Buzz Bissinger’s “The Killing Trail” — his unremittingly bleak 1995 account of “fag-bashing” in Texas — was his first story for Vanity Fair. (He is still a contributor, and has a story in the February issue.) Bissinger took on the story after an editor approached him. From start to finish, “The Killing Trail” took about three months to do. “The piece was written nearly 19 years ago, according to my math,” he told me. “I am glad to report I am still alive.” (For more Bissinger, read about how his Nieman year inspired his narrative nonfiction bestseller Friday Night Lights; revisit his 2012 appearance at Lippmann House, for the Nieman Narrative Speaker Series; and check out Pulitzer winner Deborah Blum’s “Why’s this so good?” analysis of another Bissinger story, about the fabulist Stephen Glass, who was in the news yesterday after the California Supreme Court denied his request to practice law there.) Bissinger annotated “The Killing Trail” via email. My questions are in blue , his answers in red .
“The Killing Trail”
By Buzz Bissinger
THE PARK. Each section starts this way — with the setting. Why? Because the story switches back and forth and locations change. I thought it was important to help ground the reader a little bit. Otherwise you might have trouble figuring out where you are in the story because there are a variety of different locales. Some stories just tell their own narrative; this was more of a puzzle where are you trying to fit together different stories. And throughout the story I come back to the park several times. I could have written about what happened at the park in one section but I felt it was more dramatic to break it up: Just when you think the worst has happened, something even worse occurs.
With its lush grass and gently sloping hill, the park spread open like a satin scarf against the hard angles of Dallas’s oil-boom architecture. But Hugh Callaway knew that he and his friend shouldn’t go to Reverchon Park. Word that the place was a meeting point for gay men had already seeped out among the teenagers who had discovered a new Texas pastime: Friday nights, it was high school football; Saturdays brought fag-bashing in Oak Lawn, where the queers lived. This sentence is jarring; the use of “fag-bashing” and “queers” is not the usual “objective,” reportorial language. You, more or less, took the slurs out of the hands of the bigots. I suppose you could call this “magazine” license, although what I like about magazine writing is the ability to use your own voice. I wasn’t trying to shock the reader. But I guess I did want to jar, get the reader’s attention right away, and also set up with language the horrid and visceral world we are about to enter. Using the word “gay” just doesn’t get the violence across. It is too gentle, too nice. These predators don’t “gay bash.” They “fag bash.” That’s a major difference, one that you can get across with the use of language.
Three years earlier, an 18-year-old from over in North Mesquite–a high-school kid on a fag-bashing expedition with some of his buddies–killed two gay men in Reverchon Park. Later he bragged about it, how he had stuck the gun in one victim’s mouth before shooting him, how he had stepped on the other man’s leg and shot him as he tried to crawl away. Where did you get these details? Court documents? With a story like this, what are the most valuable sources? Court documents. Clips. And in this particular instance an interview with Hugh Callaway, who obviously was there. Given that there was a conviction in the case, Callaway was, in my mind, a great source for this. And what he said did match up with court documents although he gave much more detail. The use of a primary source is of course the best. Court documents can always corroborate, and they can be a treasure trove of detail if you read every single word of them. Twice. No matter how obscure they might seem, don’t scan over them. Getting a thick and juicy court file that no one else has found is better than sex. Hugh Callaway also remembered, what every gay person across the state remembers like a brand on the arm, What convinced you that the sentence made such an impression on the gay population? There was enormous outcry over the judge’s comments so I extrapolated from clips. Interviews I did with gay leaders in the state also confirmed this. was the sentence the killer had received–30 years from a state district judge named Jack Hampton, who had previously been known around the courthouse as a hanging judge. It didn’t make sense to Callaway, until Hampton, in an interview with the Dallas Times Herald, unburdened himself:
“I don’t much care for queers cruising the streets picking up teenage boys,” said Hampton. “I’ve got a teenage boy. . . . These two guys wouldn’t have been killed if they hadn’t been cruising the streets picking up teenage boys,” the judge added, despite the fact that testimony never clearly showed that the two victims had solicited the murderer, Richard Lee Bednarski, for sex.
But 35-year-old Hugh Callaway and the man he called his partner, Thanh Nguyen, 29, went to the park anyway that October night in 1991. Perhaps they didn’t want the night to end. Perhaps the glow of dancing was still with them after the Wave, over on Maple, closed. Maybe what propelled them was simply the impulse to be outdoors on a beautiful night. Why did you use “perhaps” twice and “maybe”? Why the (illusion of?) uncertainty? I wanted to get in more atmosphere, set the stage a little more. I went to the Wave to just hang out so I knew obviously about the dancing. The second sentence was a device to get across in a writerly way that it was a beautiful night. On the other hand, I could not be 100 percent sure that they were feeling these things, although I did know they had gone to the Wave that night. I also knew, based on the interview with Callaway, that it was a beautiful night.
It was Nguyen’s idea to go. Still in the closet, he savored those moments when he could step out. And Callaway, despite his reservations, did not protest. Did you ever interview Callaway? It’s not clear. I did interview Callaway. I constantly see in stories in such august publications as the New Yorker where the writer says “…told me.” I assume it is put in there so the reader knows where the information is coming from. But there is also a certain amount of chest beating — you’re a journalist for fuck sakes, people are supposed to “tell” you things — and it completely fucks up narrative. It is also why I try to use as few direct quotes as possible in narrative pieces. Nonfiction writers fall in love with their quotes: Most quotes are really not that good, hardly showstoppers. They are terribly utilized. As a young reporter I, like everyone else, came back to the newsroom to tell my editor I got some great quotes. Until I realized the quotes weren’t great but (for) the information contained within them. Stories need to move forward and quotes can be horrible clunkers: A piece is really moving well and then the writer decides to use a bunch of quotes and the momentum stops dead. So I tend to very carefully paraphrase except in the rare instance you will see below where to paraphrase would squeeze all the juice out of what was being said. They stopped at McDonald’s to buy some food and then found a picnic table, where they began to eat. Before they finished, Callaway, with his coiled eyes and tightly wound body, noticed the men, three of them. They suddenly surrounded him and his friend. Then they robbed Callaway and Nguyen, and two of the assailants started pistol-whipping them while the other took ravenous bites of the burger and fries still lying on the table in the light of the full moon. All the while Callaway heard energized chants of “sissies” and “queers” and “faggots” and “gooks” going round and round in the night air.
The beating went on for about 20 minutes. From Nguyen, the assailants took an expensive gold necklace. Then they ordered the two friends to stand against the wall of a nearby park building.
Hugh Callaway heard one of the members of the trio turn to Corey Burley, then 19, and say, “Go ahead and shoot ’em. It ain’t that hard to do.” When Callaway stared into the faces of his persecutors, what he saw was a look of intense anticipation. He remembered how Vietnam vets had talked about “eye-fucking” during the war, and that’s what he believed the trio was doing, eye-fucking Callaway and Nguyen, dressing them up and down, relishing and reveling in each fearful movement, feverishly waiting to see how the two queers, the two faggots, would react at the pull of the trigger. Callaway could hear Nguyen move his lips, as if he was praying.
Then there was an explosion and a huge flash of light beneath the swollen moon.
