In the summer of 2008, Unfinished Lives project director Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle researched the circumstances of several anti-gay hate crimes in America’s deep south. Sprinkle toured hate crime scenes, spoke with loved ones and friends of the victims, and preserved information about the lives and stories of LGBT persons killed only for their sexual orientation. Sprinkle’s research on behalf of the project took him to Texas’s Gulf Coast, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina.
June 2008 – Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – Unfinished Lives project director Stephen V. Sprinkle conducted research on Steven Domer.
June 2008 – Kansas City, Missouri – Unfinished Lives project director Stephen V. Sprinkle conducted research on Barry Winchell.
June 2008 – Houston, Texas – Project director Stephen Sprinkle traveled to Houston and the Gulf Coast region of Texas to investigate the Kenneth Cummings Jr. hate-crime murder. During that same trip, Dr. Sprinkle preached at Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church for its Pride Week observances.
After Sprinkle preached and presented “Unfinished Lives” at a special June 15 afternoon event, Senior Minister DeWayne Johnson led the congregation in prayer for the Unfinished Lives project, Dr. Sprinkle, and his summer research for the upcoming book.
For the next five days, Dr. Sprinkle traveled to sites relating to the murder of 46-year-old Southwest Airlines Flight Attendant, Kenneth Cummings, Jr.
Ken was a regular in the Montrose section of downtown Houston, the center of the metro area’s LGBT community. Here is EJ’s bar, a friendly, neighborhood gay pub where Ken first saw his murderer, Terry Mark Mangum:
This is the billiards area of EJ’s where Mangum, an ex-con, stalked his potential targets:
Ken and Mangum talked here and exchanged phone numbers. Ken had no idea Mangum was hunting a gay person to kill. On Sunday, June 4, 2007, Ken called friends saying that JR’s, another Montrose establishment, was “dead,” and suggested that he would just go home, since he had a flight early the next week.
Instead, he called Mangum, hooked up with him, and invited him to his home in suburban Pearland.
Mangum drove a 6-inch knife blade into Ken’s skull as he sat drinking a glass of wine. Mangum loaded Ken’s body in the trunk of Ken’s car, drove it to his grandfather’s ranch south of San Antonio, and tried to burn his remains in a shallow pit he dug in a dry stock tank. Ken’s body was burned beyond recognition, and could only be identified by dental records.
Dr. Sprinkle talked with co-workers, Houston Police officers, and Ken’s best friend of many years to gain insight into who this gentle, happy man really was. In August of 2008, a Brazoria County jury found Mangum, who claimed that God had called him to wipe out sexual perverts, guilty and sentenced him to life in prison.
June 2008 – Alabama, Part I – After leaving the Texas Gulf Coast, Unfinished Lives project director Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle traveled to Alabama and performed research about the life and murder of Billy Jack Gaither. His work brought him to Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Sylacauga and Montgomery. Sprinkle met with scholars, students, humanitarians, and members of the Gaither family.
In Tuscaloosa Sprinkle met Dr. Beverly Hawk, Ph.D., Director of the Crossroads Community Center at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Dr. Hawk is a noted scholar who studies diversity and hate crimes, and is a friend of the Gaither family. She worked to establish the Billy Jack Gaither Humanitarian Award, given annually on the anniversary of his death.
Sprinkle then traveled to Birmingham, where his host was David Gary, a bank officer and dedicated LGBT activist well-known throughout Alabama. Gary is a master networker, and a true humanitarian. He is one of the founders of Integrity Alabama, the LGBT Episcopal advocacy group.
One of the most significant moments of the summer came when Sprinkle met Kathy Joe Gaither, Billy Jack Gaither’s elder sister. Kathy Joe is the keeper of the flame of her brother’s memory.
Billy Jack had to travel up to Birmingham in order to experience freedom as a gay man. His favorite bar was the Toolbox, which is now named “Phoenix”
Sprinkle then traveled to Sylacauga, Billy Jack’s home town. On the night of his murder in February 1999, Billy Jack Gaither left his home on Pelham Avenue.
Gaither gave his two murderers a ride to The Tavern, Gaither’s local hangout.
His murderers later cut him severely, forced him into the trunk of his own car, and transported him to the kill-site on Peckerwood Creek, a virtually inaccessible spot these days. There they killed him with blows from a wooden ax handle, dragged his lifeless body to a pyre of kerosene soaked tires, and immolated him. Gaither’s killers have been convicted of murder.
Billy Jack Gaither has been laid to rest beside his father, Marion, at Evergreen Cemetery in Sylacauga.
Sprinkle also traveled to the National Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, a facility that preserves the memories of slain Civil Rights advocates and others. In the Plaza, beside the memorial fountain, he spoke to youth from New York State who were visiting the Center’s museum.
The Center educates and motivates visitors for the cause of civil rights and tolerance. Notably, the Center has memorialized Billy Jack, giving him a tablet in its hall of remembrance.
June 2008 – Alabama, Part II – After leaving Montgomery, Alabama, in late June 2008, Unfinished Lives project director Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle continued his research, learning about the life and murder of Scotty Joe Weaver.
First, Sprinkle traveled to Bay Minette, Baldwin County, Alabama, 30 miles from Mobile. This was the home of 18-year-old Scotty Joe Weaver.
