The Grand Guignol Murder of a Gay Man In Virginia

 Richmond, Virginia— Eddie Northington was the type of guy a lot of people would probably have liked to kill. He was big. He was aggressive. He was a wiseass and a loudmouth. Lack of expertise didn't stop him from holding opinions on a variety of topics, and he was not the least bit shy about speaking his mind. He was less inhibited still when he'd been drinking, which, over the past couple of years, was a good deal of the time. Once Eddie Northington had knocked back a six-pack of whatever bargain beer was on special at the local Winn-Dixie, he got to running his mouth. The things that came out were not destined to win anyone a popularity contest. He sometimes called gay people faggots and black people niggers and, unlike a goodly number of his Richmond neighbors, he did not do so exclusively behind closed doors. A psychiatrist might talk about an Eddie Northington in terms of compulsivity or distorted affect or deficient impulse control. Being less occupationally compelled by the subtle shadings of human nature, bartenders routinely eighty-sixed him. Over the past couple years Northington had been tossed from several Richmond hangouts for pawing fellow patrons. He was someone who remained unpersuaded by a definitive no. "He seemed clueless," says one bartender. "He was friendly to the point of being obnoxious. Then he didn't understand why people got so mad at him."

On March 1, someone apparently got enraged enough at Eddie Northington to end his existence. Now, fully a month after his death, Richmond police have still failed to release the cause of death and the local medical examiner has yet to issue an autopsy report. It has been suggested by some that Northington's body had been found badly beaten. It has been rumored that a note was found stuffed in the dead man's mouth. The need for further messagery struck some people as moot after the killing made local, if not national, headlines. Its savagery, they said, came with a pretty potent symbolism of its own.

Unsatisfied merely with taking the 39-year-old Northington's life, the person or persons who attacked him also cut off his head. Then they carried the severed head a half mile through scrub woods in a public park, climbed 65 tower stairs to a railroad overpass and placed it squarely in the middle of a public walkway. It was discovered there the following day by a young couple exercising a dog. As it happens, the concrete overpass where Eddie Northington's severed head was found is located in the middle of Richmond's most popular gay cruising area. As it happens, Eddie Northington was gay.

"It's one thing to kill someone, it's another to cut their head off," police detective Thomas T. Leonard told the Richmond Times Dispatch shortly after the murder, adding that, "it may be a hate crime, it may be a sex crime, it may be a ritualistic crime. We really don't have anything concrete— no set way to go." The beheading came in the wake of the February 19 bludgeoning and burning death of 39-year-old Billy Jack Gaither in Sylacauga, Alabama; it occurred the week jury selection began for the trial of Russell Henderson, one of two men accused in the murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. Yet despite the fact that the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force asserted that the Richmond killing "rings an alarm," both the FBI and local police declined to classify the killing as a crime with roots in bias.

Some in the local community found no such ambiguity. "I mean, it's way, way overkill to cut someone's head off," says Paige Armstrong, a bartender at the gay nightclub Fieldens, where Northington was once a regular. "The fact that they left the head at the Rocks"— as the cruising area is known— "isn't an 'accident.' Nobody here wants another Matthew Shepard circus, but to suggest that it's not a hate crime is just mind-boggling." Yet, in the weeks following the murder, there were no angry protests in Richmond, no handbill campaigns, no demonstrators from the capital city's sizeable gay population taking to the streets in rage. There are reasons for this and, as they always are, they were cultural. Richmond, according to Sarah Chinn, an activist and lesbian who teaches at nearby Randolph-Macon College, "is a very insular place. Everything is covert. You get along here and you don't make a fuss." The fact that a gay man could be found murdered in a gay cruising area with his head placed in the middle of a walkway without arousing much local outrage would seem to strain the limits of dispassion. "Not a hate crime?" says Chinn. "How can you possibly talk about this and not say it's about him being gay?"

You can do it in a variety of ways. You can suggest, as some did, that Northington was semi-crazy, occasionally homeless, alcoholic, and so perhaps in a sense had it coming to him. You can ignore the symbolism and pretend that the crime was a fluke or aberration. You can suggest, as Loree Erickson, a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, and an activist with the school's Sexual Minority Student Alliance, does, that, while you are "definitely struck by the horror of the killing," there is not enough "information to make any clear actions." You can imply, as Jeremy M. Lazarus, a staff writer at the city's largest black newspaper, the Richmond Free Press, did to a reporter, that "it's just as likely to be homeless guys who got into an argument and one made his point plain to the other permanently." You can insist, as Marcus J. Miller, general manager of Fieldens, does, that "if I thought it was a hate crime I'd be the first one standing on the tallest building and screaming the loudest, but let's just don't jump to conclusions."

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