THE TRAIL. On a frigid night in east Texas in 1993, just a few weeks before Christmas, a 23-year-old gay man named Nicholas West is abducted from Bergfeld Park in Tyler. He is taken to a hilly isolated area of red clay nicknamed the Pits, a place where pleas for mercy evaporate under the cold shine of the stars. He is punched, kicked and slapped across the face with a .357 magnum. When he falls to the ground, utterly alone and helpless in that marrow of darkness, blood oozing out of his eye, his three abductors gather around him with their arsenal of loaded weapons. Then the shooting begins–so many entrance and exit wounds that by the time of the autopsy, West’s body looks like a stickpin doll. There are at least 9 bullets, the first in the abdomen, then several through the arms and hands, then at least 4 up the back in a pattern as neatly spaced as the buttons on a shirt. Eight shots at that point, but Nicholas is still alive, his breath reduced to a tiny gurgle, until the final shot is fired into the back of his head. Then he is left on that field of red clay, face down, without shoes or pants, his arms by his sides and his legs spread apart like those of a sleeping child, the bottom of his socks red from the clay, and his underwear soiled by a fear that none of us could ever know. How deeply do you report your story — here and generally — and your attitude toward the reporting phase? What’s your methodology? The story was written nearly 19 years ago, so my memory ain’t so great. But the story was deeply reported — interviews with one of the killers on death row, the investigators (who showed me crime scene pictures such as the socks), court documents, going to the actual scene at least twice, autopsy report, clips, court transcripts if available and needed (at Vanity Fair we pay to have them transcribed if they have not been already), dozens of interviews, spending three weeks in Texas and crisscrossing the entire state. It seems to me that you have to work the reporting of a story as much as the writing, probably more so. If a story is wonderfully written but with little reporting, you can smell the holes and so can the reader. It has no weight. It feels insubstantial. Vice versa, with great reporting and okay writing, you can still come away with something terrific. I mean none of us are fucking Faulkner for chrissakes. What is key in the writing is knowing how to tell a story, not to get in the way of it, learning to let go of material that may be sublime but only slows down the engine. It has taken me nearly 40 years but what you leave out is just as important as what you leave in.
After the murder, one of the killers rides around in the red Mazda truck that West had driven to the park that night. Impressed by the power of the truck, he squeals the tires the way the drag racers do it. Then he goes on over to the laundromat on Troup Highway in Tyler to do a load of wash. The previous section is written in the past tense. This is written in the present tense. Why? It was simply a stylistic choice. I am always looking for honest drama and I just think the present tense works well in this section. Certainly an argument could be made to match up the tenses. But I think you have to go with your instincts.
The trail leaves the Baptist belt of east Texas and stretches its fingers for 400 miles into the mesquite and dry dust of west Texas, where an 18-year-old named Ramsey Blake Harrell is tried in Midland in February, 1994 for the killing of a 48-year-old gay hairstylist named Tommy Musick. Musick was shot four times in the back of the head. Harrell’s defense, according to testimony in the case, is that he went insane after Musick allegedly made persistent sexual advances toward a friend. During the trial, much is made of Musick’s lifestyle, the way he carried a “purse” and the fact that he had a lover. A jury finds Harrell guilty of shooting Tommy Musick, then sentences him to 12 years, meaning that he could be in prison as little as three years, less than one year for every shot fired.
The trail leaves the west Texas prairie and moves 300 miles southeast over oil fields and high school football fields and the thick bluebonnets of the Hill Country to San Antonio, where the newspaper, the Express-News, decides to publish the names of men who have been arrested in city parks on misdemeanor charges such as public lewdness and indecent exposure. One man on the list is suddenly fired from the job where he has worked for 13 years. Another is hauled into court by his ex-wife, who succeeds in changing their custody agreement so that he is allowed only supervised visitation with his children. Another man named by the newspaper, Benny Hogan, has just started a new “dream” job in San Antonio as an insurance adjuster. All his life, until June 2, when his name is published, Hogan has kept his sexual preference private from family and close friends. On Sunday, June 5, as nearly 12,000 people celebrate Gay Pride in San Antonio, Benny Hogan hangs himself in his garage. This is an extraordinary paragraph, packed with such detail about the region, the action of the paper, a sketch of Hogan and, finally, his suicide. How long would you, and do you, spend on something like this? I can’t really say. I know that some of the scene-setting, such as the “thick bluebonnets of the Hill Country,” came from being there when I wrote Friday Night Lights and also seeing pictures. Obviously I got all the clippings associated with the newspaper’s outing. I also interviewed Hogan’s brother and sister-in-law at length.
The trail moves 200 miles east to Houston, where on a July night, a 29-year-old gay man named Michael Burzinski has just come out of a bar. Four teenagers abduct him as he is unlocking his car in the parking lot. In the parlance of the street, they are looking “to get paid”. They have picked Montrose because it is the gay area of town, and they assume that homosexuals carry lots of cash and are easy targets. Burzinski is beaten until he reveals the password for his cash card, then is driven to an A.T.M. facility to withdraw $400. There is some brief discussion about whether to kill him or not kill him–until DeMarco McCullum, the admitted triggerman, a 19-year-old former high school quarterback on his way to junior college on a football scholarship, takes out a .380-caliber pistol and shoots Burzinski in the back of the head. When he is arrested, McCullum tells investigators he felt “like a judge” when he pulled the trigger.
For more than a year, a 29-year-old woman named Dianne Hardy-Garcia has traveled this trail, crisscrossing the entire breadth of the state from Tyler in the East to the languid Rio Grande Valley in the South, to the desert mountains of El Paso in the West. How did Hardy-Garcia become so integral to the story? Was she a part of it from the outset? There had been previous stories about Hardy-Garcia’s essential role, including a very good but still-thin story in the New York Times. So I knew she was the glue that held the piece together, the narrator so to speak. She was the common denominator in all the murders. Through a variety of sources–family members, the police, gay support groups–she has gathered information on the killings of eight gays across the state since April of 1993. She has also examined other cases in which murder suspects used the claim of a sexual advance made against them as a defense. These include a situation outside San Antonio where a 16-year-old, after shooting the man in the head and dumping him off a bridge, explained his actions by claiming the victim had come on to him.
As horrifying as the violence against gays has been in Texas, it may not be unique. “Brutal murders and harassment of gay men and lesbians is a problem of epidemic proportions in this country,” says Beth Barrett, a spokesperson for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington. The task force does not keep overall statistics on the number of gay-related homicides nationwide, but anti-gay violence has increased 127 percent over the past six years in the six cities (Boston, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York and San Francisco) monitored by the group.
In the past four months alone, there have been two nationally publicized incidents involving the killing of gays. In October, 16-year-old Marvin McClendon was arrested for the murders of two gays in the small Mississippi town of Laurel. McClendon claims that the two men tried to sexually assault him, an oft-used defense in the killing of homosexuals. What is novel–and chilling to gay activists–is that McClendon’s attorney has been allowed by the court to test the victim’s blood for H.I.V. in an attempt to prove that seeking sex while carrying H.I.V. would be akin to carrying a loaded gun. And in November, 32-year-old Gary Ray Bowles was arrested in Jacksonville, Florida and confessed to killing six men whom the FBI said he had hustled in gay bars in Maryland, Georgia and Florida.
Part of what has driven Dianne Hardy-Garcia has been her job as the Executive Director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. By pursuing the killings, she hopes to convince state lawmakers, who are currently in session, of the urgency for a stronger hate crimes law. But that alone doesn’t explain her pursuit, which has been met with resistance not simply from straights, but also from the gay community, who prefer to focus on other issues such as health insurance for AIDS patients and domestic-partner benefits. “I’ve been told by lesbians and gays, ‘I wish you wouldn’t talk about this anymore,’” said Hardy-Garcia. Did you talk to anyone who had a problem with her work? I don’t remember but I don’t think so. If the subject is willing to raise questions about their own work, I’m down with it. I spent a lot of time with her and it was clear that she very much had her own style and priorities. And the story is not about her conduct; it’s about the conduct of these motherfuckers who kill gays for fun.
