MARCH 05, 1999, 11:05 EST

Police: Suspects Plotted Gay Murder

Associated Press Writer

SYLACAUGA, Ala. (AP) — Friends say Billy Jack Gaither didn't deny being gay, but he also didn't flaunt his sexuality around his hometown, a quiet textile community in central Alabama.

Police said Thursday that two men who claimed to be angry over a sexual advance by Gaither plotted his murder, beat the 39-year-old man to death with an ax handle and then burned his body on a pyre of old tires.

"He was a good person. He didn't deserve this,'' said Donna McKee, a waitress at a bar Gaither frequented on weekends.

Steven Mullins, 25, and Charles Butler Jr., 21, were arrested this week and charged with murder. They were each held on $500,000 bail.

The case reminded gay rights groups of the brutal slaying of Matthew Shepard last October in Wyoming. The college student died following a beating near Laramie that police said was motivated in part because he was gay.

"There are a lot of people still out there who believe gay and lesbian people are a threat,'' said Bruce Steele, editor of The Advocate, a news magazine for gays and lesbians. ``Until that is educated away, these sorts of things will continue to happen.''

Alabama is one of 19 states with hate-crime laws that don't cover offenses related to sexual orientation. The charges against Mullins and Butler carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. A grand jury could indict the men on charges punishable by death.

Mullins and Butler, who apparently knew Gaither from going to the same bars, claimed the textile mill worker made a pass at them in early February, Deputy Al Bradley said. The two then plotted his murder, the deputy said.

Mullins telephoned Gaither and the two picked up Butler at a nightclub where he was participating in a pool tournament, authorities said.

The men went to a secluded boat ramp, where Gaither was beaten and thrown in the trunk of his own car. Gaither was taken to the banks of Peckerwood Creek, where many area churches used to hold baptisms.

Bradley said two tires were set on fire with kerosene atop a concrete platform overlooking the slow-moving water.

"They took him out of the trunk, took an ax handle and beat him to death. Then they put the body on the fire,'' said Bradley.

Gaither's burned-out car was found the next day on a country road.

Butler's stepmother today said Butler had told family members he was involved in the killing. But Butler placed much of the blame on Mullins, saying he believed they were only going to beat up Gaither, Terry Butler said.

Friends of Gaither's said they did not believe he would make a sexual advance on the men.

"He didn't ever put anybody in (an awkward) position,'' said Marian Hammonds, who owns the nightclub where Ms. McKee works.

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Alabama learned of the Feb. 19 killing through a contact in the area and notified authorities, complying with a request to keep the slaying quiet so as not to interfere in the investigation.

"We wanted to make certain it was not one of those things that would be swept under the rug,'' said David White, the group's state coordinator.

State Rep. Alvin Holmes has filed a bill that would extend Alabama's hate-crime laws to cover gays. Holmes said he was moved to file the bill by the Shepard slaying.

Copyright 1999 Associated Press. All rights reserved.