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The Accidental Martyr

They were two sailors on an uneasy ship. One became a killer, the other his victim. What drew them together on an autumn night was rooted long ago in a fear and revulsion that still haunt the American psyche.
By Chip Brown

Esquire
December 1993

I. The Bathroom in the Park
His Martyrdom was subscribed where they found him, dying on the floor of a bathroom in a park in Sasebo, Japan. It was half an hour before midnight, October 27, 1992. His four countrymen in the shore patrol had come running from about 175 yards away,alerted by a seaman and a petty officer who had glimpsed part of the assault through a glass-block wall and who, ironically, had been drawn to the bathroom by what they thought were the sounds of a man and a woman having sex. Two of the shore patrolmen went to search for a pair of sketchily described suspects; the two remaining turned to the sailor.

He was unconscious but still alive, gargling up blood. His face was so disfigured no one was sure of his race, much less his name. Patrolman Anthony Aptimes got a pulse, then lost it. He wiped the blood out of the sailor’s mouth with a T-shirt and pressed on his chest, trying to restart his heart. With each compression, blood trickled from the sailor’s mouth and bubbled out of a gash on the bridge of his nose. It would have expedited the rescue if the ambulance had been directed to come up behind the indoor swimming pool on the road that paralleled the Navy base or had parked out on the road itself. But the one landmark U.S. military personnel know along the liberty trail, which connects U.S. Fleet Activities in Sasebo to the five-dollar-a-beer karaoke bars in Sailor Town, is the Albuquerque Bridge, the suspension walkway across the Sasebo River. That’s where the ambulance was directed, and that’s why the dying sailor was moved. Two shore patrolmen, a base security cop, and Seaman Jonathan Witte slipped a jacket under his body and carried him about a hundred yards, through the camphor trees of Sasebo Park, where elderly blue-smocked women tend gardens by day and spermy gaijin romance local maids at night. He was six feet one, weighed about 180 pounds, and had blond hair. To Seaman Witte, the eyewitness who’d sounded the alarm, it looked as if the sailor’s nose had been shaved clean off his face. Witte cradled the man’s head and stared at the tattoos on his arms. When the group reached the bridge, they set the sailor down and flung the blood off their hands. A crowd gathered. The ambulance arrived. A corpsman rushed up with a breathing bag, another unloaded the gurney. The sailor wasn’t breathing; his heart wasn’t beating.

“Schneider?…” said a shore patrolman squinting at the military ID he’d found in the sailor’s waist pack. “Schluter?..”

“Schindler!” cried Seaman Witte, suddenly remembering the tattoos. Two nights earlier Radioman Seaman Allen R. Schindler had bought him a drink in Sailor Town. He was one of more than nine hundred sailors stationed on the USS Belleau Wood under the command of Captain Douglas J. Bradt. Witte was shocked; months later the “mess specialist” or cook, would testify that he’d been bothered by bad dreams and that he’d “smelled blood for a week” and that the mess of Schindler’s face disturbed him so much he had a hard time cutting meat.

Alerted by phone, Lieutenant Steven Skanchy hurried over to the branch medical clinic; he’d arrived as the ambulance was pulling in. It was ten to 12:00. The doctor ordered intravenous lines established and a tube inserted down the victim’s trachea – no simple procedure given the trauma to the sailor’s mouth and neck. Lieutenant Skanchy and three other corpsman worked for nineteen minutes trying to get the sailor’s heart to beat.

