Steve Mullins, a straight man in Sylacauga, Ala., didn't know what to say when his closeted gay friend, Billy Jack Gaither, told him out of the blue that he'd like to suck his dick.
So Mullins remained speechless. But his mind was racing.
In fact, the 25-year-old Mullins would later tell author David McConnell that his first thought was, "I gotta kill you."
"The key was the shock, the surprise, the sneaky-seeming unexpectedness, not just the idea of homosexuality," McConnell writes. "Mullins says he immediately started telling people he was going to kill Billy Jack. It was a matter of honor."
Mullins' story is one of a half-dozen McConnell explores in his chilling new book, American Honor Killings: Rage and Desire Among Men, due out in March.
McConnell, who has two novels to his credit, acknowledges that the title of his first nonfiction work is deliberately confusing. "I wanted to stir things up. I wanted to get people thinking differently about these cases," he tells the Weekly. "It's too easy to just classify them as hate crimes and be done with it. Hate is a factor in all of them, but it's much more complex than that."
Honor killings have traditionally been defined as murders committed, particularly in the Middle East or South Asia, by outraged men who kill their daughters or sisters because the women engaged in culturally forbidden sexual activity that brought dishonor to their family. McConnell is the first to characterize murders of American gay men by their male peers — whether gay, straight or gender-confused — as honor killings.
"We refuse to believe honor killings happen in America. People think they only occur in the mountains of Afghanistan, among tribes and other primitive people," McConnell says. "But the insane impulse behind honor killing is at work right here in America among the minds of many young men."
Each of the six cases he focuses on — especially Gaither's — could be considered a hate crime, or even a "gay panic" case — a term that McConnell dismisses as a clever invention of defense lawyers looking to blame the victims.
"It's a legal ploy," he says. "Gay panic doesn't exist."
In the case of Billy Jack Gaither, Mullins waited several weeks after the unsolicited offer of oral sex before he stabbed Gaither with a knife, beat him over the head with an ax and finally set him afire in the woods, then left him for dead.
"That's not gay panic," McConnell says. "That's a planned killing."
Most of the six cases he examines are little-publicized murders involving confused, hostile young men living lives of quiet desperation in rural America. Typically they live in a low-income, hyper-masculine world of trailer parks, skinheads, gangs, substance abuse, minimum-wage jobs and broken families: the dark underbelly of Jerry Springer's Walmart World.
The most compelling story involves Darrell Madden, a former gay porn star in Los Angeles who became an anti-gay neo-Nazi and murdered a homosexual man — whom he'd never previously met — in 2007 in Oklahoma City.
But the case McConnell uses to open the book is a high-profile one with which many readers may already be familiar. The so-called Jenny Jones "secret admirer" murder case from 1995, McConnell says, is the best example of a pure American honor killing.
Jon Schmitz, a young man with a history of mental problems and substance abuse, was told he had a secret admirer and invited to appear on the Jenny Jones TV show. Hoping it was his former girlfriend, Schmitz was shocked to discover — on national television — that it was his friend, Scott Amedure, a gay man who had already assured him he wasn't the secret admirer. Although Schmitz laughed it off during the taping of the show, three days later he shot and killed Amedure at his home.
After he fled Amedure's house, Schmitz stopped and called police from a pay phone and explained what happened: "He picked on me on national TV. He fucked me."
McConnell says the words are revealing, right down to the sexual metaphor: "Schmitz felt his personal honor needed defending."
Later convicted of second-degree murder, Schmitz is serving 25 to 50 years in prison.
McConnell, who is gay, is convinced he has written a book that no straight man could have written, and he's probably right. Navigating the depressing world of these horrific murders would discourage all but the most determined, passionate writers. Finding the humanity in these killers and the nuance in these most inhumane killings would challenge all but the most compassionate of writers.
"I focused on the killers with a certain amount of sympathy, because I wanted the readers to understand what these crimes are really like," McConnell says. "I wanted them to learn about this sense of pride and honor that men have, and how it can quickly lead to anger and violence. I don't think a straight man could have done that."
True-crime books have been a lucrative literary genre for more than a century. But the modern, novelistic style was invented by Truman Capote with In Cold Blood in 1965. The formula: Gather as much detail as possible — no matter how mundane or horrifying — and distill it into a novelistic narrative where the victim, the killer and key friends and family members all come to life.
Trying to do that for six separate murders within a mere 250 paperback pages creates the book's biggest flaw: There are so many characters, so much blood and gore, so many mysterious motivations and so many fascinating back stories, that they tend to blur into each other.
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The other flaw: There are no pictures of any of these victims and killers. They are described in great detail, as with Steve Mullins: "Behind the boy's countrified, half-comprehending face, shaved head and goatee ... ." Or Darrell Madden: "A slight, smirking skinhead whose neck was ringed by thick black tattoos, including SS bolts..." But it would have been helpful to compare the character-revealing descriptions with actual photos.
Aside from those minor quibbles, for anyone with an interest in gender politics or twisted true crimes, this is a must-read.
David McConnell will discuss American Honor Killings March 18 at 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz.