Talk to the people in rural Bay Minette, 25 miles northeast of Mobile, Alabama, who knew Scotty Joe Weaver and they'll tell you one thing: The 18-year-old seemed to survive anything life threw at him.
At age 10 he fought off cancer through two grueling years of chemotherapy. At 15 he lost his father. Throughout his high school years in the nearby town of Bay Minette, he weathered the taunts and teases of classmates for being gay. "He always knew how to get through," remembers his friend Justin Toth, who is also gay. "He had fun even at the worst times in his life."
This time, however, Scottie did not survive.
He was brutally killed outside Pine Grove, his hometown of less than 1,000 people near the Florida panhandle. He was bound with a rope to a chair in his trailer and after robbing him of between $65 and $80, he was beaten, strangled, stabbed multiple times, mutilated, and partially decapitated over a period of several hours. He was then cut with an edged weapon by his mobile home housemates, then doused with gasoline and set afire in the woods along a dirt road eight miles away. His severely burned, decomposed body was found four days later.
On July 22 a man driving an all-terrain vehicle discovered a burned body in a remote field about eight miles from Scotty's trailer home. Investigators believe the teen was tied to a chair and killed in his home. "It took a very long and painful time for him to die," says Baldwin County district attorney David Whetstone, who believes the injuries didn't all happen at once and that the severity of the wounds suggests Scotty was killed because he was gay. All three murders were out of work, and Scotty was paying the bills at their home.
One of the suspects charged in the case was Scotty's best friend since the first grade - 18-year-old Nichole Bryars Kelsay. Also charged with capital murder are Christopher Ryan Gaines, 20, and Robert Holly Lofton Porter, 18, Scotty's unemployed housemates at the Dobbins trailer park.
Friends and family describe Scotty as a smart kid who had no choice but to drop out of high school because he faced daily harassment for being gay. He got a minimum-wage job at a Waffle House and developed a growing circle of gay friends. He gravitated to local gay clubs and performed in drag competitions.
"He'd borrow some of my makeup sometimes," says Scotty Joe's brother Lum, 24, the oldest of the four Weaver boys. Lum, who is also gay, remembers his brother performing Dolly Parton numbers in the Drag-o-rama at the Emerald City bar in Pensacola, Fla. The grand prize for the amateur competition was a week's worth of paid bookings at the club. Scotty Joe took second place. "He was really pretty good, although I did tell him a couple of things that he could work on," Lum says, sounding like a big brother.
Martha Weaver knew that two of her sons were gay and always said, "If you love your child, it doesn't matter." Still, she was concerned about Scotty Joe performing his drag act in public. "His mother told me she knew about his sexual orientation and the competitions, and she warned him to be careful," says Whetstone. "She worried someone could really hurt him."
At the Waffle House, Scotty was a hard worker, often taking double shifts - working at the cash register, serving meals, running the grill - all to earn a little extra money to be independent, coworkers say. With his new earnings he was able to afford a place of his own. Less than a month before his death Weaver moved into a trailer home. It was small and white with green trim, near his mom's house, and had enough room for his best friend, Kelsay, and her boyfriend, Gaines. The couple were unemployed, and Scotty Joe paid the expenses. He didn't mind. Scotty asked Kelsay to move in so she would have a stable home for her baby. She was in a custody fight with the child's father, so Weaver offered to take care of her child as if it were his own.
Life seemed to be looking up.
On July 18, Scotty finished the graveyard shift and then dropped off money that he owed his mom, according to police officials. When Martha Weaver didn't hear from her son for a couple of days, she filed a missing person report. She later told investigators that the roommates now accused of Scotty Joe's murder had stopped by to say they hadn't seen her son and that they encouraged her to contact police.
Officials with the sheriff's department believe Kelsay, Gaines, and Porter robbed Scotty of the remaining $80 from his Waffle House take-home pay before killing him. Investigators have not officially ruled that Scotty's sexual orientation was a motive, but Whetstone is convinced it was. "Overkill happens in these kinds of cases because of hate," he says.
A statement released by Rusty Pigott, an attorney for defendant Gaines, points the finger at Porter, whom Kelsay allowed to sleep on the couch when Scotty was at work. Pigott says that Porter "spoke openly of wanting to kill the guy because he was gay" and "had been known to brag about assaulting homosexuals." He adds that Porter tried to hit Scotty just two days before he was killed. Porter's attorney had no comment, except to say that Pigott's statements were misleading.
Lawyers for the state of Alabama don't have to prove motive to apply the death penalty if the three are convicted, but Whetstone says the jury needs to know there were aggravating circumstances. Alabama does not include sexual orientation in its hate-crimes statue - and lawmakers have repeatedly defeated attempts to add it.
"I want to send a message to the community that it doesn't matter how you feel about the status of a victim - you can't hate anyone and hurt them," Whetstone says.
About 250 people filled the tiny, rural Crossroads Church of God for Scotty Joe Weaver's funeral. A dark blue casket dotted with tiny doves stood in the front of the church, draped with his favorite flowers - red roses and baby's breath - and a picture of a young, happy Scotty Joe sitting in a kayak.
Lum Weaver describes the setting as beautiful, even though antigay rhetoric seeped into the service. Hearing the Reverend Helen Stewart's fire-and-brimstone preaching, a few gay people walked out. "She made a lot of people mad, saying basically that Scotty Joe was in hell," Lum says. "And while most of the congregation was gay or bisexual, she told us we were all going to hell if we didn't change our ways."
Family and friends quietly buried Scotty Joe at the McGill Cemetery near his grandmother. Lum has moved back in with his mother to help with the bills and to help her cope with losing a son.
These days Lum hears people talking about his brother's death. It makes him happy to hear that there's renewed talk by lawmakers of changing the state's law to cover hate crimes based on sexual orientation. "They think this is going to drive us away, but it only makes us stronger," he says
Adds District Attorney Whetstone: "People at church and on the street talk to me about this case. If there is a positive that can come out of something so heinous, it's that these small-town people are talking to me about some of their own bad feelings toward [gay people]. They admit they've sometimes treated [gay] people badly. They're now saying this isn't right. You just can't hate people. There is no excuse for something like this to happen in Alabama."
The Baldwin County District Attorney David Whetstone stated that Weaver's sexual orientation was a factor in the crime. He remarked that the brutality involved "is suggestive of overkill, which is not something you see in a regular robbery and murder". Alabama's hate crimes statute does not apply to people targeted because of their sexual orientation.
Three years later in May, 2007, Christopher Gaines pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Porter pleaded guilty to murder and first degree robbery in September, 2007 and received two consecutive life sentences. Kelsay pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for conspiracy to commit murder.
Weaver's murder was not included in the FBI's hate crime statistics for 2004, serving as further proof of flaws in the FBI's reporting. The crime was featured in "Small Town Gay Bar", a 2006 documentary film depicting the difficulties of being gay in the rural South.
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia et alii