In the haste of emergency they could only make a cursory survey of his injuries. What would become of the almost talismanic particulars of the assault were compiled two days later during a six-hour autopsy at the U.S. Naval Hospital at Okinawa. The patient lying in the branch medical clinic that night had suffered at least four fatal injuries to the head, chest, and abdomen. He had eight broken ribs, fractures in the back of his skull and in the bones around his eyes; his nose was broken; his upper jaw was broken; the whole middle portion of his face was detached and floating loosely. There were bruises and cuts on the surface of his neck, head, and chest; there were bruises on his brain, on his lungs, his heart. The pericardial sac around his heart was filled with 250 milliliters of blood, enough to top off a juice glass. His liver had been turned to pulp “like a tomato smushed up inside its cover.” The impact of blows to the chest had torn his aorta; his bladder had been ripped open; his penis had been bruised and lacerated. There were sneaker-tread marks stamped on his forehead and chest. The pattern of his T-shirt had been impressed on his skin. Seven months later Commander Edward Kilbane, the forensic pathologist at Okinawa who had performed more than one thousand autopsies, would testify that he had never seen a more severe beating. The sailor’s injuries were worse than the damage to a person who’d been stomped by a horse; they were similar to what might be sustained in a high-speed car crash or a low-speed aircraft accident.

All too soon it was obvious to Lieutenant Skanchy that no one at the branch clinic could do anything to retrieve Radioman Seaman Allen Schindler’s life. At nine minutes into the new day, the doctor pronounced him dead.

II. The Sailor’s Mother
How many times had she told the story – and candlelight vigils and fundraising dinners and television interviews – and each time it wasn’t simply the death of her son she was describing but her own emancipation from blind faith in authority and religious prejudice. Yes, she still thought it was sin what gay men did in their bedrooms, but so was adultery – and people weren’t being banned from the military for that. She was forty-seven years old, once divorced, once widowed; a woman with a florid face, short-strawberry blond hair, and an armchair figure. She worked as a bookkeeper in a Salvation Army church. Home was an hour south of Chicago in the ripsaw blue-collar town of Chicago Heights, where she’d been raised and where she raised her four kids and where life was only incrementally richer than in the days of the Depression, when people shot robins to get a little meat for their marinara sauce. Her house was close to the tracks. You had to shout when the trains passed.

They were Navy down the line, her family. In the only picture she had of her father he was in his Navy uniform – she was born after he came home from the war in 1945; he died when she was five. Frank Hajdys, her second husband, had survived the sinking of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. As for her oldest son, Allen, third child after Kathy and Barbara, the portrait on the living-room wall showed him standing proudly in his sailor’s uniform. She’d seen him graduate from boot camp in November 1998; she’d displayed the souvenirs he sent back from distant ports – African masks, Australian boomerangs, kimono dolls from Japan.

What she would say over and over again is that Navy mothers know what it means when dress blues come knocking. She’d been sitting in her nightgown, cutting needlepoint crosses from a sheet of plastic, and suddenly a Navy chaplain and a casualty-assistance officer were standing there under the pressed-tin ceiling, regretting to inform her that her son had been assaulted in a park and was dead. But it had just been twenty-four hours since she’d talked to Allen on the phone! He’d call once a week when the ship was in port – she’d talked to him for eight of nine minutes. He was in good spirits; he said he was being discharged soon and might be home by Christmas. There must be some mistake!

The body arrived at O’Hare Airport on November 4, escorted by a petty officer from the USS Belleau Wood who had been on the ship only four days. The Navy had advised Mrs. Dorothy Hajdys not to open the casket. When she had the lid lifted at the Steger Memorial Funeral Home, she saw the uniform, the hat embroidered with his name… but there was nothing familiar about the face, and the eyes… were over where the ears should be. Close it now, her brother said.

The next day during the wake she kept staring at the box. How do I know that’s Allen in there? One hundred and fifty people attended – family, neighbors, grade-school teachers, members of the Bloom High School band who knew Allen when he played the sousaphone. He had been a C student mostly; he’d taught swimming; he’d played football; he’d gone to proms; he’d sold kisses for a dollar to benefit charity. He’d worked at a local pet store. Everybody knew he was nuts about animals. When he joined the Navy – travel, adventure, money for college under the GI bill – his mother inherited four turtles, a dog, a white duck, a rabbit, and two hundred garter snakes. And if that wasn’t enough, after his first year in the service he FedExed her a Chinese crocodile for Mother’s Day.