The deeper the trail takes her, the more apparent it becomes to her that this wave of killings is the product of something invidious. The murders have an unremitting quality to them–they echo and overlap–but they are not the work of a single serial killer. The perpetrators in each case are different. But there is a startling pattern. In the six cases where arrests have been made, 10 of the 13 arrested are teenagers.
“I started to see very clearly there is a pattern,” said Hardy-Garcia. “The teenage-boy syndrome.”
When the eight killings investigated by Hardy-Garcia are coupled with those that occurred previously in the state–the killing of two gays in Reverchon Park in 1988 by the teenager who joined friends for a fag-bashing expedition because they were “bored”; the killing of Paul Broussard in Houston in 1991 by a gang of teens looking “to beat up some queers”–it is hard not to wonder if some new kind of Klan has emerged. In this new fraternity of hate, the words “fag” and “queer” and “sissy” have been substituted for “nigger” and guns for rope. At the time you reported this, did you view Texas’s anti-gay animosity as singular? Have you changed your mind since then? Texas is Texas. Everything is bigger there, whether it’s high school football or fag-bashing. But is it unique to Texas? Hell no. Some of the new gangs are certainly more impulsive and less organized than their predecessors, but the similarities are startling, for like the old boys who roamed the quiet, bygone nights, these youngsters relish the obvious terror they create in their victims and are emboldened by the firm conviction that the Bible and their Lord Jesus are on their side. So sure are they of the heroism and rightness of their cause that they do not even bother to wear hoods to preserve their anonymity.
The killings don’t necessarily start out as killings. More often than not, the original motive is robbery. But then, as the crime progresses, a fury of resentment seems to take hold, as if robbery alone weren’t enough of a crime against these fags who swagger around like princes with expensive jewelry and cash cards and late-model cars. The use of “fags” seems designed to allow you to show the hatred these men faced without having to actually quote their assailants. That is a very good point, although I saw them use the word in court documents (see confession below). And I did interview one of the assailants who did use the word. He was on death row. He has since been executed. Good.
Anti-gay rhetoric has been preached from the pulpits of Texas for years. What is new, what is terrifying, is the degree to which it has become a part of the mainstream as the state moves in a direction that is increasingly conservative and increasingly subject to the powerful influence of the religious right. When you take the rhetoric and combine it with the macho culture of a state where the cowboy and six-shooter still hold powerful sway, it makes the trail of death seem not aberrational but inevitable.
Does the anti-gay rhetoric explicitly encourage violence against gays? The answer is usually no. But does such open virulence help to create an atmosphere in which a robber or would-be murderer, operating in an escalating frenzy of violence, goes further than he might have because he believes the person he is killing isn’t a human being at all? The answer is self-evident.
“I do not like homosexuals. . . . I do not care for them,” said a 29-year-old convicted felon named Donald Aldrich in the confession he gave to investigators in the murder of Nicholas West in Tyler. “And a lot of times, homosexuals are known for carrying quite a bit of money on them. So that’s where it comes in with hitting them. Kind of more or less like a vengeful type thing. And then a lot of kids, a lot of teenagers, they’ll tell you, well, let’s go fag-bashing.”
Last August in a courtroom in Kerrville, where Aldrich was on trial for capital murder, Hardy-Garcia listened to the testimony of a 15-year-old boy who had been part of a group that liked to go fag-bashing in Tyler. What she saw was a child, a “baby boy” who was scared to death, and she became convinced that what he felt in his heart for homosexuals was the product of an environment in which gays are depicted over and over again as perverts, predators, and pedophiles. Do you agree with this? Did you believe something like this when you began reporting? How did your perspective/opinions change as you worked on this story? I think I did agree with this but never articulated it until the story. It became clear during the reporting that certain people felt justified in killing gays because they perceived them as predators and sexual deviants.
Mel White, the dean of the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, the largest gay church in the world, has come to the same conclusion. White knows about the heat of anti-gay rhetoric from a unique perspective. Raised in a conservative Christian home and educated in conservative Christian schools, he went on to become a ghostwriter of books, autobiographies and speeches for such religious-right figures as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But White is also gay, and in 1991, after he received a fundraising letter from Falwell asking for $35 to help fight the war against homosexuality, he came out of the closet. I keep tripping on this sentence. After working in the belly of the beast, he was persuaded by a fundraising letter? This, once again, is going back a long time, but I think what upset him and got to him was Falwell trying to brazenly profit on the basis of anti-gay rhetoric. It was the very openness of what Falwell was doing and asking people to financially support him in the cause. In other words, basically bashing gays for his own profit motive.
Last fall, White attended a seminar sponsored by the Dallas Eagle Forum, a conservative, “pro-family” group determined to “expose the facts about the homosexual lifestyle and explain how homosexuals are promoting their lifestyle in public schools.” During the meeting, White remembered the speakers citing statistics claiming that gays have killed 68 percent of the victims of mass murder. At different times, White has heard other supposedly authoritative statistics used about gays: 17 percent of all gays ingest human feces, 29 percent urinate on their partners, 37 percent engage in sadomasochism. He is positive he knows the source of them–a psychologist expelled from the American Psychological Association for breaching its code of ethics. Did you confirm this with the psychologist in question? Why is he or she unnamed? I honestly do not remember. My guess is that I was able to tie a specific name to the specious statistics, but the lawyers felt we did not have enough to name him.
“We molest, we recruit, we abuse, we eat shit, we’re not fit to be in the military. All this rhetoric goes on and on and they wonder why kids are beating the shit out of us,” said White. But in the state of Texas during the past 14 months, the anti-gay fervor has gone beyond rhetoric. This is a great, vivid quote. Did you record your interviews and/or take notes? I recorded this. It is also an example of when to quote. This is vivid and visceral and precisely what a quote should do in a story — smack you in the face. There was a time (when) I did not record. I sometimes think it makes you lazy because you sit back and think the recorder is going to do all the work for you. You don’t ask follow-up questions like you do when you are taking notes. You also spend 75 percent of the interview paranoid that the fucking tape recorder isn’t working. But as a protection against litigation you pretty much have to record now. Which means you have to transcribe interviews, which is a modern definition of Hell. Almost any interview is 1 percent breathtaking and 99 percent May I Be Struck Down with Lightning So I Don’t Have to Listen Anymore.
November 1993: Williamson County commissioners vote down property tax abatements for Apple Computer’s proposed $80 million office complex because of the company’s policy of granting health benefits to their unmarried employees’ partners. Said Commissioner David S. Hays, who cast the deciding vote, “If I had voted yes, I would have had to walk into my church with people saying ‘there is the man who brought homosexuality to Williamson County.’” Under enormous pressure from then governor Ann Richards, the commissioners later approved the project.
January 1994: Early in his successful gubernatorial campaign, George W. Bush says that he would veto any attempts to repeal the state’s “homosexual conduct” law prohibiting sodomy. Bush calls the law, which is rarely enforced, “a symbolic gesture of traditional values.”
March 1994: The Galveston County Republican party passes a resolution supporting the quarantine of H.I.V.-positive people.
May 1994: Austin voters overwhelmingly repeal domestic-partner insurance benefits for the partners of unmarried city employees. An ad sponsored by a group known as Concerned Texans calls the benefits package “a direct slap in the face of the Christian values [which] corrupts the very fiber of our city and further establishes Austin as a morally crippled metropolitan area!”
