Former ‘queer-basher’ James Baines and his struggle to convert hate into understanding.
Dedicated to the memory of Charles O. Howard, 1961-1984
There are pivotal events in everyone’s life that forever separate before from after. For Jim Baines of Bangor, Maine, a pivotal event took place one July evening in 1984, when he and two friends attacked two gay men, killing one. The three assailants were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to a youth detention center.
Ten year later, at age 25, Baines turned his life around by attempting to repay society for his crime. On occasion, he took voluntary unpaid leave from his sales job at an electrical supply company in Bangor, and traveled to schools with state police officers to talk to students about hate crimes.
I caught up with Baines at Biddeford Middle School in Biddeford, Maine where he gave a presentation to an eight-grade assembly. The day was sparkling, with a hint of summer in the air. Over 100 students noisily entered a large music room with instruments and music stands scattered around. A teacher called the group to order saying,
“I’d like to introduce two special guests – Detective Sargent Mike Harriman of the Maine State Police and his guest, Jim Baines. They’re here to speak about some issues I think are relevant to us all – respect for each other, consideration, and tolerance.”
Sargent Harriman began the presentation by defining “hate crime” as “a criminal offense motivated by bias against another person’s race, religion, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation.” He cited a couple of recent examples of crimes involving race at area high schools, and then showed two short videos – “Arresting Prejudice,” a police training film, and “Crimes of Hate,” a series by a local television station detailing Jim Baines’s story.
Baines, about five feet, nine inches tall with sandy hair then walked tentatively to the front of the room. The students were quiet and attentive as he spoke.
“The story I’m about to tell is true, very true,” he said nervously. “It’s about one night that changed my life drastically.”
For most of that July day in 1984, Baines, then 15 year old, had been drinking beer with two friends, Daniel Ness, 17, and Shawn Mabry, 16. That night, they took the car of one of the boys’ parents and drove around Bangor from party to party.
“As the night went on,” he said, “we ran out of beer. And it was during our quest for more beer that our problems began.”
They left a party at about 10:00 pm. along with two young women, ages 15 and 17, one of whom had a fake I.D.
Downtown, they drove across a bridge over a small stream and spotted two men walking arm in arm who the teens recognized as local gay men. The two, Charlie Howard, 23, and Roy Ogden, 20, had just left a meeting of Interweave, a support group for LGBT people sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist of Bangor.
The boys stopped the car, got out, and according to Baines, “began to push them around and really started to assault them,” demanding that they acknowledge their homosexuality. One of the gay men yelled to the other to run. Ogden got away; Howard, however, tripped on a curb, falling to the ground near the railing of the bridge. The three teens surrounded him, punching and kicking as he held onto the railing and screamed for help. One of the teens then gave the order to throw Howard from the bridge. When Howard heard this, he cried out in panic, saying he could not swim. His plea only enlivened the boys, who dislodged Howard’s hands from the railing and, with a mighty heave, tossed him into the stream some 20 feet below.
The boys then ran back to their car.
“We were feeling good, excited,” Baines told the students. “We thought it was a good accomplishment at the time, and we yelled and screamed as we drove off.”
Afterwards, they even bragged to a friend that they had “jumped a fag and beat the shit out of him, and then threw him into the stream.” The young women in the car, on the other hand, were quite upset and warned the boys that the man could have drowned.
At home later that evening, Baines had a hard time falling asleep. The next morning, the other boys woke him up and told him Howard had died.
Baines felt as if he had been plunged into a nightmare:
“I couldn’t believe it. I kept saying, ‘No way.’”
Soon, local police officers arrested him, Ness, and Mabry and charged them with murder. According to a report from the medical examiner, the cause of death was drowning, with acute bronchial asthma as a probable contributing factor.
Baines knew his life would never be the same again.
“I remember sitting in the detective’s office,” he told the students, “my head in my hands, crying and just hoping the walls would swallow me up. How could I face my mother, knowing I did something so terrible? Then my mother walked in. We embraced. We both began to cry.”
The following Monday night, the Reverend Richard Forcier and congregation president Lois Reed led a memorial service at the Unitarian Universalist sanctuary in Bangor. The over 200 attendees celebrated Charlie Howard’s life, and voiced outrage over his vicious murder. They then marched over the bridge where Charlie had been murdered, and in keeping with Charlie’s mother’s wishes, dropped a white rose tied with a lavender ribbon into the stream below. The procession terminated in a candlelight vigil at the Bangor police station. All along the line of the march, amid the marchers’ grief and rage, hecklers shouted homophobic epithets. A few weeks after the murder, the words “Fags Jump Here” were painted on the bridge.
Four days after Howard’s death, the Reverend Richard Hasty led another memorial service at the First Parish Society, Unitarian Universalist, in Portland, Maine, followed by a protest march down Congress Street. Onlookers there also heckled marchers from the sidelines.
Few in the community were willing to condemn such bigotry. Forcier, in an attempt to bring Bangor together, sent a letter to the leaders of area religious congregations to join him in discussing Howard’s murder and speaking out against intolerance. The response was deadening silence, save for the angry replies of a few fundamentalist ministers. A few months later, a local school board unanimously voted to cancel a proposed “Tolerance Day,” claiming the appearance on a scheduled panel of the president of the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance would have threatened the “safety, order, and security of the high school.”
Lois Reed, a member of the Unitarian Universalist in Bangor for 21 years and congregation president from 1984 to 1987 has led an annual service on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of Howard’s death. Charlie Howard was Reed’s friend. She remembers him as
“a good person, though he could be absolutely infuriating at times. He was very frail in appearance and was targeted because he was seen as vulnerable.”
