Rommal Bennett's trial revisits spate of gay murders in the Twin Cities

Case could solve August 1996 slaying of Wally Lundin

The violence continued in the 1990s, with the slayings of a prominent former state senator, John Chenowith, and an openly gay human rights commissioner, Earl Craig. Three more killings echoed the Lundin murder; three gay men were tied up and strangled — one of them just months after Lundin. In the spring of 1997, Andrew Cunanan blazed through Minneapolis with a gun, slaughtering two men before moving on to shoot Gianni Versace outside his home in Miami Beach.

As the bodies stacked up, gay bars posted signs urging patrons to use caution, suggesting they tell the bartender the name of any men they took home. Some feared that gays were being targeted as they gained political prominence. Some felt police weren't doing enough.

Anderson was an unofficial liaison to police during those years. He once asked the police how many of the murderers were gay themselves.

Already convicted of one slaying, Rommal Bennett has been linked to an unsolved murder in Minneapolis
courtesy of the Times Herald-Record
Already convicted of one slaying, Rommal Bennett has been linked to an unsolved murder in Minneapolis
Wally Lundin was found hogtied and strangled with a necktie
courtesy of Jeff Smollar
Wally Lundin was found hogtied and strangled with a necktie

"The police said every one of them," Anderson recalls.

In spring of 1992, a young firefighter named Dallas Drake, who moonlighted as a photographer for the gay publication Equal Times, got his hands on a partial list of the gay dead.

"It's frightening to think that someone's killing gay men and getting away with it," he recalls thinking. "It seemed that someone was luring these men into an apartment and killing them."

In 1999, a researcher invited Drake to a weeklong criminology convention at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Drake hung on every word. When the day's activities ended around 9 p.m., he sat in the FBI library until midnight, copying down the titles of books.

Drake had an idea: What if he were to study gay homicide? No one else was doing it. The president-elect of the American Society of Criminology warned him against shoddy activist research. "You can't just look at gay victims," Drake recalls him saying. To do it right, he'd have to look at gay victims, offenders, and incidents.

By 2001, Drake and his partner, Joe Shulka, had collected a database of information known as the Minnesota Gay Homicide Study. The Quantico criminologists were impressed with his meticulously researched case studies, which were already yielding surprising results.

"Police think gay homicides are like straight homicides, and they're not," Drake says.

Today, the Center for Homicide Research—Drake changed the name in 2004—contains two locked drawers of red file folders, each bearing the neatly typed name of a murder victim. The red folders document approximately 100 gay murders that Drake has identified in Minnesota from 1969 to the present—another 3,025 purple folders contain information on gay homicides across the country. Drake uses a computer database to analyze the cases, comparing them with murders of straight people. His expertise at understanding these files has made Drake a frequent expert consultant to law enforcement, and he has been credited with helping to solve two gay murders—one in a suburb of Phoenix, and one in New Zealand.

Gay homicides, he says, often present certain indicators: a nude male in the bedroom, no indications that the home was broken into, a bizarre crime scene, missing car or ATM card, and what's known as "overkill"—excessive wounding, such as stabbing someone 60 times. The murders are personal, intimate—almost half involve knives, in contrast to straight homicides, in which guns are used 68 percent of the time.

Gay serial killing is extremely rare: FBI data from 1976 to 1997 shows that in 93 percent of GLBT homicides, the slaying was a first for the offender.

Drake calls many of the gay killings "shame attacks, honor killings.

"When we look at gay male homicide across the United States, the pattern is that there's evidence of sexual activity prior to the killing. So that doesn't point to some stranger-hate-crime scenario. That points to a crime where there's internalized homophobia. Somebody on the fringe of society, who enjoys having sex with men but at the same time can't cope with that.

"Attack doesn't occur because they hate the other person," Drake says. "It's because they hate themselves."

In 1986, John Roe, the openly gay owner of the Quickway Diner in Bloomingburg, New York, was found dead in his home. He'd been robbed, beaten in the head and face, and stabbed multiple times in the chest. For nearly 18 years, the case remained unsolved.

Then, in the fall of 2003, a routine scan of a cigarette butt left in a beer bottle at the murder scene turned up a match in the national DNA database: Rommal Bennett, a drifter who'd been convicted of sexually assaulting his roommate/boyfriend in Minneapolis in 1993.

Officials in Sullivan County, New York, tracked Bennett to San Francisco, where he had made his way through social services and seedy hotels and was living as a free man. His rap sheet included 1987 convictions in New York for assaulting and attempting to sodomize one man, and for strangling another.

Bennett pleaded guilty to the murder of John Roe. He went to prison in 2004.

In June 2007, DNA evidence was found—on the condom and bindings left at the crime scene—that seems to tie Bennett to the murder of Wally Lundin. The Hennepin County Attorney's Office tracked down Bennett's former boyfriend, who claimed that in 1998, Bennett got drunk and blathered on about the guilt he felt over strangling a man he'd met at the Gay 90's. Although the trial won't happen until October, prosecutors allege that the DNA evidence ties Bennett to the crime with 99.9999997 percent certainty.

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