Even the father who had turned his back on Allen came to the wake, at Dorothy’s instigation. They had divorced when Allen was four; a split the boy took hard and blamed on his mother until Christmas 1981, when she took him to his father’s house and Allen Schindler Sr. slammed the door in his son’s face. After that, whenever a form asked for the name of his father, Allen Schindler Jr. wrote deceased.

AS the wake was winding down, Allen’s sister Kathy asked Dorothy if she could open the coffin again. She wanted to look for her brother’s tattoos. So the coffin was opened again, and they rolled up the sleeves on the stranger’s uniform. All that week every time the phone rang, Dorothy’s heart would gallop, expecting it was Allen calling to say, “Mom, I’m not dead.” On one arm were the inky outlines of a shark and a tiger, and on the other, the insignia of the USS Midway. There was no doubt now.

What there was, aside from grief, was the mystery of his death. For six weeks the Navy had told Dorothy next to nothing. Every morning she awoke with more questions. What was the fight about? What did Allen do to provoke so much violence? She knew that two weeks before his death he’d been to see the ship’s lawyer. What was that about? Was that connected to his death? The letter from Captain Bradt had clarified nothing. On November 23, Dorothy wrote to Senator Paul Simon asking for help; Kathy mailed letters to all the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and to president-elect Clinton. Dorothy contacted her newly elected congressman. She’d always been a passive, quiet person, not one to speak out. Now she was furious; she wasn’t going to let anyone shut her up. She was having bad headaches. She’d been advised not to talk to the press, but when she started talking to the press, the headaches went away.

On December 6, she received a long-distance call from Rick Rogers, a reporter for Pacific Stars and Stripes. He said that he had heard the murder might have been a gay bashing. Dorothy had known since June of 1990 that Allen thought he was gay; at the time she thought he was confused, just going through a phase. The next day she received a call from Captain Steven D. Marchioro in Japan. The young marine prosecutor was handling the government’s side of the courts-martial in Japan. Three times she put the question to him, the same question she had asked the dress blues who came to her door and the petty officer who had accompanied the body. Why, why, why had Allen met with a military lawyer? Captain Marchioro finally acknowledged that Allen had disclosed that he was homosexual and was in the process of being discharged from the Navy.

That was the day, coincidentally, that condolences arrived from acting secretary of the Navy Sean O’Keefe. Given the truth the Navy was so reluctant to reveal, the letter could not have been more ill-timed or its cant about solidarity and common cause more galling; “Although our Navy is large, there is a special bond among its members in the common cause of defending our precious freedom. We are proud that Petty Officer Schindler chose to be one of us…”

Now, six months after her son’s murder, she is climbing the podium in a ballroom at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. How things have changed since that awful evening in October! She who had never met an openly gay man before Allen’s death, whose impression of gays was based on Klinger in the TV show M*A*S*H* - she’d been invited to address the black-tie regalia of a top gay lobby, the Human Rights Campaign Fund. In the past six months, she has testified before committees and conferred with legislators; she’s opened an AAdvantage account with American Airlines and racked up thousands of frequent-flier miles traveling to rallies and vigils and press conferences. Her entertainment lawyer has signed her to a $100,000 deal with Quest Productions, the producer is a gay man. She has an $8 million civil suit pending against the Navy. She has redone her hair, and people are telling her she should run for office. She is effective and sought after because she is direct and plucky and unpretentious; her speech is still sprinkled with double negatives, but her words carry the weight of irrefutable sacrifice. “The reason the Navy said they didn’t tell me my son was gay was that they didn’t know if I could handle it,” she will say. “They thought it might hurt me. What gave them the right to decide that? How could they hurt me any more than they already had?”

Tonight she is following Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative Barney Frank, but she isn’t nervous giving speeches anymore. In two days she will address the biggest gay-rights demonstration in history – upwards of a million people. She is planning to wing it as she is winging it now, standing before the $500-a-plate crowd of mostly gay men. She tells them she knows Allen is up in heaven saying, “Go for it, Mom!” They all have tears in their eyes. They are better off, better dressed, better connected, higher classed, more powerful, more refined; most of them can probably name all the operas in the Ring cycle. But they are moved by her devotion, which stands in such contrast to what many of them have experienced in their own families; moved by a mother who does not hang conditions on the love of her son.

When Mrs. Hajdys finishes her speech and is about to step down from the podium, she sees that the actress Judith Light, who is the evening’s willowy mistress of ceremonies, is also beaming at her with tears in her eyes. Mrs. Hajdys is too new to fame not to be thrilled about a B-list blond from Who’s the Boss? and she lists toward the microphone again.

“You know, when I was in New York I met Tony Danza,” she says and then points at Judith Light. “Now I want to meet her!” If the ex-soap star is surprised at the light-speed mood change, she finesses it. She smiles, rises, and opens her arms; the whole room roars as the women embrace.

III. Blood on the Shoes
Charles Vins was the first to leave the bathroom in Sasebo Park. His brown leather shoes were spattered with type-A blood. Terry Helvey was right behind him, with type-A blood on his Levi’s and on his white Nike sneakers and on the sleeveless blue-jean jacket he’d borrowed from a friend. There was type-A blood on his arms and hands too. They walked under the camphor trees toward the river.

Both were airmen aboard the USS Belleau Wood. Both were from the Midwest, lifted weights, and wanted to be Navy Seals. Both were only twenty years old, and now both had Allen Schindler’s blood on their clothes. We need to clean the blood off our clothes, Terry said. They went down to the Sasebo River and sat on the concrete steps of the embankment with their feet in the water. It was mostly Terry who talked, and the subject was not what happened in the bathroom but how they could get back to the ship without getting caught. It was only minutes that they sat there, but it seemed like and eternity.

Done at the river, they headed up the road that parallels the base. They were nearly at the entrance of Fleet Activities when they noticed two men running toward them. Helvey told Vins not to look back; when the men approached he realized they were shore patrol – Boiler Technician Kurt Parsons and Operations Specialist Michael Johnson. Don’t run Helvey said to Vins.

Step into the streetlight Johnson said. Parsons recognized Helvey as one of the sailors he had seen earlier that evening, drinking in Nimitz Park, which is U.S. Navy territory and borders Sasebo Park.

Have you been in the Park? The patrolmen asked. When they demanded to see military identification, Vins reached into his pocket, but Helvey said, “Run, Chuck!” and bolted. Vins took off, too, but Parsons had a hold of his sleeve and dragged him down from behind. Johnson pulled out his nightstick. Helvey came running back and grabbed the stick. Johnson was much smaller. Helvey staggered him with a knee to the head, and then knocked Parsons off Vins and again exhorted Vins to run. They ran down International Boulevard toward Sasebo; Parsons stayed with Johnson who was disoriented.

And so, Helvey and Vins escaped. They raced through a residential area, hopping fences. They sat down by a house and began to bite their pants in order to turn them into shorts. Terry threw away his friend’s jean jacket and put on clothes he’d taken from backyards. He removed the bloody laces from his sneakers. To establish an alibi, they headed back into Sasebo to visit bars in Sailor Town. They stopped by two, but had no money to buy drinks and didn’t see anyone who recoginized them. They walked around some more. They went into another public bathroom to check themselves for evidence of a crime and then lingered on a bench to discuss what they should say if they were questioned. Helvey said he would say that he had gone into the bathroom to take a piss and that Schindler had made a homosexual advance – that Schindler had approached him with his penis out of his pants – and that Chuck should say when he saw Schindler come onto Terry like that, Terry had just “lost it” and lashed out. Vins would later say that Helvey seemed proud of what he had done – bragging that he had “dropped the guy with one punch.”

Around 3:30 in the morning, four hours after the assault, Helvey and Vins got a lift to the back entrance of the base from a military policeman who said he was out looking for two murder suspects. So, Schindler had died. They didn’t meet the description, the MP said. He dropped them off at the base gate; the quarterdeck watch logged them as coming across the bough of the Belleau Wood at 4:00A.M. Helvey spoke to a shipmate, Dave Hall, who told him that Allen Schindler had been killed by four guys from the USS Dubuque. Helvey was trying to act like he was really drunk, but before he headed to his berth, he hid his blood-stained Nikes in the room where the ship’s weather balloons were stored.

