To live and die in Grant Town.
In Grant Town, W.Va., three white crosses mark the spot where Arthur C. Warren Jr.'s body was found early in the morning of the Fourth of July.
Inscriptions from friends read R.I.P. and WE LOVE YOU J.R.--the name by which the openly gay black man was known in this town of 400 people. Flowers adorn a rusted-out bridge nearby that crosses quiet Paw Paw Creek, a trickle of water that cuts the town in two.
A small, gentle man with a birth defect--his family says he weighed about 135 pounds and was born with a hand missing several fingers--Warren met a horrifying death. Around midnight on July 3, law enforcement officials say, Jared Wilson and David Allen Parker, 17-year-old cousins who were both white, kicked the 26-year-old Warren to death in an abandoned house Parker's family owns. The teens, who have been charged with murder, were reported to have worn steel-toed work boots during the attack. Authorities say a third boy, Jason Shoemaker, 15, looked on without protest, though he has not been charged with any crime. Because of his size and birth defect, it's likely Warren could put up little resistance, especially against Parker, whom neighbors describe as large and muscular.
As if the attack were not enough, officials say the three boys then stuffed Warren's body in the trunk of a dark Camaro, drove the short distance to a gravel strip beneath the town power plant, dumped his corpse on the side of the road, and repeatedly ran over it, hoping to disguise the crime as a hit-and-run accident. His body was found near a sign that reads GRANT TOWN: GROWING PROGRESSIVE COMMUNITY.
The boys' motive? Early reports said the older boys acted out of fear that Warren would brag about a sexual relationship he had with one or both of them. They might have succeeded in their gruesome cover-up had Shoemaker not suffered a crisis of conscience and confessed the crime to his mother.
Warren's killing, which draws inevitable comparisons to the 1998 beating death of Laramie, Wyo., resident Matthew Shepard underscores the stark realities as well as the complexities and contradictions faced by gay men and lesbians in this rural part of the country. While residents say there is a "live and let live" attitude, they also accept the closet as a fact of life. Those who are "too out" invariably suffer consequences, and political activism is anathema. The dramatic nature of this crime has thrust many local gays into an unwanted spotlight, sometimes in the even more visible role of activist, as they assist national gay groups in their quest to classify Warren's murder as a hate crime.
Even though Grant Town is small, Warren was not its only gay resident. This is a place where gay people say they feel at home despite the recent events. Among those people is Rick Ravenscroft, 49, who lives in a trim brick house not far from where Warren died. Ravenscroft was the first person to whom Warren confided his homosexual feelings, and the two were friends throughout Warren's brief adult life. A musician who speaks in a slow, melodic voice, Ravenscroft describes Warren as sweet, peace-loving, and somewhat effeminate. "He was gentle and kind," Ravenscroft says. "And he was a timid boy." While reports of the murder classify Warren as learning-disabled, Ravenscroft says his friend's greatest problem was an inability to understand the nuances of some social situations, particularly those in which being gay could pose a danger.
"Someone might hit him one day and call him all sorts of names," Ravenscroft says. "Then the next day, if they said they wanted to be friends again, he'd say OK." (In fact, Warren told friends that he had been physically and verbally attacked less than two years ago while walking past a group of local kids.) Today, Warren's final moments of life haunt Ravenscroft's imagination: "I can hear him screaming and begging for his life and not putting up any fight."
The murder also has made Ravenscroft relive his own bad experiences. He was harassed for two years after a boyfriend moved in with him. First teenagers from a neighboring town drove by in pickup trucks and shouted "Faggot!" Then they threw eggs at his house and, later, beer bottles through his windshield. Finally they shot through his front windows with a crossbow. Five teenagers were eventually caught but barely punished for the attacks. A judge sentenced them to six months' probation and fined them $2.50 each to replace the windows. Nevertheless, Ravenscroft chooses to stay in Grant Town. "Grant Town is not Hateville," he says. "It is my home. I grew up here, and I am respected here."
That's not to say gays in Grant Town don't look elsewhere for social activities. Twelve miles down a winding mountain road is the county seat, Fairmont, population 20,000. The city is the hub of local gay life and home to Fairmont State College, where Warren attended meetings of a gay student group. His friends at the college were the first to bring his murder to national attention.