June 1994: A plank in the state Republican Party platform reads, “Homosexuality should not be presented as an acceptable alternative lifestyle in our public schools. No person should receive special legal entitlements or privileges based on sexual preference. We oppose marriages between persons of the same sex and homosexuals obtaining the right to adopt or obtaining child custody.”
August 1994: After three conservative Christian members join the Plano School Board, the board ends its long-standing policy of allowing condom demonstrations as part of its AIDS-education curriculum. It also passes a resolution in support of “traditional moral values.” School boards in Irving and Cedar Hill approve similar resolutions.
August 1994: At a rape trial in which the victim is a lesbian, a bailiff with the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department remarks, “If it was me [on the jury], I’d only give him 30 days for raping a lesbian.” The bailiff is suspended for 10 days.
November 1994: The student government at Stephen F. Austin State University votes to cancel funding for the school’s gay-and-lesbian student association on the grounds that members of the group, by virtue of their sexual preference, are in violation of the state’s anti-sodomy law. “We didn’t want to have a group on campus that might in some way champion violation of Texas law,” said student senator Bryan Simmons. “What if [a national pedophile club] wanted to start a campus pedophile club? That’s as much against the law as homosexual conduct.” University president Dan Angel then steps in to announce that the group will still be officially recognized, despite the vote. This is so interesting. You’re marshalling evidence in support of White’s quote. I guess all great reporting does something like this, but you’re unusually up front about it. I pretty much never make a big secret of where I am headed when I write something that I believe to be true based upon the research I have done. There is also no question that a magazine is going to grant you much more leeway than a newspaper. Although that gap is closing, which I think is a good thing.
In such a climate, asks Dianne Hardy-Garcia, is it any surprise that certain teenagers feel the comfortable womb of church and state support when killing gays? “These kids aren’t born to hate. They are taught to hate.”
Warren Chisum, a state legislator from Pampa, who is also the president of the largest government coalition in the state, the Texas Conservative Coalition, says that any link between anti-gay sentiment and the recent spate of killings of gays is ridiculous. “I don’t agree with their lifestyle,” he concedes, “but I don’t think they should be executed for it.” This is an incredible quote. I think if someone said this to me I wouldn’t be able to contain my excitement. How do you maintain your composure when sources say outrageous things? You are trained not to get too excited and never play your hand. I really learned this when doing Friday Night Lights. When various people started using the N word, I obviously knew they were saying something horrific that spoke volumes about the embedded racism of the town. What I was more conscious of was never entrapping them by using the word myself. And you have to remain calm, as if what you have just heard is of no particular moment at all. Otherwise people no longer feel the comfort zone to say what they really feel. If someone says something incredible and you get up and start doing a one-man wave, it’s pretty much a guarantee that the subject will shut down. In some cases I have quickly changed the subject when something outrageous is said so as not to draw any attention to it, then circle back.
During the last legislative session in 1993, Chisum and the Conservative Coalition worked against the enactment of a strong hate crimes bill. They apparently succeeded. The bill that did emerge from the legislature was considered by activists to be vague and difficult to enforce. Given the killings that have taken place, Hardy-Garcia is hopeful–despite the recent right-wing electoral victories nationwide–that most Texas legislators will now see the need to strengthen the bill. But she expects a major fight from Chisum and the coalition, particularly on the issue of including sexual orientation as a category deserving special protection against violence. Chisum says he is totally opposed to any legislation that will make gays and lesbians a “protected” class similar to minorities. He describes homosexuality as “demeaning to the natural nature of man. I mean, animals don’t do that.” This is incorrect, obviously. So I wonder: When a source is quoted saying something fallacious — in this case, that same-sex attraction doesn’t exist in nature — do you ever find it necessary to correct/offset the statement in, say, a parenthetical? The whole point of the quote is how outrageously sick it is. You don’t need a parenthetical for that and it would be a pretty bizarre one in any case (“…there are in fact certain species of opossums that do engage in what would commonly be equated with homosexual practices….”) But as much as Chisum is disgusted by the homosexual lifestyle, he also profits from it.
A year ago, The Dallas Morning News reported that Chisum had invested $200,000 in the buying up of AIDS patients’ insurance policies. In these investments, the investor purchases the life-insurance policy of the patient at a discount. The investor is then the beneficiary and profits when the patient dies. Because the investor pays the insurance premium for the patient, his margin of profit increases when the insured party dies quickly. The inherent risk of these so-called “Death Futures” is that the patient will survive for a long time.
The Morning News, while noting that advocacy groups support such investments because they mean desperately needed cash for AIDS patients, also pointed out obvious ethical concerns. Chisum, who described the investments as humanitarian and financially sound, seemed delighted by the margin of profit, though he did acknowledge that he found the whole thing “ghoulish” when he first got involved two years ago. “I don’t know how else you’re going to get money to these people,” he says. And he notes, his return, about 17 percent so far, hasn’t been bad either. “It’s been better than some things I bought.” Were you repulsed by this guy? Is it difficult to interview someone if you’re repulsed by them? In demeanor he was not a repulsive guy saying repulsive things. He was actually a seemingly nice man saying repulsive things, which in some way was more abhorrent. The most disturbing thing was how comfortable he was saying these things, in front of a reporter taking notes and recording him. But if you make people feel comfortable, in particular by keeping your own mouth shut (too many reporters think the point of an interview is to show off how much they know and therefore interrupt all the fucking time), people will say remarkable things. But you also have to remember something: In his own mind, Chisum did not feel he said anything remarkable and most of his constituents, the ones who reelect him, likely felt the same way. Which is the most sickening thing of all. I don’t think he had any qualms seeing what he said in print.
THE PARK. Thanh Nguyen fell to the ground as soon as the first shot was fired in Reverchon Park. Then the gun was aimed at Callaway, who, remembering what he had learned in the military, turned to the side just before Corey Burley fired. The bullet exploded into the upper part of Callaway’s femur, shattering it, but he avoided a fatal stomach wound.
The trio, their orgasm of violence against the fags complete, moved back down the hill of the park. Nguyen, able to sit, pulled up his shirt and in the glow of the moonlight saw the bullet wound in his stomach. In shock, he got up and started running down the hill, holding his bleeding stomach, looking for help. This is such a horrifying image. Where did this come from? This came from the interview with Callaway. Callaway wanted to stop him, because he knew the assailants were still in the park. But with the condition of his shattered leg, there was little he could do except listen and piece together what happened next–how the trio seized upon Nguyen once more and dragged him up the hill, how they pulled his shorts to his knees, how they beat him again, and how Nguyen, before he died, whispered Hugh Callaway’s name. This seems like a good point — about halfway through — to note how painful and progressively difficult it is to read this story. Was it hard to write? I’m just imagining this being a thoroughly depressing process for you. The stories were wrenching. You could feel the sadness coursing through Callaway as well as the guilt that he somehow should have done something. But this process wasn’t the least bit depressing. It was exciting to know you were onto something that was powerful and real and could really resonate with readers and honestly show just how fucked up segments of this country are. Journalism is fundamentally morbid. It should be morbid. Life is fucking morbid. Is there really a good journalist out there who likes the fucking sun? I will take rain any day of the week. When you get material like this you feel energized, pumped up, and you only want to go out and get more because you see the power and potential of what you might be able to do. Depressing is sitting down to write and looking at your notes and seeing the only thing you have a preponderance of is the syrup they use to make canned fruit cocktail. It would be like Breaking Bad in which Walt decides to make bubble bath instead of meth and has hemorrhoids instead of cancer and lives in suburban North Jersey instead of Albuquerque and takes the GW into work until Christie shuts it down.
