How A Fragile 14-Year-Old Boy Was Crushed In His Struggle To Accept Being Gay
By Eleanor Mallet
Billy Jack Gaither, 39 a Sylacauga resident and Russell Corp. employee, was was bludgeoned to death with an axe handle in Coosa County, Alabama and his body burned the night of Feb. 19, 1999. Gaither's body was discovered by a passerby Feb. 20.
Sylacauga, Ala., is the kind of laid-back Southern crossroads town where most people keep a couple of chickens and everybody has a dog -- a country burg whose big claim to fame used to be the fact that it was the birthplace of Jim Nabors, the guy who played Gomer Pyle on TV. Then Billy Jack Gaither was found beaten to death and two local men were held on suspicion of murder. Everyone agreed that Billy Jack was as nice a guy as you'd ever want to meet, which meant the motive for the crime was a mystery. But a few friends knew that Billy Jack, 39, was very discreetly gay -- and suddenly, Sylacauga joined Jasper, Texas, and Laramie, Wyo., as nice, quiet mid-American towns where really bad things can happen.
The murder -- and its alleged motive -- shook the town and devastated Gaither's family. His mother, Lois, and father, Marion, both denied knowing that their son was gay. But a great-uncle, Charles Gaither, was less emphatic: "I know this, whether he was gay or whatever he was, no human being deserves to be treated like this." Everyone seemed to agree that Billy Jack's life was pretty quiet. He lived at home with his parents. On some weekends he would drive to Birmingham, 40 miles away, to frequent a gay bar called The Tool Box.
Coosa County authorities arrested two Talladega County men, Steven Eric Mullins, 25, who is unemployed, and Charles Monroe Butler Jr., 21, a construction worker, both residents of nearby Fayetteville, who confessed they killed Gaither after claiming he made unwanted sexual advances at Mullins. The two young men remain in the Coosa County jail on $500,000 bonds. A grand jury could consider the case a kidnapping and murder, and indict the two on capital charges. If they are convicted of capital murder, they could be sentenced to die in the electric chair.
Mullins was known around town for wearing KKK T shirts; he and Butler had brushes with the law in the past.
They planned to attack Billy Jack for at least two weeks before arranging to meet. It was Friday night, Feb. 19, when Mullins called Gaither at home and the two went to a place called The Frame, a bar and pool hall in Sylacauga, where they met Butler. They went to the Tavern, a bar in Sylacauga, then they left in Gaither's car for a ride. Sometime after leaving the bar, Mullins and Butler beat Billy Jack and stuffed him into the trunk of his own car.
They drove a small country road 30 miles south, to Peckerwood Creek. The pavement ends and a gravel road leads to a bridge over Peckerwood Creek. Just at the end of the bridge a trail leads back by the side of the creek to the site of the old bridge.
Today the creek bank is littered with trash, garbage and junk. This remote area in the past was sometimes used by local preachers for baptisms. This part of earth had been desecrated by man, long before February 19, 1999. A beautiful spot had been rendered no better than a trash heap by uncaring mankind.
Down the trail about a half a mile they stopped. The access of the old bridge made a place for cars to turn around. But on the night of February it became a place of death for Billy Jack. There he was drug from the trunk of his own car and bludgeoned once more to death with ax handles. His body was drenched with Kerosene and thrown on a pyre of blazing tires - tires that had been ignited with the same Kerosene that now covered his body.
Gaither's family and friends doubt the claim that Billy Jack made a sexual advance to the men, saying Gaither did not flaunt his sexuality.
"He was not a closet gay," said Marion Hammond, who owns The Tavern, a neighborhood bar where Gaither was considered family and that Gaither reportedly visited the night of his slaying. She describes Gaither as a likable man. While never denying he was homosexual, Gaither "made a point of never doing the gay thing when he was at our place.... He was comfortable with who he was. He was not one to deny his life. He wouldn't say, 'Hi. I'm Billy Jack. I'm gay.' If you wondered and asked him, he would talk about it."
"He was not obvious about anything," she told The Washington Post. "My husband, Larry, didn't even know he was gay until about a year ago, and I had to tell him."
Gaither was "a good-looking man," she said, "dark-complexioned, about six-foot-two. He was one of those people who looked better with his glasses on. Those pictures they've been showing on TV don't do him justice."
Ms. Hammond told The Post she knew Mullins by sight. "He'd wear the dungaree pants inside the boots and provocative T-shirts, with 'White Power' on them and stuff like that," Ms. Hammond recalled. She never saw him and Gaither talking, however, and expressed skepticism that "Billy Jack would be so forward" as to make an advance to someone who would not respond.
Ms. Hammond said she just hopes Gaither's life as a positive, upbeat person who was willing to go the extra mile to help his family and friends will not become loss in the national spotlight.
"I think he would like to be remembered as the person, not what he was," she said " He was Billy Jack who lived in Sylacauga."
Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, and Dorothy Hadjys Holman, mother of Allen Schindler, asked that the privacy of Gaither's family be respected.
"The grief that the Gaithers are surely experiencing is one that I hope most people will never know," Mrs. Hadjys-Holman said.