By Jack Nichols
Gaither, who cared for his disabled father, was well-liked throughout the Alabama town, which is reacting with horror and dismay over his death.
The accused killers, Charles Monroe Butler, 21, and Steven Eric Mullins, 25, had known their victim and had reportedly planned his murder well in advance. They'd telephoned him February 19, the night of the killing, inviting him to go out for the evening. Gaither, who agreed to pick them up, drove. According to police reports, a reservoir outside Sylacauga served as the spot where the killers beat him up, stuffing his body into the trunk of his car. Then, returning to suspect Mullins' house, they picked up matches, kerosene, and two old tires.
In the wake of his brutal murder, Gaither has become the latest example of why state and federal lawmakers are being urged to pass legislation including sexual orientation along with race, ethnicity and religion in order to put a stop to what the Human Rights Campaign calls hate crimes "that are turning lethal with alarming frequency."
Such crimes, even in the immediate wake of Matthew Shepard's October murder, have been under-reported in the media. The murder of Sabastian Durgins, 26, Orlando, Florida, for example, was first reported October 27 in The Orlando Sentinel and was initially mentioned in GayToday on October 28. Orlando's newspaper, however, aside from identifying the victim by his stereotypical occupation (a "free-lance hairdresser") had provided no indication that the Florida victim was gay. The Associated Press, notified, showed no interest.
Though only five months have passed since the high profile murder of Shepard, Gaither, who was 39, has been linked to the Shepard case, properly highlighting the gay and lesbian community's struggle for justice.
Felonies described as "Class A" hate crimes in Alabama based on color, religion, national origin, ethnicity or physical or mental disability, currently draw a minimum penalty of fifteen years, five more than would apply to the same crime if hate were not involved.
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia include sexual orientation in their hate crime laws. Eighteen states, including Alabama, do not, said David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign. "It is shocking, but it is becoming more and more prevalent and we've got to do something to stop this," he said. "We hate to politicize them because they are human tragedies, but our government must take steps to curb this violence."
Butler, a construction worker, and Mullins, unemployed, are being held on $500,000 bonds. Judge Robert J. Teel, Jr. of Coosa County has set a preliminary hearing for March 17 and will appoint lawyers to represent the two Talladega County men. The case against them will be heard by a grand jury and could include both kidnapping and murder, thus clearing the way for indictment on capital charges for which it is possible they'd be sent to Alabama's electric chair.
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Alabama knew before the arrests of Butler and Mullins that the killers were under police surveillance. So as not to jeopardize the case, the activists remained silent until the state's gathering of incriminating evidence had been completed.