. “We’ve heard of Shepard and we’ve heard of Byrd, now we’ve heard of this case, but who’s heard of Sonya Thompson, a 38-year-old woman in Albany, N.Y., who was shot in the neck by two white guys who’d gone out to hunt down a black person with a semiautomatic rifle?”
The crime, Potok said, happened more than a year ago, and it’s one of dozens of wanton acts of hate-motivated violence that have escaped national attention.
“We’re seeing between a dozen and three dozen hate murders per year,” he said. “Alabama reported zero hate crimes the last two years. There’s no question that’s patently false.”
Alabama is one of 41 states with laws against hate crimes, but it’s one of 20 states that don’t consider sexual orientation grounds for hate crime status.
Researchers routinely report that hate crimes directed at homosexuals are more severe than others, Potok said. “It’s rather as if the people are trying to eradicate the very persona of the victim.”
Joan Garry, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said some of the blame for Gaither’s death must be laid at the feet of hard-core conservatives and Christian preachers who vilify homosexuals.
“As an anti-defamation organization,” she said from New York, “GLAAD sees time and time again that hateful rhetoric has real impact on real people’s lives. How many more times do we have to see tragedy before that becomes clear to the American public and policymakers?”
A candlelight vigil for Gaither was planned for Monday night in Sylacauga. There, Friday afternoon, a young mother carried her 4-month-old baby into the offices of the Daily Home. She pointed to the picture of one of the suspects, printed on the front page.
“I knew him,” Amanda Barron said. “When I worked at Dollar General, he’d come in and he was real quiet. He’d buy his stuff and he’d be very nice.”
She said she couldn’t believe that the menacing picture on the front page was her former customer.
“That picture doesn’t look like him. It makes him look evil.”