The Grand Guignol Murder of a Gay Man In Virginia

When I mention this story to the bartender at Casablanca, he says he's never heard it. He claims, in fact, to have no memory of Northington at all. And he hasn't heard about any protests or plans to demand that the local police make some kind of accounting of the murder. In fact, he says, his eyes flicking to the television set, "We're just waiting to see what the authorities say."

In their own way the authorities have been sending a kind of election-year countermessage to the gay community of Richmond. Late last year the police staged a series of busts in city parks, among them the one where Northington's head was discovered. They called it Operation Park Clean Up. The busts specifically targeted men looking for sex with other men. Since at least the late 19th century, according to historian Allan Bérubé, "urban campaigns against homosexual meeting places have developed as a political strategy for attaining specific goals: election to office, larger police budgets, and new laws." Their success at preventing homosexuals— or, for that matter, men having sex with men— from gathering in public has been "at best short-lived," Bérubé says.

The Richmond police raised the ante of their campaign by mailing postcards to the 53 men they arrested, advising them to get tested for AIDS. "As a result of your arrest on [date]," read the cards, "the Richmond Police highly recommends that you be tested for AIDS and other Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Have your family tested also, as your behavior may have put them at risk, too. Thank you."

Four of those caught in the sting hired Richmond attorney Joseph McGrath to sue the Richmond police for defamation. "The intent," said police spokesperson Cynthia Price, "was that the spouse would see the postcard and say . . . 'Why'd you get this? What's going on?' " But is that the only intent? Or is it a "coordinated effort to silence those who they think are in the gay community," as Shirley Lesser, executive director of Virginians for Justice, an advocacy group of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered people, and people with HIV and AIDS, suggests? "Richmond is filled with the walking wounded. They've so internalized the homophobic surroundings they don't even realize the oppression as what it is. Horrible things occur and people are able to distance themselves. The FBI won't say the Northington murder is a hate crime. The police don't know. But when I heard that the head was placed in the same park where the busts were, in the middle of a walkway, my ears perked up. If you ask me, do I personally think this was related to his sexuality? Yes. How else can you explain such overkill?"

The word echoed again and again when people described the reaction to Northington's murder. "They must of was trying to make sure somebody saw that," says a woman in the local tourism office, "with that kind of overkill." Decapitation takes it to another level, says Dorothy Hamilton, director of Daily Planet, a homeless center near Richmond's waterfront. Hamilton had known Northington for three years. Although unaware that he came from a prominent family in Brodnax, a town of 400 in nearby Mecklenburg County; that he'd served in the navy; that he was a skilled musician; or that, until last year, he'd audited courses in telecommunications at VCU, she is quick to remark that Northington "was very polished. He was very intellectual. He could hold a conversation with anyone." Hamilton also knew that Northington was gay and that he was being medicated for AIDS. "He picked up his medicine here." Everyone knew Eddie Northington's story. He made no secret of any of it.

Squeezing past an enormous man snoring in a corner, Hamilton pulls up a chair in a cramped office at the charity's Canal Street facility and says, "It wasn't like he flaunted himself or went out for people. It was how he carried himself. Not like he was swish swish." If anything, Northington was unstereotypical: broad shouldered and lanky, powerfully built and bullnecked, he was, says Fieldens bartender Armstrong, "handsome in his own way." He resembled a trucker. His last boyfriend, says Armstrong, was a "redneck type of guy." Northington was not someone, in other words, that it would be easy to take physical advantage of, no Matthew Shepard. "Whoever did that had to be strong," Hamilton says. "I don't know if it's a homosexual or a hate crime, but if homeless or gay people don't like you they just don't like you, that's all. They don't behead you."

The killing took place at a section of riverbank located between the Variation and Hollywood rapids, half a mile below Mitchell's Gut. Scent dogs brought in to track the body found no trace of blood on the ground. There was some speculation that, after murdering Northington, the killer cut off his head and then held it underwater to drain out the blood. The headless corpse was discovered the next day a mile downriver from James River Park.

Visiting the park one afternoon, I make my way across the footbridge where Northington's remains were found. I trot down the steps to the riverside park where, in better weather and better times, the gay people of Richmond have gone to enjoy themselves.

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