THE TRAIL. Behind the impenetrable windows of the prison waiting area, where death-row inmates in the state of Texas entertain all visitors until they are executed by lethal injection, Donald Aldrich tries to explain some of the psychology that went into the killing of Nicholas West that November night in 1993. Aldrich’s features are flat and bland: narrow lips, a high crown of a forehead leading up to a thinning crust of hair, frozen blue eyes that, like a broken clock, send nothing out and take nothing back.
Some of what he says is eminently predictable: the way he regrets what happened on that field of red clay, how there wasn’t supposed to be shooting that night (“The guns were there to stop the violence,” he says in a surreal parody of an N.R.A. slogan); the sorrow he feels for Nicholas West’s family; his own never-ending bad dreams.
And yet Aldrich holds back little on the subject of gays. His resentment at how their rights seem to take precedence over his is palpable as he invokes God and the Bible in calling homosexuals sick and unnatural. He notes that some of the teenagers he hung with hated gays even more than he did. He says they made fun of the way gays talked, and called them “queers,” “fags,” and “dick suckers” when they weren’t plotting ways to rob and beat them.
In Donald Aldrich’s view, the queers had everything. He had only his life in a trailer park over in Rockwall, his 10th-grade education and a bad marriage. He had only his go-nowhere restaurant jobs at places like Popeyes to fill the time between the burglary sprees and the prison stints.
“I work all my life tryin’ to have something nice and make something of myself,” he says. “About the best job I can get is working in a restaurant makin’ minimum wage or just barely over it, and it’s like, I get no breaks. From the time I was a kid, it seemed like there was a lot against me, and yet here they are, they’re doing something that God totally condemns in the Bible. But look at everything they’ve got. They’ve got all this nice stuff. They’ve got all these good jobs, sit back at a desk or sit back in an air-conditioned building not having to sweat, not having to bust their ass, and they’ve got money. They’ve got the cars. They’ve got the apartments. They’ve got all the nice stuff in ’em. So yeah, I resented that.” How did you set up this interview? What were the restrictions? Was his lawyer present? I went to his lawyer first and made the pitch that I wanted to hear his client’s side. The lawyer was a very nice man but told me he was going to advise Aldrich not to talk to me. So I wrote Aldrich on death row and the first thing I said was that his lawyer had advised him not to talk to me. I also said I understood why his lawyer might advise that but that lawyers are not always right and that his explanation for what happened might be valuable to him and worth getting in print. Aldrich wrote back agreeing to the interview. Setting up with the Texas DOC was easy. A great photographer named Dan Winters and I went down to Huntsville and interviewed him across a glass partition on death row. The first thing he told me is that he agreed to talk to me because I had been up front about his lawyer. We had an hour, more than enough time for Aldrich to make himself look even worse than he already did and reaffirm that he somehow felt justified in killing. He wrote me back afterwards saying he wasn’t pleased. Which is always what happens when people have hung themselves.
But Aldrich also says that it wasn’t all fags he hated, just the ones he called the perverts, the ones who prey on children the way he says he was preyed on by an older relative. Aldrich can offer no independent corroboration but he says he was repeatedly forced to perform oral and anal sex on a relative for three or four years from the time he was nine years old. Aldrich describes himself as being defenseless because of a seven-year age difference. but he also paints an image of himself as a raucous and wild fighter at the time of the alleged abuse. (Aldrich says that on one occasion, when he was 11 or 12, he was in a fight with two twins who lived in the same trailer park in Rockwall, then squared off with the twins’ father and used a baseball bat to break his collarbone, his arm and seven of his ribs.) Did you have any empathy for him? Have you found that, as you’ve gotten older, it’s easier or more difficult to empathize with your subjects? And how does this affect your writing? I have empathy for victims who have been abused and then turn that abuse on others. Sometimes. But I had no empathy for this motherfucker. I was delighted he thought he was smart, which in turn caused him to talk a blue streak and say all sorts of self-incriminating things. I was not sympathetic to him but I did lend an ear willing to listen to anything he had to say. And look, he was on death row: He loved the attention and that’s why I figured once I leveled with him about his lawyer’s advice, he would talk to me. Which is why whenever you are trying to set up a sensitive interview, do not SEND A FUCKING EMAIL. Emails are impersonal. They require no effort because there are so many billions of them. WRITE A LETTER. A long letter. Take time to do it. It shows thought and consideration. And maybe you will get lucky. I find that as I get older I have less empathy for people who use their own troubled childhoods as an excuse for crimes of violence (or for why they went into politics). It has become cliché.
Turning to the subject of the murder of Nicholas West, Aldrich begins by explaining that he didn’t have a phone where he lived in Tyler, so he liked using the one in the middle of Bergfeld Park between the picnic tables and the restrooms. He used it to make late-night calls to his fiancée. He loved to call and croon his favorite Garth Brooks lyrics while she played the CD at home. But in the middle of his calls, those damned fags would often come on to him. Sure, Aldrich knew, as just about everyone in Tyler knew, that the park had become a meeting place for gays after dark. But this was a matter of principle.
“It got to where I wanted to carry a gun up there and every time one of ’em came near me I was gonna shoot ’em for coming near me. You know, here I am, I’m not gay. I’m in a public park using a public phone and yet I’m going to get harassed by these homosexuals, but when I do something against them, I’m breakin’ the law.”
Aldrich says that the whole idea of fag-bashing for fun and profit wasn’t his, but was first suggested by the 13-year-old sister of one of the Tyler teenagers whom Aldrich had hooked up with after his release from prison. Did you attempt to identify this child? Was age an issue? I made no attempt to identify the child. It did not seem necessary. Once the suggestion was made, it seemed too damned good to pass up, given the general reluctance of queers to report crimes to the police.
The group, according to Aldrich, started its spree of gay-bashings in Tyler sometime before the spring of 1993, when he became involved. More often than not, Aldrich acted as the lure who reeled in the victims under the pretense of a pickup. In some of the fag-bashings, the primary motive was robbery. In others, it was bodily harm, like the time Aldrich and his gang went out with baseball bats, clubs and crowbars, or the time they held a man at bay in a freezing lake for several hours while they fired shots over his head, as if they had created their own human version of duck hunting. The intention, Aldrich says, was to install fear, to see that pure, unadulterated look of terror on the victim, who didn’t know if he was going to live or die or get tortured. Why didn’t you name the victim and say whether he survived? My recollection is that we wanted to protect him from further recrimination. Don Aldrich isn’t shy about describing what he felt at these moments. “You could say I got a little bit of pleasure out of it.”
Then came the Nicholas West incident. Aldrich had been working that night with two teenagers named Henry Dunn, then 19, and David McMillan, then 17. According to Aldrich, the two teens, interested in West’s red Mazda truck with its pulsating stereo system, had been trying all night to get their potential victim into Bergfeld Park under the guise of a pickup. But he just wouldn’t take the bait, says Aldrich. Then something wonderful happened. I just want to note how unusual it is — and powerful — that you embodied, rather than quoted, this sentiment. It’s sickeningly effective. I was trying to use a quote in artful way. This was one of those quotes you had to use — it was so incredible for somebody to say this. This was true of much of the Aldrich interview so I did break my narrative rule and quoted heavily. “West clearly came on to me after I got off the phone with my fiancée. When West came on to me, I’m like, Why, don’t this just make it easy?”
Then the true fun began.