Two and a half hours later, Naval Investigative Service Agents pulled Helvey out of his berth. As they led him down the passageway to the master-at-arms’s office, he passed a shipmate, Gerald D. Maxwell. “I didn’t mean to do it,” he said, “but the bastard deserved it.”

IV. The Official Story
The day after Allen Schindler was beaten to death, Lieutenant William S. Spann, a public-affairs officer from Command Naval Forces Japan headquarters in Yokosuka, on Tokyo Bay, flew down to the U.S. Navy base at Sasebo. With its strategic access to the sea of Japan, the sultry, sleepy, mountain-ringed city on the far southwestern island of Kyushu served as the home port for six U.S. warships, the most recently arrived of which was an amphibious assault ship called the USS Belleau Wood.

Fleet Activities Sasebo was rife with wild stories about the killing. As provided for in treaty protocols, the Japanese police had turned the investigation over to the U.S. authorities. It was Lieutenant Spann’s job to “quiet the rumor mill’ and see that a news release was issued to follow up the bulletin put out by the Belleau Wood. A brief account of the killing, dated October 29, was duly prepared. The victim’s name was omitted pending notification of next of kin; the initial report noted the arrests of two suspects, but not their names. It had also noted that the assault had taken place “in a park approximately three blocks from the base.”

From the start the Navy was concerned enough to keep close tabs on the coverage in the press – what of it there was. Some gripping footage of the bloodbath in the bathroom had been aired on Japanese television. But at that point the murder was just a local story that reinforced the widespread Japanese impression of Americans as violent cowboys who made lousy cars. A brief item, written by reporter Rick Rogers, appeared in the October 30 issue of Pacific Stars and Stripes, the independent military newspaper. To Roger’s inevitable question of what caused the fight, the Navy spokesman he quoted anonymously couldn’t speculate other than to say, “This was an apparent beating death with no known racial motivation or drug involvement.” Rogers, a doughty, sawed-off thirty-year-old Army sergeant with a lantern jaw and Dick Tracy-esque mug, wanted to pursue the story. “Some guy getting iced, it doesn’t happen around here that often,” he explained months later. He asked to attend the court-martial, which is generally a public proceeding, open to the press. He repeated his request every day for a week, and then weekly for the next month, and each time he was assured by the public-affairs office at Command Naval Forces Japan in Yokosuka that he would be kept informed and permitted to attend. Assurances notwithstanding, the first of the defendants – Charles Vins – was court-martialed on November 23. Rogers, like everyone else in the press, heard about it after the fact.

Who could have known that within a matter of months, the death of a young sailor halfway around the world would come to symbolize the struggle to end fifty years of discrimination against gay servicemen and servicewomen in the United States? Or that hundreds of thousands of protesters assembled on the mall in Washington D.C., would take up the martyred sailor’s cause and, driven to their feet by the colloquial oratory of his mother, would tomahawk their fists at the Capitol and cry, “Justice! Justice! Justice!”

V. A Central Motive
Military justice has often been faulted for being an intramural process that is as much concerned with reaffirming the image of military authority as with punishing violations of military law. Months after the fact, a Navy spokesman would blame the failure to hold the court-martial of Charles Vins in view of the public on a “bureaucratic screwup” – that is, an oversight, not a calculation that backfired. But by then the damage was done, and the Navy looked as if it was trying to hide something at a time when the service’s reputation for rigorous self-scrutiny was already showing a lot of tarnish. (The grabass bacchanal at the Tailhook Convention in Las Vegas in 1991 had initially been brushed aside as just hetero frat-house fun, and the 1989 USS Iowa disaster, in which forty-seven sailors were killed in a gun-turret explosion, was wrongly blamed on the “unhappy gay sailor” syndrome.)