Without their calls to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, it is likely the murder would have gone unnoticed. Students such as Angela Dunlap, 27, one of the leaders of the college group, say they got involved only because county sheriff Ron Watkins immediately discounted Warren's sexual orientation as a possible motive for his killing. "Our position the entire time was simply to express our concern to the prosecutor and the sheriffs department that every possible motive be looked at," Dunlap says. "The sheriff immediately said that sexuality had nothing to do with it." (Watkins did not return repeated calls from The Advocate.)
Dunlap and others also organized a candlelight memorial at Fairmont's city hall several days after Warren's death. The vigil drew approximately 400 people, including the minions of antigay minister Fred Phelps. As part of the vigil local students orchestrated an "angel action" similar to those held in Wyoming and blocked Phelps's hate banners with large cloth angel wings.
Despite such successful efforts, the students describe themselves as "accidental activists" and find themselves in a contradictory position. While they wanted the crime to attract attention, they say they were not prepared for the firestorm that erupted and feel at odds with national gay organizations whose goal, they say, is to establish the murder as a hate crime. Now they have to live not only with Warren's brutal murder but also with unwanted publicity, which has put enormous strains on their relationships with their families and the community.
"I have family nearby, so I have to be careful," says Faye Swiger, 21, who helped organize the vigil for Warren. Dunlap says her grandmother was extremely embarrassed to see her name connected to gay activists in local papers. "She keeps hoping I'm going to meet the right guy someday," she says.
Just coming out, the gay students say, can cause problems with family and friends. Dunlap says her parents have not spoken with her since they found out nearly three years ago that she is a lesbian. Swiger says her mother took her to a preacher who compared her to someone who likes bestiality and said she "made God sick."
The Human Rights Campaign's high-profile push to have Warren's murder classified as a hate crime didn't help matters, the students say. "HRC representatives started to call us `the activists from West Virginia,'" Dunlap says, adding that the association with the national group made some of the students uncomfortable. Although Dunlap essentially agrees with HRC's mission, she says the group's loud proclamations from the steps of Fairmont's city hall the night of the vigil were a turnoff to some residents who might otherwise have been sympathetic.
"That just is not how things are handled around here," Dunlap says. "Things get settled here over a cup of coffee and a handshake." Swiger adds that HRC showed little concern about the potential fallout for local gays and lesbians from the group's publicity campaign. "When the smoke clears and the press and HRC go," she notes, "we are the ones left to face our community, and people will say, `Why has all this been said?'"
David Smith, a communications director for HRC, says that Warren's death has all the earmarks of a hate crime and that attention needs to be brought to it. "Do we jump at cases that highlight the need for legislation? We do that," he says regarding the students' complaints. "The sad thing is, there is no shortage of these types of cases, and we need to shine the national spotlight on them."
People in West Virginia know firsthand just how commonplace murders like Warren's are. In March 1998, 27-year-old Brian Crichfield was stabbed 26 times by two assailants after he tried to pick up one of them in Morgantown. That killing went unnoticed by the national gay groups and national media. "[Warren's murder] was not an isolated event," says Tammy Bucklew, a friend of Crichfield's. "It gets swept under the rug, more often than not, in small towns." One man was sentenced to 40 years in prison for Crichfield's murder. Another still awaits trial.
And near the state capital, Charleston, just two weeks after Warren's death, yet another gay man was bludgeoned, with a clawhammer, allegedly by a male acquaintance he had met at a party. The victim ended up hospitalized in a coma.
At press time, authorities in Fairmont were still deciding how to deal with Warren's death. They had yet to determine if the 17-year-old suspects would stand trial as adults. If charged as adults, the two could face life in prison. If charged as juveniles, they could be free by age 21. A source in the prosecutor's office says the murder will not be classified as a racially based hate crime.
Like West Virginia's law, the federal hate-crimes law does not cover sexual orientation. Nevertheless, on July 20 the Justice Department stepped in and declared its intention to launch its own investigation into whether the Warren case falls under its jurisdiction. The decision followed an emotional HRC-facilitated meeting in Washington, D.C., between Warren's parents and deputy attorney general Eric Holder and assistant attorney general for civil rights Bill Lann Lee.
Meanwhile, those in West Virginia hope some good may come of the Warren tragedy. "There is a great deal of ambiguity about where gays fit in here," says Lou H. Perkins II, a bisexual artist who uses the name Phoenix. "Now they know we are here, and we have a positive voice."
Quittner has contributed to Business Week and Newsday.
Find news updates on the Warren murder case as developments happen at www.advocate.com
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|Title Annotation:||murder of gay man in West Virginia town|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Aug 29, 2000|
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