Aldrich says the two teens pushed West into the car they were driving and put a shotgun on him while Aldrich took the Mazda pickup. Then the little caravan headed off in the direction of the Pits. On the way there, Aldrich stopped and started ransacking the truck. Then the other car showed up, and Aldrich began questioning West about how much money he had, and said he better not be lying to him, because if he was, he was going to tie him to the damned bumper of the car and drag him the remaining 15 miles to the Pits. But hell, it wasn’t really 15 miles, just a mile or so, and from the vantage point of Aldrich, it was all kind of good-intentioned at that point, just a little game of Scare the Fag. The very worst he had in mind was tying West to a tree with duct tape and leaving him until someone found him. And just to be kind about it, Aldrich wasn’t even going to make him strip all his clothes off.
Once they got to the Pits, West was forced out of the car and told to start walking up a little hill. And this is where it got really good for Don Aldrich, when he discovered that West was so scared that he had defecated in his pants. “I thought it was hilarious,” he says. “When you scare a man so bad that he literally shits on himself, that man is scared.” He described the sensation as like being on drugs. “I enjoyed it,” he says. “I really did.”
But after this “adrenaline high,” things began to go haywire. West was ordered to remove his pants and shoes, and when he did so, Aldrich discovered a $10 bill, meaning that West hadn’t been dealing straight with him on the money issue. And that set Aldrich off, because it meant the queer had lied to him, so he “bitch-slapped” West across the face with the .357 magnum. And then, according to Aldrich, Henry Dunn decided he wanted to fight Nicholas West, but West didn’t want to fight. So Dunn set West’s hands in a fighter’s stance, but still West wouldn’t fight. So Dunn hit him anyway with his ring-filled fist. But West still wouldn’t fight and investigators believe this pissed off Dunn even more, just the kind of fag-assed behavior you would expect from a queer. So Dunn hit him a few more times and kicked him and then said, “To hell with this,” and took the .357 magnum and shot West in the stomach. At this point, the other shots followed–two by Aldrich, one by McMillan, and five more by Henry Dunn, including the final bullet in the back of the head.
“It wasn’t going as smooth as it was supposed to,” says Aldrich. This quote, following the prior paragraph, is perfect. It’s also morbidly, uncomfortably funny, in a “the war did not turn in Japan’s favor” kind of way. It was such a shocking thing to say that I had to use the quote in juxtaposition to the victim being shot eight times.
Roughly a day later, investigators arrested Aldrich, Dunn and McMillan, and the three were indicted on charges of capital murder. So far only Aldrich has gone to trial, and it took the jury an hour and 17 minutes to sentence him to die. In his confession to homicide detectives, which filled 103 pages when it was transcribed, This is a great detail. Unrelated: What surprised you about the story? And what didn’t make it into the piece? I could have used more, but you do reach a point where it becomes numbing and repetitive if you use too much. I don’t think too much was left on the table. The length of the confession was interesting to me because, just like my death row interview, he clearly enjoyed talking about it and saw nothing wrong with what he had done. and was the key piece of evidence against him, Aldrich wrongly assumed that the more cooperative he was, the easier he might get off. Aldrich also decided to openly express his feelings about gays, in part because of a calculated assumption that “if I produced the right air or the right attitude, knowing how a lot of the cops felt towards gays in Tyler, that it might get some of the charges dropped. . . . I thought it might help me get a lesser sentence or a lesser charge.”
He miscalculated, and as investigators listened to Donald Aldrich, as they heard his laughter over Nicholas West’s humiliation and suffering, and watched Aldrich’s body language, they saw not a man who was posturing but a man who truly had difficulty understanding why the victim really was a victim.
“He thinks he’s a good guy,” said Jason Waller, an investigator on the case for the Smith County Sheriff’s Department, recalling what he believed to be the mind-set of Aldrich as he confessed. “He’s not perceiving he’s doing anything wrong, because this is a fag. This is not a store owner or a preacher. This is a fag.”
THE PARK. The case against Corey Burley for the killing of Thanh Nguyen went to trial in April 1992 in a sixth-floor courtroom in the Frank Crowley Courts Building, just west of downtown Dallas. It was hard for anyone to truly understand how Hugh Callaway felt about Nguyen, but several months before the trial, he had tried to explain his feelings in a letter to the judge hearing the case. “Thanh Nguyen was born into war and hardship in South Vietnam and he endured hardship to come here for freedom, a better life, and opportunity,” Callaway had written while still in a body cast from his own injuries. “Thanh worked from 10 to 14 hours a day in his own business. Always he was an honest and loyal friend.”
“He truly loved this country and our way of life. . . . He was full of love, kindness and joy, which he gave unselfishly to everyone he knew. Now he is gone because of Corey Burley and his heart full of hate.” How did you get a copy of the letter? Had it been made public? I read it but I am not sure if it was public record or if I got it from Callaway. As a rule I always ask people I am interviewing if they have written anything on the subject matter at hand.
In the presence of the jury, Callaway pointed to Corey Burley as the one who had killed Thanh Nguyen in Reverchon Park. It took a jury roughly an hour to find him guilty of capital murder. He was sentenced to life. Did you attend the trial? The trial took place before I started working on the story. This probably came from clips.
But so was Hugh Callaway, without a trial.
THE TRAIL. The killing of Nicholas West was barely a month old in January 1994 when Dianne Hardy-Garcia received information about a killing in San Antonio in which the victim had his throat cut by someone he apparently had never met before. That same month, she received reports out of the Dallas suburb of Irving about Larry Leggett, who had been found dead in his one-room apartment with multiple stab wounds. In February, there was the disturbing 12-year prison sentence for the Midland teenager charged in the fatal shooting of Tommy Musick.
The next month, she gathered information about an El Paso man named Jose Trevino, who police said had been strangled and bludgeoned to death inside his home by two teenagers. In April, she received the report of the other San Antonio killing–the one in which John Anthony Burwell had been shot to death by a 16-year-old and dumped off a bridge into a mass of rocks.
In May, she went down to the valley around Harlingen and was told about the killings of four gays, but the homosexual community there was so closeted and so fearful that gathering together any substantial information was impossible. “I was getting the feeling that all my life could be spent on murder,” said Hardy-Garcia. Then in June, she was told about Benny Hogan.
Over and over, Bessie Hogan called her son Benny and left messages on his answering machine. From the way he had sounded earlier in the day when they had talked, she knew something was wrong. His crying, so deep and painful, like nothing she had ever heard before, had scared her.
“Benny, this is Mama. I’m just calling back to see if you’re O.K. Call me whenever you get the message, O.K.?”
“Benny, this is Mama again. As soon as you get the message call me back. O.K.?”
“Benny, this is Mama. When you get the message call me back. O.K.?”
“Benny, this is Mama again. Call me as soon as you get the message.” Did you listen to the recording, or get a hold of a transcript? His brother had kept the recording so I was able to listen to it.
He said he was going to take a nap, but why would he be asleep this long? So she kept on calling from her home 400 miles away in Lubbock, trying so hard to sound strong and resolute, not wanting to panic him.
“Benny, it’s me again. Call me when you can. . .”
“It’s me again, Benny. Call me. . .”
“Benny, it’s Mama. Call me. Call me.”
Didn’t he know how much she loved him? Didn’t he know how proud she was of him for all he had accomplished? So she tried one more time, her voice slipping away to a whisper, as if she were making a futile prayer. Did you talk to Mrs. Hogan? I interviewed her.
“Benny, this is Mama. Call me. I’m worried about you.”