Now came the government versus Charles E. Vins. As he wrote later in a bid for clemency, Chuck Vins had given up “a brand-new truck, college, my job, my girlfriend, and most of my freedom” to join the Navy in the summer of 1991. Such was his desire to become a Navy Seal that he took leave time to return home to Chicago and undergo an operation that would sharpen his 20/200 eyesight. But joining the Seals was not to be. He was assigned to the USS Belleau Wood in June 1992. Shipmates in his division found him to be “neat,” well-mannered,” and given to an “impeccable appearance.”

Why would the Navy not have wanted the press to cover his court-martial? The simple answer is that the court-martial revealed the nature of the murder, which the Navy was loath to acknowledge even to the victim’s mother much less to the public. If reporters had been on hand, however, they might have pounced on the process as well, for the Navy took what seems to have been a rather casual attitude toward the crimes of Charles Vins.

When Captain Steven Marchioro, the prosecutor, stood before Commander David P. Holcombe, the military judge, and argued that the crimes to which the accused had pleaded guilty warranted a two-year jail term, the speech was academic. Four days before the trial, Vins had been granted a plea bargain that limited his jail time to a maximum of four months. The prosecution dropped the murder and assault charges, and Vins agreed to plead guilty to three lesser offenses, including failure to report a serious crime, and to testify truthfully against Terry Helvey.

Vins Had also entered into a stipulation of fact, a three-page, single-spaced document that detailed what all the parties in the case believed to be a truthful account of the airman’s role in the death of Seaman Schindler. Vins was hoping to stay in the Navy, and in his closing arguments Lieutenant Paul K. Nishiie, his defense counsel, appealed to the court to look leniently on his client. “Airmen Apprentice Vins did not run toward the restroom,” said Lieutenant Nishiie. “He didn’t throw a single blow. He didn’t so much as make a single angry gesture toward Schindler.”

It is hard to imagine a military lawyer intentionally misleading a military court or concocting such an assertion from thin air. He had to have been relying on the stipulation of fact, although what the document actually says is a mystery, for the Navy, as of this writing, has refused to release it even under the Freedom of Information Act. The point is that on November 24, contrary to what Lieutenant Nishiie said in court about his client on November 23, Vins gave a more complete account of his participation in the death of Seaman Schindler. He was not, as his lawyer had claimed, a simple onlooker. He had made a few angry gestures himself. He had kicked Schindler in the head. And then, he told the Naval Investigative Service, “using the toe of my right foot, I kicked Schindler on his left side. He did not fall backward, so I believe I kicked him in the same manner and the same location two more times.”

Why wasn’t this statement obtained when the facts of the case were stipulated to? Vins had agreed to testify truthfully about his participation in the murder when the terms of the plea bargain were agreed to on November 19 – four days before his lawyer represented him as a pacifist to the judge, who could have given Vins an even lighter sentence than what was set forth in the plea bargain. The plea bargain, which incorporated the stipulation of fact, was formally signed on November 23; defendants customarily affix their signatures to such documents under penalty of perjury. The Navy maintains that Vins’s cooperation and testimony were crucial to the prosecution of Terry Helvey, but it’s not unreasonable to draw the conclusion that the government botched the investigation and that an airman who participated in a fatal assault got off with a slap on the wrist.

Two more weeks passed after the court-martial of Charles Vins, and still the Navy said nothing about the nature of Allen Schindler’s murder. In fact, the central motive – the nature of the crime – was known within hours of the killing. It was known by agents of the Naval Investigative Service, who did not simply stumble onto it but proposed it during their interrogation of Terry Helvey. The legally naïve airman seized on the proposition and poured out a confession under the mistaken impression that his feloniousness might be extenuated by the sexual status of his victim. (Was the idea so far-fetched given the implicit sanction on antihomosexual attitudes in the Pentagon?)

Allen Schindler was murdered because he was gay. But for six weeks Navy public-affairs officers were more concerned with monitoring press reports than informing them. Even as official message traffic griped negative and inaccurate coverage, the Navy spread confusion of its own. One official “Q&A” posed a series of questions:

Q: “Is any of Airman Vins’s sentence suspended?”

A: “Suspension of any charges cannot take place until the convening authority reviews the case. This normally takes two to six weeks following the trial.”

That’s an answer designed to obscure, not clarify, a sweetheart deal. The convening authority was expressly prohibited from altering the terms of the plea bargain.

When another motive for the murder did appear three months later, in February 1993, it’s instructive how quickly some Navy news managers embraced it. A USS Belleau Wood sailor named Victor Christian stated in an affidavit that Terry Helvey himself was gay and that he’d been romantically involved with Allen Schindler. Surfacing just as President Clinton’s intention to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military was making Schindler’s murder exhibit A in a nationwide debate, this startling and, as it turned out, incorrect information changed the content of the story from a gay bashing to a violent quarrel between tow crazy queers. It could even be constructed as an example of why the military should fortify, not abolish, the ban on gays. The allegation first appeared in a story in The San Diego Union-Tribune, written by the reporter who had broken the Tailhook scandal. Christian, who in later December had written Mrs. Hajdys a sympathetic letter and had enclosed photographs of Helvey and Vins, was apparently pulling some sort of perverse publicity stunt; he failed a lie-detectortest and eventually recanted his tale.

The Navy might have succeeded in separating Allen Schindler’s murder from the context of a gay bashing if it hadn’t been for three gay American civilians whom Schindler had befriended just before his death. Eric Underwood, Valan Cain, and Rod Burton were dancers performing in a show at Huis ten Bosch, a replica of a Dutch village about half an hour by train from Sasebo. They’d met their friend Al in a bar in Sailor Town. Outraged by the Navy’s failure to mention the victim’s sexuality and by what they learned from other sailors was the nature of the attack, they drafted a letter in early November: “To whom it may concern: A friend of ours, Al, who was in the process of being dismissed from the Navy due to his homosexuality, was brutally beaten beyond recognition and left to die in a park-bathroom urinal… The reason for the murder was reported by the Navy as ‘a difference of opinion’ and not the grievous crime of ‘gay bashing’ that it was… Why should the death of an admitted homosexual be swept under the carpet by the U.S. Navy? Why does the U.S. military get away with this discrimination?… This letter is being written in hopes that Al did not die in vain…”

They mailed the letter to a number of newspapers and gay publications. Only Pacific Stars and Stripes picked up the lead and on December 13, the day Allen Schindler would have been twenty-three, published the dancers’ allegations. With the leverage of the letter, reporter Rick Rogers had managed to get an anonymous Navy spokesman to confirm that “the homosexuality issue is certainly a motive being investigated.”

The day after the story appeared, there were five television stations on Dorothy Hajdys’s lawn. The sensational news was broadcast on American television networks over the next few days and explored in more depth over the next few weeks by major newspapers trying to catch up. A crime that had been just a squib in a news digest would, by early spring, be the most voluminously covered and politically significant gay murder since the 1978 assassination of Harvey Milk, the former San Francisco supervisor and first openly gay elected official in the United States.

VI. The Nasty Activist
A gay magazine once called Michael Petrelis “America’s nastiest activist.” At thirty-four, he had recently moved from New York to Washington D.C., to open a branch of ACT UP, the AIDS advocacy group known for its guerilla tactics. While he was an unapologetic firebrand with a knack for incendiary sound bites and had been reproached by many in the gay community for “outing” former Defense Department spokesman Pete Williams, he had an inspiring willingness to chase dragons into their lairs.

On December 17 he spotted a brief item in The Washington Times about the possible gay bashing of an American sailor in Japan. He looked around for stories in other newspapers. He couldn’t find any. Something’s not right, he thought. He called a friend and said he was going to do something about it. He was going to turn Allen Schindler into “the gay Rodney King.”

