Ryan Skipper was born Tuesday, April 28, 1981, in Winter Haven, he was the second of two sons of Pat Mulder of Auburndale and Durl Skipper of Bartow. He attended First Missionary Baptist Church of Auburndale as a child, then Grace Lutheran Church and School in Winter Haven, where he served as an altar boy. His brother, Damien, who is 3 1/2 years older, said he remembers looking out for his Ryan when they were younger. "Being the older brother you try and show your younger siblings the ropes," he said.
Ryan kept his sexual orientation a secret, though in his final year at Winter Haven High School he came out to a select few friends. At school he was assaulted and often taunted with anti-gay slurs. According to friend Stephanie Strickland, "In high school, people would call him a girlie man, gay boy," push him in the halls and throw rocks at his car.
During their younger years, Ryan "liked to be the center of attention, but he always made sure everyone around him was comfortable and happy," his brother said. Strickland remembers meeting Ryan Skipper at the beginning of their freshman year at Winter Haven High School. He had some trouble adjusting to public school, but Strickland said the teenager with the sunny smile easily fit in with her clique.
"I knew him before he even admitted he was gay," she said. Still, when he came out to his friends during their final years at Winter Haven High, it was with some trepidation. Despite being his best friend, Strickland said she was not the first person to know. "He claimed the reason he didn't tell me was because he thought I wouldn't love him as much," she said. "I told him, 'Ryan, I love you even more for being honest'."
He endured teasing and harassment from some classmates. "He'd smile at them because they were ignorant," she said. "I don't think it bothered him that he was gay. Ryan was happy with who he was."
Skipper was raised in the church and believed in God; he made peace with his faith and homosexuality in his own way,'' she said. "I know his philosophy was that, 'God's not going to discriminate against me because of my sexuality'."
After graduation from high school in 2000, Ryan drifted for a while, moving in and out of his mother's house. He was arrested twice for marijuana possession, once in 1999, then again in 2001, but friends say he had stayed away from drugs since. Recently, he had gotten serious and was studying computers at Traviss Career Center. He had tinkered with computers since Strickland had known him, fixing others' machines and building his own.
"He's a complete wiz on the computer," she said. "The past couple of years, he really decided that that's what he wanted to do with his life." He took classes at Traviss in the morning and worked in the evening at either the Lakeland or Winter Haven sunglass shop, striving to keep his finances in order.
Kelly Evans, Skipper's roommate for the past year and a half, said she, Skipper and roommate Joyce Fraley were like family. The trio were likened to The Three Stooges.
"He came home from work and we would always sit down and talk. The three of us know everything about each other and what we were striving for in our lives. We gave Ryan a lot of praise for going to school."
Since being accepted at Traviss, "I saw his spirit lifted a lot. Ryan was at a point in his life where he was proud of himself."
When he bought the brand-new 2007 Aveo on Valentine's Day, it was entirely with his own money. "I think the car to him was a token of accomplishment," she said. Ironically, it would become a key piece of evidence that would lead detectives to the suspects who are accused of taking his life for it just a month later.
Ryan was a 25-year old gay man from Polk County, Florida who was murdered on Wednesday, March 14, 2007 in what authorities called a hate crime. He was stabbed 20 times. The body of Ryan was found dumped on the side of the road last week in the flyover country between Tampa and Orlando. Two men have been arrested in connection with the crime: William David Brown Jr. (20 years old at the time of the incident), and Joseph Bearden, 21. Brown has claimed that he killed Skipper in retaliation for unwanted sexual advances. The men have been charged with first-degree murder and robbery. Skipper's body was discovered on March 15 by a roadside in Wahneta, Florida.
The night of March 14, Skipper closed the Lakeland sunglass store where he worked and had a late meal with co-worker and friend Karl von Hahmann at Mimi's Cafe at Lakeside Village. The two men met each other at work six months ago. "Just instantly we were like best friends," von Hahmann said.
Lately, Skipper, who had mainly worked at the Sunglass Hut in Macy's department store in Winter Haven, started helping out at the standalone store at Lakeside Village. The two had either lunch or dinner together every day, depending on what shift they were working, von Hahmann said.
On this night, the two talked about a trip to Miami they were planning and an upcoming visit to see Skipper's brother in Las Vegas. "He also mentioned to me that he was the happiest he had ever been," von Hahmann said. "Things were just starting to go right for him. He had just come into a comfort zone that was unbelievable." The friends went their separate ways 10:30 p.m.
Shortly before 11 p.m., von Hahmann said he called Skipper on his cell phone, reminding him he had to drop off a key for a co-worker to open the store the next day. "He told me that he'd call me back in a little while, which was nothing unusual," von Hahmann said. "That was the last time I spoke to him."
Skipper went to his home at 211 Richburg Road in Winter Haven. A roommate said he came in and put leftovers from dinner in the refrigerator. According to the Sheriff's Office, he was accompanied by Bearden and that the the two smoked marijuana and discussed using Skipper's computer to commit check fraud. After a short time, they took the laptop computer and left.
Strickland disputes this account, saying that Skipper did not use illegal drugs and did not own a laptop computer. It is a portrayal that has deeply hurt Strickland, who said her friend was simply too trusting and naive. Instead of Skipper picking up Bearden, a more likely scenario, she said, is that Brown was waiting for Skipper when he arrived home.