Benny Hogan had come from Lubbock, in West Texas, where the very idea of homosexuality was akin to communism or pissing on the flag. So when you look back on it, it seems little wonder that Hogan, 41, was always so afraid to tell virtually anyone that he was gay, not his close friends, not his own family.
Instead, he went on with his life, quiet, private, determined to make something of himself. His father died when he was 3, and at the age of 16, Benny started working to help support his family. He got a degree from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, worked for several years as a supermarket manager, and then moved to Midland. He ultimately went to work for the Trinity Universal Insurance Company, first in Odessa, then in San Antonio, after he was transferred there in 1990. In the spring of 1994 he got what he termed to family and friends as his dream job, a position as an adjuster at U.S.A.A. insurance in San Antonio.
Shortly before he started in the new post, Hogan was arrested in a San Antonio park on a misdemeanor charge of indecent exposure involving an undercover police officer. His arrest was not an isolated one, but rather part of a sweep of city parks by the San Antonio police for alleged homosexual activity. He was handcuffed, and placed in the Bexar County jail, and even then, in his efforts to make the $800 bond, he refused to call members of his family, because he didn’t want them to know what happened.
After his release, Hogan met with an attorney named Blair Davis, who specializes in such cases. Hogan was scared and nervous when he came in, almost bashful, Davis remembered. But as Hogan recited what had happened that day, Davis felt that there was a very strong entrapment issue and that it might well be worth it to go to trial. Hogan, however, said he was reluctant to do that because he was still in the closet. He also asked Davis if he thought his name would be published in the newspaper. Davis, who handled public lewdness and indecent exposure cases all over the state, did not think so. He knew of no paper of any significant size that printed the names of people arrested on misdemeanor charges as minor as this. But there was one.
Unbeknownst to Davis, the San Antonio Express-News had already published a list of names of men arrested as part of the police crackdown. On June 2, another list was published in a little box on page 2B. Juxtaposed with a larger, general story about the crackdown, it looked like a basketball box score. It contained nearly 50 names of men arrested on charges including public lewdness and indecent exposure, and there, seven lines from the bottom, was the name Benny Hogan.
A month earlier, he had widened the driveway of his home. So proud was he of his work that he put the completion date, “5-4-94,” in one of the concrete corners with a small flourish. He had bought a new convertible, as well as plants to put in his exotic garden. He got in touch with a siding company to have the house redone. “This wasn’t a man thinking about suicide,” said Christy Goodman, who along with her husband, Brad, was Benny’s closest friend in San Antonio. Did you uncover anything to suggest Hogan was thinking of suicide? I did not, prior to the outing by the San Antonio newspaper.
They had gone skiing together and on river trips, and the Goodmans thought they knew everything about Benny, when of course they did not. He never told them he was gay, and they never saw his name in the newspaper. They wish so much now that he had come to them and talked to them, because they still would have loved and embraced him. But Benny Hogan couldn’t bring himself to do that.
Was it shame that drove him to silence? Or was it an understanding of the culture of the state in which he had grown up and lived? He had lived in Midland, where a teenager several months earlier had gotten a 12-year sentence for shooting a gay hairstylist four times in the back of the head. He was living in San Antonio, where a teenager just weeks earlier had told police that he had shot a man in the head because he had made a sexual advance. He must have known, as any gay in the state must have known, about the brutal killing of Nicholas West in Tyler. When you spent time in Texas years before — during the reporting of Friday Night Lights — did you get a sense that circumstances for gays were such a nightmare? Yes, I did, when kids in high school talked about going fag-bashing with a baseball bat over the weekend. Plus I heard anti-gay rhetoric during interviews. Plus, other people interviewed talked over and over about how hard it was to be different in a place such as West Texas. Plus there was my own personal experience in that once the book was published and people in Odessa hated it, the whispers came out full force that I was Jewish. West Texas will never be known for tolerance and I can’t think of anything more difficult than being gay there.
After the publication of Benny Hogan’s name in the newspaper, the issue of his sexual preference was no longer private. In seven-point type, it was now there for everyone to see so they could laugh at it or be disgusted by it.
Over the next three days, he paid all his bills and mowed the lawn of his tidy red-shuttered home on Rangeland Street. He made sure his dogs would be taken care of, and he wrote out a series of notes. “I’m sorry to do this to you but I have nowhere else to turn,” he wrote to the Goodmans. “This is best and it is what I want so please try to understand.” In another he asked them to contact his mother.
“She is 78 years old so be careful how you tell her.”
And then he went to the garage. How did you piece together how Hogan spent his last days? I do not remember. Most likely from interviews with his brother and the Goodmans. I may have interviewed his partner as well.
It has been more than six months since Benny Hogan died, but a day doesn’t go by when Hogan’s brother Bill and his wife Sandra don’t think about it. Is this a Citizen Kane reference? Not intentionally. Sadness, guilt, anger–they all meld together. Every so often Bill Hogan takes out a sheet of paper and writes down his feelings, emotionally charged and slightly garbled. It makes him feel better for a little while, and then the anger rises up again. The Hogans take no issue with the newspaper’s writing articles about the crackdown in the parks, but why the names? What reason was there for publishing them other than disgrace and humiliation? Weren’t they aware of the ramifications of labeling someone gay in a place such as San Antonio, a place that one of the editors himself described as “conservative, fundamental and unchanging”?
Subsequent to Benny’s death, the Hogans met with various representatives of the newspaper. It was explained that all aspects of the crackdown in the parks were considered newsworthy because it was an out-of-the-ordinary police activity. As proof, the Hogans were handed a sheaf of articles from over the years showing how the names of suspects had been printed in other police sweeps, although none of these involved alleged homosexual activity. The whole explanation seemed utterly transparent to the Hogans, given the fact that the newspaper, in its regular police reporting, did not print the names of people suspected of such crimes as sexual assault and wife-beating.
The explanation apparently seemed transparent to the newspaper as well, because it has since changed its policy on crime reporting and, according to managing editor Robert Rivard, no longer prints the names of any individuals arrested on misdemeanor charges unless they are public officials.
“It was not a good policy for the paper to print those names,” said Rivard, who indicated that the policy was changed to reflect a greater understanding of gays by the newspaper. But he also conceded that without the death of Benny Hogan, there might have been no change in the policy at all.
“Embarrassment, humiliation, debasement,” said Sandra Hogan in listing what she believes to be the motives of the Express-News in publishing the names of Benny and the other men. “What else would there be? This is not a public service.” Both Rivard and executive editor Jim Moss vigorously deny that this was the motive. But off the record, someone very familiar with the newspaper and the kinds of people who work inside it confirms Sandra Hogan’s suspicions that the list was intended to be exactly what it turned out to be–a homosexual blacklist.
“A lot of editors knew exactly what they were doing.” Was this a source inside the paper? Why was he or she granted anonymity? And why is the quote included if this is supposed to be off the record? You make a good point and I don’t have a good answer. It may have been that I meant to say that the person quoted wished to remain anonymous. Or else I did something I should not have. In re-reading the story this kind of anonymous quote is useless. It adds nothing. Which is true of most anonymous quotes. I wish I had taken it out. It is obvious to the reader without it that the conduct of the paper was malicious.
When Bessie Hogan kept getting no answer that June afternoon, she called her son Bill in desperation. He also started calling Benny, sensing, like his mother, that something was terribly wrong.
“Benny, this is Bill, your brother. Call me when you get home. Why don’t you come on back up here and be around people who love you?”
He called again.
“Hello, anybody there? Please, somebody answer the telephone. Please. Hello, this is Bill, Benny’s brother. I need to talk to somebody. Please somebody answer.”
