Rommal Bennett's trial revisits spate of gay murders in the Twin Cities
Wally Lundin was the kind of guy who never forgot to take out the recyclables. Every other Sunday, the grass-green bin brimming with bottles, cans, and newspapers turned up, like clockwork, at the end of his drive. But on August 25, 1996, the bin failed to appear, and Lundin's front door hung ajar, a wound gaping in the breeze.
On Monday, the squad cars came. When Lundin hadn't shown up for work at American Express Financial—he was fastidiously punctual—his co-workers came to check on him. They found him on his bed in his underwear, dead. He lay on his stomach, hogtied: feet tied to his neck with bindings made from ripped cloth, hands bound behind his back with a yellow cord. He'd been strangled with a necktie.
The cops dusted doorframes and window ledges, covering every surface with ashy fingerprint powder. They took their time, lingering until late afternoon. "If you're waiting for the body shot, it's not going to happen for a while," one cop told impatient television news crews.
Lundin's neighbor across the street, Dennis Seviola, heard them and ducked inside his house, not wanting to watch his friend carried out under a sheet. Seviola told the investigators he'd seen Lundin at the Gay 90's nightclub on Saturday around midnight. The men had passed each other in a bustling crowd that was visiting the Twin Cities for a national gay softball tournament. A dark-skinned, round-faced man—whom Seviola had never seen before—followed close behind, hanging on Lundin's arm.
The Minneapolis police catalogued the items missing from Lundin's home: a black boom box and a navy blue duffel bag. They worked intensely on the case for several months, chasing potential suspects: an accomplice in a similar murder a few years before, a man who hogtied and robbed someone else a few months later. They speculated about the motive: a botched robbery, a sadomasochism scene gone too far, a hate crime. "We really couldn't rule anything out," recalls Deputy Chief Scott Gerlicher, who was a 26-year-old homicide investigator at the time.
As the months stretched into years, and alibis checked out, the suspect list was exhausted and the killer had yet to be found. The case went cold. Whoever killed Wally Lundin was still out there, stalking new prey.
One night in 1972, James "Andy" Anderson, an openly gay college junior at the University of Minnesota, saw a murder in Loring Park.
Gay men—many of them closeted, with wives and children at home—were known to congregate in the park. Anderson was out with friend and fellow student John Moore. As the friends watched, a gaggle of young men swooped in and surrounded a young park cruiser. "Fag," they called him, and gave him a horrific beating. Terrified, Moore and Anderson sprinted to the White Castle on Nicollet Avenue where the police drank their coffee, and asked for help. But it was too late—they returned to the park to watch the body carted off, draped in a white sheet.
They searched every newspaper, but could find no mention of the killing. Murders involving gay men were often kept quiet by the families. "There were no investigations in the '60s and '70s," Anderson says. "The shame was huge."
In the 1970s, no self-respecting white Lutheran would run a gay bar, so the Jewish syndicate did. Moore and Anderson worked for Ron Pesis, a Jewish mobster who operated the Saloon, where he wined, dined, and blackmailed Minneapolis power brokers until federal bribery charges landed him in prison. Moore and Anderson bought the place and became the cities' first openly gay bar owners.
As the AIDS crisis hit in the 1980s, violence against gay men seemed to be escalating. In 1986, the Minneapolis Police Department conducted a survey of gay homicides in eight cities, concluding that there was no nationwide trend of increased violence against homosexuals. But Minneapolis City Councilman Brian Coyle, the first openly gay man to serve in that capacity, criticized the survey, noting that his office had received an increased number of calls about violence against both gays and senior citizens. In 1985, gay homicides had increased 41 percent in New York City over the previous year, and 69 percent in San Francisco.
From April 1984 to December 1986, 19 gay people were murdered in Minnesota. Among them was Lyle E. Kastner, a retired contractor who was found strangled in his condo near Loring Park two days before Christmas 1985. Several neckties were wrapped about his throat. Five days later, John J. Kieley was found in his Minneapolis apartment, strangled with a cord. Kastner's and Kieley's homes were ransacked, but there were no signs that the killer had had to break in. The bodies were found nude or nearly nude. Three months later, a backhoe operator working in an undeveloped area of Fridley unearthed the body of Dennis Prochaska, who had also been strangled with a cord. Prochaska had been missing for five months. Minneapolis Police Chief Patrick Farrell said the strangulations and burglaries fit a pattern, but speculated that if the cases were serial murders, they may have been committed by a transient no longer in the Twin Cities.
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.
"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.
Assistant Public Defender Michael Holland declined to discuss his strategy for the case in detail, but emphasized that the DNA evidence alone isn't a slam dunk. "You should know that the DNA in this case is a mixture of two or more persons," Holland says. "We believe that the evidence will show he's innocent."
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