She said Brown knew a previous tenant at the house, and had come looking for him soon after Skipper moved in. Strickland said Skipper's roommates told her that Brown, who lives two blocks away from Skipper's home, had since come around several times on a bicycle in the weeks before Skipper's death, asking about him, what he was doing, when he would come home. "The only thing I can understand about it is that he trusted these people enough to give them a ride somewhere," she said.
That somewhere was the home of Brown's uncle, where they met up with Brown. Sheriff's officials say said it was then that Bearden and Brown decided to rob Skipper of the laptop and his car. So they persuaded him to give them a ride somewhere else. Brown and Bearden returned to the house in Skipper's car about 15 minutes later. Skipper was not with them. The inside of the car was so bloody, according to the Sheriff's Office, that the two cut out a seat belt because they couldn't clean it.
After trying to clean and sell the car, they eventually abandoned it on a dock on Lake Pansy in Winter Haven and set it on fire. But the flames only caused minor damage, and both their fingerprints have been recovered from the car.
Deputies arrested them on March 16. A witness told detectives that Brown had said Skipper was "messing with him," or making sexual advances, that night, and that is why he was killed. Both Bearden and Brown have arrest records for minor offenses, but neither has previously been charged with a violent crime.
Strickland doesn't think Skipper would do that, but feels he may well have been killed out of hate.
"I feel he was targeted, yes, because he was gay," Strickland said. "But they also had this planned out, to do something to him."
It is not fully known how Skipper met Bearden and Brown, but Skipper's roommate Joyce Fraley claims to have seen Brown at their house on several occasions. Strickland also says that Brown knew a previous tenant of Skipper's home, and lived two blocks away. Allegedly, Brown had visited the home a few times just weeks before he and Bearden murdered Skipper.
Skipper was beaten, stabbed 20 times and his throat slit. His body was dumped by the side of a road in Wahneta, a small town outside Winter Haven. His car was abandoned at Lake Pansy, and the fingerprints of both accused were found inside.
The murder has caused outrage among gay rights groups, who see similarities between Skipper's murder and that of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. They have also decried the lack of mainstream attention to Skipper's murder, which has been attributed by some to claims by Sheriff Grady Judd that, according to Bearden and Brown, Skipper was cruising for sex when he met his attackers, that he had consumed illegal drugs with Bearden, and that Skipper and his attackers were allegedly planning a check forgery scheme using Skipper's laptop computer.
Skipper's family and friends all have agreed that this scenario is highly unlikely, as it was uncharacteristic of Skipper to approach men randomly, and he did not own a laptop computer. According to Brian Winfield, spokesman for Equality Florida, "They've characterized Ryan as a pervert, a drug addict and a felon. In the eyes of the media, it didn't carry the human interest that it should have"
The Sheriff's Department has since admitted that the account of the events leading up to the murder that was originally given to the media by Sheriff Grady Judd was based solely on the unsubstantiated statements given by Bearden and Brown upon their arrests. Chief W.J. Martin acknowledged in an article in The Ledger that the two were probably attempting to "minimize their involvement and make themselves look better."
Filmmakers Vicki Nantz and Mary Meeks produced and filmed a documentary about Skipper's murder. The 72-minute film, entitled "Accessory to Murder: Our Culture's Complicity in the Death of Ryan Skipper", premiered in January of 2008. It was selected by the Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival as part of their Film Outreach Program.
Sheriff Calls His Stabbing Death a Hate Crime
By Eva Kis & Gabrielle Finley - The Ledger,
Nothing about the brutal killing of Ryan Keith Skipper makes sense to Stephanie Strickland.
Ever since a Polk County sheriff's detective came to her door at noon March 15 and informed her of her good friend's death, she has been struggling to understand what happened to him, and why.
"He's the best friend I ever had in my whole life," she said. "I never thought something like this could happen to someone so kind."
Even while talking with the detective, Strickland kept looking out the window of her Auburndale home, expecting Skipper's new powder blue Chevrolet Aveo to come down the road. They were supposed to have lunch, then run errands together - a rare idyllic afternoon for both. She has a 3-year-old daughter; he has done little else besides work and study since enrolling in Traviss Career Center's information technology program about four or five months ago.
"I just fell apart," she said. "It still feels like somebody just told me."
Skipper, 25, was found stabbed to death by the side of Morgan Road near 19th Street West in Wahneta by a passing driver about 1:20 a.m. March 15. Deputies have arrested William David Brown Jr., 20, and Joseph Bearden, 21, charging them with first-degree murder and declaring the slaying a hate crime. A witness told detectives Skipper was killed because he was gay.
Though the Sheriff's Office is investigating Skipper's murder as a hate crime, that fact will not weigh on the prosecution of Brown and Bearden. Designating a crime as hate-motivated is a "sentencing enhancement," not a separate charge, which means it makes the punishment more severe for the crime committed, Chip Thullbery, spokesman for the State Attorney's Office, said Wednesday.
In Florida, the designation doesn't apply to life or capital felonies because the punishments for those charges - either life in prison or execution - are the most severe, and therefore can not be enchanced. "There is no such thing as a hate crime first-degree murder, by the law,'' he said.
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