“Hello, who’s this?”
“This is Bill. Is Benny there?”
“Uh . . .” This is the most horrible moment in the story. It’s just a syllable — not even a full sentence. But it implies so much. That’s why reporting and finding firsthand documents is so effective. That single syllable explains both the horror of what happened and the futility of trying to explain what has happened.
“This is Bill Hogan, Benny’s brother.”
“O.K, my name is Officer Aguirre from the San Antonio Police Department. We’re out here at Benny’s. . . O.K., sir, Benny’s . . . uh . . . we’re over here investigating a suicide.”
“Did he kill himself?”
“Yes sir.” Did you encounter any resistance from the SAPD, or were they cooperative? Dealing with law enforcement is often a tight-wire act. I made an attempt to contact them but it was more obligation. The detectives in the Nicholas West case in Tyler were very cooperative but frankly that is a rarity in my experience. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to get cops who don’t know me to talk to me. They are big enough pricks when they know you.
THE PARK. For a period of time after the trial, Hugh Callaway found a productive way to channel all that still burned inside him. He wrote letters and articles and was instrumental in getting letters placed in the parole board files of inmates who had been implicated in the killings of other gays. But the effect was only temporary. The same demons that had enveloped Callaway after Thanh Nguyen’s death–guilt, sadness, the horrible feeling of helplessness that night–re-emerged.
Callaway first started drinking, and when that didn’t provide him with the relief he sought, he started shooting cocaine. “I just didn’t care about life no more,” he said. “I didn’t care about nothing.”
Callaway told his story in a meeting room of a hospital in the Dallas suburb of Garland, where he was undergoing drug detoxification. Is this where you got his quotes? Yes. He has been on cocaine for a year, and this is the second time he has been here. In some ways, he has made improvement–he no longer breaks into sobs when he talks about Nguyen–but his voice goes low and his eyes fruitlessly search for peace, and it isn’t just guilt that he feels but the sense of loss. He had come to depend on Nguyen. In many ways, the two men were exact opposites–and Callaway, after discovering that he was H.I.V.-positive, had always assumed that Nguyen’s quiet presence would be there to steady him and give him strength.
Callaway’s memory of what happened that night in Reverchon Park is photographic. Of all the details, it is easy to pick out the one that is the most vivid. It was that look of intense, wide-eyed anticipation, of unbridled pleasure, on the face of Corey Burley as he prepared to shoot the two gay men huddled before him on a perfect October night in the park.
The image haunts him.
It always will.
THE TRAIL. About three weeks after the suicide of Benny Hogan, Dianne Hardy-Garcia read news accounts about 29-year-old Paul Quintanilla, whose body had been found under a triangle of trees in a deserted field in Irving. He had been found nude, with his hands tied behind his back with nylon rope. He had been stabbed 39 times, and part of his genitals had been cut off. No arrests have been made in the killing, and police have no leads.
In the beginning of August, Hardy-Garcia went to Kerrville to observe the murder trial of Donald Aldrich in the Nicholas West killing. And while she was there, she read of the murder of Michael Burzinski in Houston. Later that month came news that Larry Allen had been stabbed to death in a motel room in Irving in a spray of blood that splattered the bathroom, the television, the ceiling and the carpet. A 33-year-old drifter named Edwin Perkins was arrested by police and formally charged with murder. Do you know if gays were being killed at a uniquely high rate during the period covered here? Without hard numbers, it’s hard to tell if this climate is unusual or par for the course. I tried to get hardcore numbers but was unsuccessful. Whether it was statistically high or not, what was happening was still shocking and astounding.
Toward the end of the year, Hardy-Garcia received through the office mail a white envelope with no return address. She has become wary of mail without a return address, because that often means it’s hate-related–a nasty letter or a used condom. She opened the envelope carefully, and out tumbled clippings from the local newspaper in San Angelo. The clippings were neatly cut and squared, but the story they described was messy and brutal, one in which the victim, a veteran of Desert Storm named Jose Rubio, had been stabbed almost a hundred times by 28-year-old James McCartney.
According to the clippings, there were two 16-year-old teenagers with McCartney that night, and they both testified that the original intention had been to pick up a homosexual from a local park and then rob him. But the clippings also showed that when the issue of Rubio’s homosexuality was raised by the defense attorneys, the prosecutor in the case vigorously protested because she thought such information would prejudice the jury against the victim. The judge agreed, and the jury ended up convicting the defendant and sentencing him to two life terms. So perhaps the strategy of downplaying homosexuality as an issue was correct.
But also included in the packet of clippings was an article from one of the high school newspapers in San Angelo. The headline on it read, STUDENTS DECLARE WAR ON HOMOSEXUALITY, and portions of it read as follows:
In the dark of night after homework is complete, teenage students scurry to their vehicles to stalk male homosexuals in San Angelo. “I want them to die when we do it,” Bob, a student, said.
Bashers claim part of the fun is from the adrenaline rush they receive. “A couple of friends and I were driving down the “fag drag” when we noticed there was a whole carload of them sitting in the car just kissing, so we got out our baseball bats–most of us carry baseball bats anyway–shattered their windows and dragged them out of the window and just literally beat them,” Ray said, a member of the bashing group.
“After we are done, they are on the ground in a bloody heap.”
It’s been a wrenching time for Dianne Hardy-Garcia, because each of the killings that she has looked at brings layers upon layers of sorrow that can never be healed. There have been important breakthroughs, such as the death-penalty sentence for Donald Aldrich. There were also the rallies for gay rights in Tyler and Midland, places where the very word “gay” had virtually never been uttered in public before. What words or phrases would be used in its place? Normally it would have been “queer” or “fag.” But how much was the consciousness truly raised? How much understanding was there that the inevitable extension of the rhetoric of hate is the violence of hate? Or was there just a sigh of relief when the parade of queers packed up their posters and their angry speeches and all that raucous self-pity and took their perverted circus somewhere else?
Dianne Hardy-Garcia knows that she will one day go to San Angelo. Unlike some of the other figures, we don’t get a backstory of Hardy-Garcia. Why? The story was winding down to its climax. Giving her backstory would have slowed things down. It was a judgment call, maybe not the right one. But if I was to give her backstory, it would have occurred when I first mentioned her, not here. Working through a church, she will make contact with the small cell of gays who live like a secret society in the west Texas town, fully aware of the enormous risk they will take if they decide to come out of the closet and help her expose the seeds of hate that exist there. She has now spent more than a year on the killing trail across Texas. She knows the uncomprehending horror of it and the basic indifference to it. She knows she must have a rest from it, get away from it. And then comes a plea in an unmarked envelope as tiny and poignant as the whisper of a frightened child. The work won’t be easy for her in San Angelo, just as it wasn’t easy in Tyler, or Midland, or El Paso, or the valley of the Rio Grande, but that won’t matter. It cannot matter. In a story like this, in which there are many victims and a single hero, what made you decide to conclude with the latter and not the former? Is this meant to be hopeful? I ended with Hardy-Garcia because as I said earlier, she is the unifying element in the piece that ties all the murders together. Having said that, I always hated this last paragraph. It was just too melodramatic. And that refrain of “…that won’t matter. It cannot matter,” was far too partisan. You don’t need it. If the reader cannot at this point comprehend the horror of what is happening, then fuck ’em. In hindsight I wish this graf had been completely cut out and the story ended with the previous graf. That would have been abrupt, but it still would have been better.
Elon Green‘s last installment of Annotation Tuesday! was with Lillian Ross, on her famous New Yorker profile of Ernest Hemingway.