After their arraignment, Howard’s killers were released into their parents’ custody. According to a Boston Globe article, Thomas Goodwin, the assistant attorney general chosen to prosecute the case, said he had recommended their release because they were “not a threat to the community,” and had not intended to kill Howard. Sargent Thomas Placella, the chief detective on the case, in published accounts at the time of the murder, echoed this reasoning saying,
“I’m not trying to lessen the severity of the crimes, but it’s not like these were axe murderers. These people came from respectable families who own property in the city off Bangor.”
Three months later, Mabry, Ness, and Baines were convicted of manslaughter and given indeterminate sentences at the Maine Youth Center in South Portland. During Baines’s two years there, he continued his studies, and following release, he returned to high school and graduated with his class.
Charlie Howard’s murder is remarkable only by virtue of it being unremarkable. Queer-bashing, of course, is not limited to Maine, a state that boasted the lowest murder rate in the US at the time of Howard’s vicious attack. The year of Howard’s killing, 90 percent of the 2000 contacted for a survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (a civil right group based in Washington, DC) reported having been victimized because of their sexual identity. More than one in ten had been threatened with violence. Victimization occurred at home, at school, and at other community sites. Forty-five percent of the males and 25 percent of the females had been harassed or attacked in high school or junior high school because they were perceived as lesbian or gay. About one-third of the respondents had been assaulted verbally, while more than one in fifteen had been physically abused by family members. Three years later, a US Department of Justice report concluded, “Homosexuals are probably the most frequent victims” of hate violence.
Like his crime, Baines himself was unremarkable. He told students at Biddeford Middle School,
“I was not unlike any of you here. I was a grade-conscious, wanting to be popular, 15-year-old high school kid. I played football, basketball; I hung out with my friends on weekends. My grades were okay, and I was really looking forward to going to college.”
Ness and Mabry were also “typical” middle-class teens, Ness a promising art student, and Mabry a karate enthusiast and star of the city hockey league.
Why would three young men who seemed to have so much going for them feel compelled to commit a crime of hate?
“As I look back now,” said Baines, “I don’t think I was ever homophobic.”
His primary motivation, he said, was the desire for popularity. Even as he was beating Howard, he had thought,
“My friends will look up to me for this, and I’ll be able to talk about it in school for a couple of years.
“In high school,” he continued, “no matter how popular you are, you worry about being popular.”
He went on to explain why he and his friends had targeted gays:
“We thought these people were much different than us and that we would get away with it because it was accepted. I considered that person different than I, less than I….Just like in school, you have your bullies that pick on the little kids; it’s the same idea.”
A female student raised her hand and said,
“When we think of gays, we think of a limp wrist, weird voice, and slurred speech and stuff, and we don’t realize that some people we hang around with every day could be homosexuals.”
Another female student added,
“I think a lot of people hate blacks or women or gays or whatever just because they’re not a white male.”
A male student asked Baines,
“Do you think education in the schools about gay people would have changed your view”
Baines pondered the question briefly and answered,
“I look back and think, ‘If I would have been more educated about homosexuality, I would have been aware that it is there, and it’s something that shouldn’t be treated violently.’ I guess, if there was more education in that area, it would’ve probably made me think differently about the whole night.”
In fact, Baines had gotten the opposite kind of education.
“I did know that [homosexuality] was something my family looked at as unacceptable,” he remembered, “my family as well as the police.”
Given the lack of appropriate education, it’s not surprising that, as Baines said,
“gay-bashing was happening every day. And it was more than just five or six kids doing it.”
In fact, it was considered an after-school extracurricular activity. Baines confided that local youth often stole from LGBT people, threw rocks at their cars, and once even pulled a gay man from his car and sent it crashing down a hill.
“The parents knew,” he said. “I believe teachers even knew. But nobody thought it would turn into something so serious.”
To Baines’s surprise, even during his trial, a man approached him wanting to shake his hand to commend him for his act.
Baines credits his change in attitude about LGBT people to a number of factors, including the therapy he received in the youth detention center.
“They helped us identify our bad thoughts to monitor our thinking process,” he explained. “They made us look at the pain we caused and walk in our victims’ shoes.”
In addition, since his release, he has made friends with LGBT people.
Asked if Ness and Mabry had undergone similar changes of heart, Baines said he has lost touch with them. But about seven years ago, Lois Reed was at the UU of Bangor when a young man called, asking for the location of Charlie Howard’s grave.
“At first, he didn’t identify himself,” said Reed. “We talked for about two hours, and he finally told me he was Shawn Mabry. I told him I knew, and asked why he wanted to know about the grave site, and I said that there are people who would think he was trying to get the information so he could desecrate it. But he said he wouldn’t, that he was just curious. He never apologized to me for what he did, but asked me how I felt about the three of them. I said I wish them well and hope they will go on to lead productive and decent lives. I also said I hope they truly understand what they have done.”
During Baines’s presentation at Biddeford Middle School, a male student asked if he had apologized to Howard’s family. For Baines, this remained an unfinished chapter in the story. Sargent Harriman explained that soon after the murder, people in the community had made threatening phone calls to Howard’s mother and had thrown eggs at her house, and she had since moved from the area.
“I’ve made attempts to contact with her,” said Baines, “but with no success.”
He expressed remorse for his actions saying,
“If I live to be 90, I will never forget what happened that night. I like to fish and golf and go camping and stuff like that. But I still never forget what I was involved in, and that my victim will never be able to enjoy those types of things.
Says Lois Reed,
“Shock carried me through those days years ago. I remember closing my eyes, thinking, ‘How could these young people have learned so much hatred in such a short time?”
In an emotion-choked voice, she continued,
“I’m crying even after all these years. It’s still a very painful subject for me.”
After a long moment, she added,
“I believe that today, he is not the same Jim Baines who killed my friend; but I still loathe the Jim Baines who killed my friend.”
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