Overkill

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 Dispatchshortly 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."

Richmond, as Miller goes on to say, is a tolerant city within certain limits. The shape of those limits, though, is not always clear. The state of Virginia still maintains a 49-year-old statute making a felony of that "crime against nature" involving carnal knowledge of another person by or with the anus or mouth. But antisodomy laws are the least of it, really; Richmond is a " 'You don't tell me your business and I won't tell you mine' kind of town," says Miller, not so much a closeted city as a muffled one. It is a place where the local ladies clubs that maintain plantings beneath an equestrian statue of Confederate hero Stonewall Jackson buy their flowers from gay florists because, as Miller also notes, "the best caterers in town are gay, and the best florists are gay, and the best haircutters are, and everybody knows it, but they don't make it into a big deal. It's a conservative town, but it's not a hate town."

During the days I spent in Richmond, a death-penalty trial was getting under way in another conservative town that is not a hate town several thousand miles west. While the killing of Eddie Northington merited a total of four stories in the Richmond press, the national media had descended on Laramie, Wyoming, to report on jury selection in the first of two proceedings to try the alleged killers of Matthew Shepard. There was extensive real-time coverage of the Shepard case on Court TV and live feeds to the networks. While the press routinely referred to the trial of Russell Henderson as the "Gay Bashing Trial," none of the 71 Wyoming jurors summoned to the courthouse that first week of proceedings would ever hear the words homosexual or gay. "They used code words," reported the Court TV correspondent. "They said 'lifestyle' instead." Defense attorneys told potential jurors that "this is not a hate crime. This is not about hate." The presiding judge had the courthouse lawn cordoned into sectors. One was for gay demonstrators who, as it turned out, never arrived. Another was for parishioners from Reverend Fred Phelps's Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, who rarely miss an opportunity to appear on national television waving placards that reiterate the message on their Web site (www.godhatesfags.com) that AIDS CURES FAGS.

Richmond is the husk of a once beautiful and soulful old city. Most of its late neoclassical buildings are oriented to the locks and canals of the broad James River. Plainly its center was once a prosperous place. Just as plainly something drew down the core population until the old buildings fell empty and the grand department stores on Broad and Grace streets were gradually shuttered. Now, in place of fancy spring suits, the windows of Miller & Rhoads, the town's largest emporium, are painted with chalky murals depicting the city's Bread Riots. Where shops with Art Moderne facades and marble bolection moldings once sold whatever passed in these parts for the latest fashions, there's now a place called Sixth Street Marketplace, a shedlike multifloor urban conversion whose retailing message is unyieldingly low-end.

Judging by the number of wig and barbershops on Broad Street, it's a town that takes serious interest in things tonsorial. But, of course, there's a subtext in all the barbershops, in the shoe stores selling $18 pumps and the emporia offering bargain mud cloth and frankincense. There is not enough incense in the world to support prime urban retail space; downtown Richmond is what a Southern city looks like after 30 years of white flight. That the people who filled in the vacancies left along Grace and Broad streets would certainly have had no place in downtown Richmond's glory days almost goes without saying.

There are three gay bars on Grace Street. Each also operates, according to local liquor laws, as a restaurant. The largest, Casablanca, has three high-ceilinged rooms with wood booths and buttoned red vinyl stools and ferns in wall planters and two mannequins in the windows dressed in Ray-Bans and baseball caps to look "gay." There is a wall-hung TV in the front room that, on the afternoon I visited, was tuned to Pat Robertson's 700 Club. Although I couldn't quite tell with the sound off what Robertson was saying, superimposed over his image was a quote from the prophet Isaiah: "They will bring your sons in their arms and carry your daughters on their shoulders."

Until he was banned one night a year ago, Casablanca was Eddie Northington's favorite bar. On that occasion the six-foot-four-inch Northington apparently came on so persistently to a local bodybuilder that, said a patron who was there that evening, "the guy finally said, 'If you put your hands on me one more time, I'm gonna punch you out.' " Northington took offense. "You don't want to talk to me, huh?" he said. Later that night the same bodybuilder showed up at Fieldens, and, the eyewitness said, "Eddie came in. As soon as Eddie came in, whether he knew it was the same guy or not, he went right for him. And the guy just decked him. It was a movie punch. He punched his lights out."

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.

Picking my way through the muck and scrub at the river's edge to a place where police believe that Northington met his end, I find myself imagining the degree of premeditation it would require to murder someone with such baroque fury. Fully a tenth of the average human's body weight is located above the shoulders: a bony mass of skull and all the delicate, spongy complex tissue encased within. Heads are heavy. It can't be easy to hack one off and drain it, then haul the thing like a lunchpail through a dark wood.

Although a soft rain is falling this late afternoon, the sun breaks through the gray skies abruptly and lights up the James River. The shallow water in a bankside canal suddenly becomes a long pewter ribbon. It occurs to me that hierarchies of worthlessness are deployed in order to render the killing of Eddie Northington an anomaly, another unsolvable episode in the ongoing Grand Guignol of the South. That its context is plain for anyone to see would hardly appear worth remarking. Yet the question comes up again and again: Was Northington murdered because he was gay? "The problem," says academic Chinn, "is that there's no discursive space left for this guy. What kind of way can we talk about him? How can you discuss his murder and not say it's about him being gay? He wasgay. He wasmurdered."

The hollow ring of tautology that creeps into conversation when people begin talking about specially categorized hate crimes was nowhere to be heard at Northington's memorial. The service was held at Richmond's Grace and Holy Trinity Church. It was attended, say those who were there, by people from communities in Richmond whose lives don't often overlap. Speaking from the lectern, Northington's sister, Deborah Clark, protested the fact that her brother's life and death were being paraded around for the satisfaction of those who "thrive on the grotesque." Eddie Northington had a saying, she told mourners: " 'Live life! You only shoot through once." Sure, Eddie had made mistakes in his life, Clark said. "But nobody deserves something like this. People, wake up! This could happen to you."

Research assistance: Lou Bardel

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