Due to this post from Roni Loren (thank you for the warning, Roni) I’ve decided to remove most photos from Thriller Thursday. I hope you’re still able to enjoy them!
Hate crimes. They’re nothing new, and yet they seem to grow more vicious as our society supposedly evolves. Hate crimes can occur because of race, gender, disability, class, age–the list is extensive. One group in particular has been targeted heavily in the last two decades: gays and lesbians. Billy Jack Gaither is just one of several victims of a violent hate crime.
Sylacauga, Alabama has a population of under 15,000, and in 1999, very few were openly gay. Billy chose to stay in the small community, living at home so he could care for his devoutly Baptist parents. As an adult, Billy had finally gotten to a point of peace about himself. Everyone who knew Billy well accepted his sexual orientation, and while he didn’t overtly broadcast his preferences, he didn’t hide them, either.
39-year-old Billy Jack Gaither was murdered on February 19, 1999. His throat was cut and his body bludgeoned with an ax handle before he was thrown on top of a pile of old tires and set on fire.
If you’ve studied murder at all, you know overkill is a sign of rage.
But what could hardworking, mild-mannered Billy Jack have done to cause such anger?
Apparently, Billy Jack made the mistake of being himself around the wrong people.
Less than a month after the murder, police arrested Charles Monroe Butler, Jr., age 21, and Steven Eric Mullins, 25. Butler came forward first. The night of murder remained vivid in his mind, and he described it in great detail. He was playing pool in a tournament at a local bar. Mullins came in and got him after a fight had broken out at The Tavern. The two went to Watersheds, a public place everyone goes to party. Butler then claimed Billy Jack started talking “queer stuff.” He would later tell Frontline Billy Jack propositioned the men for a threesome. Things quickly got out of control.
This is an excerpt from Charles Monroe Butler’s interview with Frontline:
You’re saying Billy Jack basically hit on you, right?
And you kicked him. Why?
I don’t know. I’d been drinking a lot whiskey, and just didn’t have no understanding . . . I didn’t even know the man, for him to be hitting on me. . . . Tempers just flared. It’s like he didn’t have no respect.
He was disrespecting you?
Well, sir, I don’t know. It’s not like I’m some gay tramp out there, waiting to be corn-holed by some prick.
So if a woman had done that to you, that wouldn’t be disrespect?
No, sir, I don’t reckon so.
According to Butler, it was Mullins who cut Billy Jack’s throat and stuffed him in the truck. They drove out to a desolate location, got the tires and ax handle Mullins had already stocked in the trunk, and Butler started lighting the tires.
Here’s where things get interesting. Butler insisted he knew nothing about the plan before that night, but Mullins claimed he’d told Butler he wanted to “get rid” of Billy Jack two weeks prior to the murder. He also claimed he hardly knew Billy Jack and the victim had propositioned him twice before he’d killed him, which Butler said was a lie.
Their stories don’t match up, and we’ll probably never know the exact truth.
In Mullins’s official statement to police, he said that after he drug Billy Jack out of the trunk and left him on the ground for dead, the victim made a last ditch effort for his life. Billy Jack reared up and knocked Mullins down the hill. By the time Mullins crawled back up, Billy Jack was trying to leave in the car. Butler had disappeared.
According to Mullins, after Butler showed back up, the older man beat Billy Jack to death and the two men tossed his body onto the burning tires. After the murder, the two friends cleaned up and went out for a drink.
Frontline did a a series of interviews on the murder, and Billy Jack’s brother Ricky remembers Mullins being more than an acquaintance. Billy Jack often loaned Mullins money or gave him a ride to work. There were also rumors they were more than friends, something both Ricky Gaither and Charles Butler believe to be true.
So why did Mullins and Butler kill Billy Jack Gaither?
In court, Mullins stated he killed Billy Jack because he was a “faggot.”
That’s why he killed him, because he was a faggot and he wanted his money. They went out and partied after they threw my brother on the tires. –Ricky Gaither.
Butler claimed he felt disrespected by Billy Jack’s assumption that he too, was gay. He also told Frontline there were rumors Steve Mullins and Billy Jack were together, and that his attorney had discovered Mullins was flat broke. He theorized Mullins offered both himself and Butler to Billy Jack in exchange for money, but that’s never been proven.
He regrets his actions, even had nightmares about them. Yet he did nothing to save Billy Jack’s life when Steve Mullins was beating him to death. The court found both Steve Mullins and Butler guilty of first degree murder. They’re currently serving life without parole.
Ricky Gaither believes Billy Jack may have been killed because Steve Mullins was afraid his reputation would be ruined, that he had to put on an act for the younger Butler. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t find significant comments from Steve Mullins about his decision to murder Billy Jack Gaither other than his original statement to police.
I’ll never understand crimes like this one. Everyone has their religious beliefs, and we may not all agree, but crimes like these are utterly heartbreaking. Is it ego? Self-loathing? Ignorance? What drives a human being to kill over something as basic and uncontrollable as sexual orientation?
Frontline Series of Interviews (Ricky Gaither, Kathy Gaither, Charles Butler).
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