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Clifton Spires is the father of a gay son who walked out of the family home in 1996 after a family row and they've never seen or spoken to each other since. A journalist living in Ohio with his wife and other son he now campaigns vigorously for gay rights and each week on OutUK he reflects on how this affects his life and family. Though it's written in America, we believe the issues he deals with affect the worldwide gay community. Previous columns are archived in OutBack.

The Sandusky Murder - A Follow Up

About three months ago, I wrote about the murder of a gay man that took place in Sandusky, Ohio — a little too close to home, for my taste. On the morning of May 13, Gilberto Cruz, 48, was found dead in his home at a boarding house on East Water Street in downtown Sandusky — not far from the city’s only gay bar, X-centricities. Within hours, a 19-year-old man, Brandon Kessinger of Lancaster, Ohio, a transient with a history of run-ins with the law, was arrested and charged with voluntary manslaughter, a first-degree felony.

This week, Erie County Probate Court Judge Beverly McGookey sentenced Kessinger to the maximum 10-year prison term after the defendant pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, a lesser felony charge. Kessinger’s defense was that he didn’t aim to kill Cruz. Kessinger accused Cruz of trying to rape him while he was staying in Cruz’s room. Attorney Shital Shah, representing Kessinger, repeated Kessinger’s claim of self-defense to the court, stating that his client was very sorry. “Honestly, it’s a case of two tragedies,” Shah said. A tearful Kessinger told Cruz’s family that he was “truly sorry and will be for the rest of my life.” Kessinger’s mother and sister both apologized to the court and to the Cruz family and asked for leniency.

According to Brad Dicken of The Sandusky Register, during the sentencing, Cruz’s oldest daughter, Carrie Baker, shouted at Kessinger to look at her while she was talking to him, but Kessinger did not. Baker’s hands shook and tears almost overwhelmed her as she read a statement refusing to forgive Kessinger. “Today, forgiveness is not in me,” she said. “Whatever he did, he didn’t deserve to die like that.” Assistant Erie County Prosecutor Mary Ann Barylski, noting that Kessinger also claimed to be drunk, said alcohol was no excuse and that “(Kessinger) should have left. Instead, he killed a man.” McGookey apparently agreed, saying, “It appears to me, the victim suffered (a long time).” The judge noted that Kessinger told police he beat Cruz between drinks, watching TV and listening to the radio.

When the murder was first reported, I responded by writing, “I resent the fact that because someone’s son or daughter is or is perceived to be gay, it creates an excuse for someone to murder them ... I have no idea whether Gilberto Cruz made a pass at Brandon Kessinger in that boarding house on May 13. But whether he did or did not, we’ll only have Kessinger’s word for it. And even then, is an unwanted advance justification for murder?” I feel like my comments were justified by the sentence, but I am not callused enough to take any satisfaction in it. In this situation, there are no winners. Cruz is dead and he has no way of responding to the posthumous accusations of attempted rape made against him.

Kessinger is a young man who didn’t have much of a life to look forward to before the murder — he was already on probation for numerous convictions since his 18th birthday, including obstructing official business, driving under suspension, failure to file a required report, maintain an assured clear distance ahead, underage consumption, disorderly conduct, having no operator’s license, failure to maintain reasonable control and having fictitious license plates. Now his best years likely will be spent under the control of the Ohio penal system — which, thanks to the attitude of the Buckeye State’s hard-nosed Attorney General Betty Montgomery, offers fewer and fewer support systems for prisoner rehabilitation and more chances for inmates to become even more hardened and anti-social. Prisons also are a breeding ground for homophobic attitudes, thanks to increasing numbers of Aryan skinheads and religious programs that emphasize fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible.

It’s good to know, however, that in a small city like Sandusky, Ohio, the justice system considers it unacceptable to kill or injure someone because they are gay. I hope that the attitudes of Judge McGookey and Prosecutor Barylski will be the prevailing ones across the country. But that hope is tempered with a fear that before those attitudes come to pass, many more families, like those of Gilberto Cruz, will have to meet the eyes of defendants like Brandon Kessinger.

Published 8th September 2000


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