Scotty, who had been harassed for being gay until he dropped out of high school, went to work as a cook for the Bay Minette Waffle House. He earned pretty good money for the first time in his life, money that allowed him to pursue his avocation as a female impersonator who favored Dolly Parton, and to rent his own trailer in Dobbins Trailer Park with his mother’s help.
A truly generous person, Scotty Joe invited two unemployed former schoolmates to live in the trailer with him. The young woman was a person he had known since grade school. In short order, his trailer guests invited another young man to live with them. Tensions arose.
Scotty’s three guests ambushed him in his sleep, robbed him of around $65, strangled him, and cruelly tortured him for hours, mutilating him while he was still alive. After partially decapitating him, they hauled his body to a remote wooded area outside Bay Minette, urinated on his corpse, and burned his body beyond recognition. Dental records eventually identified him. A vigorous investigation, headed by Baldwin County District Attorney David Whetstone, led to the arrest of Scotty’s three killers. The two men have been sentenced to life, and the woman to 20 years in prison.
Vigils were held in nearby Mobile, led by Bay Area Inclusion founder Tony Thompson, local PFLAG founder Suzanne Cleveland, and LGBT activist Rev. Helene Loper from Tuscaloosa. Today, however, most of the story has been forgotten, an example of how swiftly LGBT hate crimes are swept away from view.
Here is the Bryars McGill Cemetery in far north Baldwin County where Scotty Joe has been laid to rest. His grave lies as far from the road as you can get. Scotty Joe’s tombstone shows the loving remembrance of a mother.
June and July 2008 – Florida – After leaving Bay Minette, Alabama, Unfinished Lives project director Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle traveled to Florida and performed research about the life and murder of 26-year-old Ryan Keith Skipper. His research took him to Winter Haven, Auburndale, and Wahneta.
In Auburndale Dr. Sprinkle met Lynn Mulder, Ryan’s stepfather, and spoke about the Unfinished Lives Project to the Polk County PFLAG chapter. Pat and Lynn Mulder are both healthcare professionals, respected, long-time residents of Auburndale. Their open welcome and willingness to share Ryan’s story and his friends was the highlight of the summer for Dr. Sprinkle.
Lynn and Pat keep Ryan’s cat, Baby, who wanders through the house looking for him still. Lynn toured Dr. Sprinkle to the sights associated with his son: First Missionary Baptist Church, Auburndale, Ryan’s home church, Grace Lutheran School, Winter Haven, where Ryan attended, Winter Haven High School, where Ryan graduated in spite of being harassed virtually daily for being gay by students who yelled epithets and threw rotten oranges and even stones at his car and his person.
Dr. Sprinkle traveled to Wahneta, a small, rural community south of Auburndale where Ryan and two girlfriends rented a little red house, 211 Richburg.
His killers–Bearden, who lived in a trailer in Eloise, just north of Wahneta, and Brown, who lived in a disheveled trailer park within biking distance of Ryan and the girls–planned to kill him after he returned from work at the Sunglass Hut in the Lakeland Mall. They tricked him with the story that they needed a ride, and directed him to drive down a lonely road where they slashed him to death with knives, nearly decapitating him. They left him on the side of Morgan road. The local woman who discovered Ryan’s body reported that it looked like someone had turned on a sprinkler of blood.
Bearden and Brown unsuccessfully tried to fence Ryan’s car that night, after bragging to friends about what they had done. They drove it to this public boat ramp on Lake Pansy, and set the car afire. In short order, they were apprehended, charged with murder, and have yet to stand trial.
The Mulders and Ryan’s elder brother, Damien, carried out a vigil here in Auburndale’s city park where hundreds gathered to remember him. Vigils were carried out in many other cities and towns in Florida to express outrage at the brutality of his murder.
Here, in Auburndale, Ryan lies in peace, and is not forgotten.
2004– Fort Lauderdale, Florida
June 2006– San Francisco Bay Area, California, to conduct research on Diane Whipple, Gwen Araujo, and Harvey Milk.
In the summer of 2006, Unfinished Lives project director Stephen V. Sprinkle visited the San Francisco Bay Area to conduct research about anti-LGBT hate crimes victims. His work included research about Harvey Milk. Sprinkle shares some of his recollections from the trip:
“On my first major trip to study LGBT hate crimes murder victims, I traveled to Gay Mecca, the Castro in San Francisco. Though this was one of several visits to Castro Street through the years, the summer of 2006 was different. It was the year I met Harvey.
“Gay life is as vibrant as those who live it, and the Castro is Ground Zero for all LGBT people thanks to Harvey, the ‘Mayor of Castro Street.’ On my way to the HRC Store, I had walked right by Harvey Milk’s camera shop without noticing it. A friendly clerk at the HRC named Fidel pointed me back there, and I walked back across the street and down the block until I stood facing the closed and vacant shop at 575 Castro Street. Down at my feet was a bronze plaque commemorating Harvey’s shop and home.
“I looked up and saw a mural of Harvey standing in the window, looking down from the second floor at the beloved community he represented as the first openly gay person elected to a major office in America. He and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in City Hall by Dan White, a disgruntled former city supervisor, on November 27, 1978.”
July 2006 – Laramie, Wyoming
July 2006– Cortez, Colorado, to conduct research on F.C. Martinez.
2006– Fort Lauderdale and Miami, Florida