Petrelis had nothing new to pass along other than his outrage and his opinion that the ban killed Allen Schindler, but he organized a press conference on the steps of the Pentagon and got the local CBS affiliate to turn up and a guy from Reuters and the Army Times. Lo! There were reports that night about the case on local CBS and ABC stations. He sent out faxes and made telephone calls. He called Dorothy Hajdys, not knowing what she’d think when he identified himself as “a queer activist.” She’d been quoted as saying her son wasn’t gay. She listened while Petrelis said he saw the killing as a political case, and whether or not her son was gay, the perception that he was had contributed to his death. He told her he wanted to put her son’s autopsy pictures on placards and to confront people with the price of the ban.

As the preliminary phases of the Helvey court-martial approached, Petrelis sent out letters to raise money so he could go to Japan. He had no credit cards, no salary, no savings, but the story was too important to ignore, and it seemed to him that the mainstream gay-rights groups weren’t doing anything. Someone had to keep the focus tight. “Allen Schindler screams to me from beyond the grave!” he said. A $1,500 check arrived by overnight mail from the head of a gay-porn studio in San Francisco. David Geffen’s foundation sent $2,500; some thirty-five donors contributed more than $8,000. He scheduled a press conference to be held at the airport upon his arrival in Japan, but there was an earthquake in the western part of the country and nobody showed up. He called another one and reporters turned out to hear him demand an independent investigation of the case. He got a meeting at the American embassy. In Sasebo he met sailors from the USS Belleau Wood and got onto the base. Seven-hundred-dollar-a-month phone bills were pling up back at home.

As Michael Petrelis pressed Schindler’s cause in the East, friends of the slain sailor were rallying in San Diego. To the gay community of San Diego, Schindler was not just a political tool. Many people had met him, served with him, danced with him, and helped him come out.

VII. Queers on Board
When Seaman Schindler arrived in San Diego in the fall of 1988, he was careful not to advertise his nascent homosexual feelings. By necessity gays in the military live a covert life of signifiers and codes. They find each other by a kind of “gaydar” and know each other as “family.” He approached the gay scene as he approached his own sexuality – with an eager curiosity and a sort of gee-whiz innocence. In his right ear he wore a right-is-wrong stud or salamander earring. He wore colored rings on his right hand and a rack of rainbow-colored gay-pride rings around his neck. He took up smoking clove cigarettes. He sometimes wrapped his three-foot-long monitor lizard in his overalls and carried it into gay clubs. He was still the first-class Boy Scout from the Midwest with a comic-book collection and traces of baby fat on his face, a kid who liked to sketch and speak Star Trek lingo; he had a big appetite and the table manners of a lizard. Whenever he was troubled, he went quietly to ground.

“Al was sweet,” said Jim Jennings, a friend and former lover of Schindler’s who had an honorable discharge from the Navy. Jennings received a videotape from Schindler when he was home on leave for the last time – ten minutes of chitchat and fifty minutes of Warhol-like footage of Al’s fish tank. Schindler had gotten to know other young gays at Café Pigalle, where he was a regular, scribbling in his journal and sipping coffee he cloyingly sugared with buckets of honey and Sweet’n Low. In his journal he was careful to be discreet, referring to the men he liked only as his “blond things.”

In June 1990, home on leave, he came out to his family. They were confused. They didn’t believe him. They asked him wasn’t he worried about AIDS. “It’s not like you think,” he told his sister Kathy.

He was transferred to the USS Midway in January 1991. His eleven months aboard the storied carrier were among his happiest days in the Navy. He reenlisted in order to sail on the Midway’s final cruise before decommissioning; under a special program his sixteen-year-old half brother, Billy, joined him for the passage from Seattle to San Diego.

In December 1991 Seaman Schindler was transferred to the USS Belleau Wood, a troop-transport ship, and his love affair with the Navy went sour in a hurry. In Klingon-speak, the Belleau Wood was a “veq duj,” or “garbage scow.” It was the “Helleau Wood.” He had the b on his ship’s cap altered to an h. Afraid his mail was being read, he sent back heavily taped letters with a picture of a seal drawn on the envelope flap and the warning “void if seal is broke.” He had been able to speak openly if discreetly about his sexuality on the Midway, according to his friend Rick Gonzales, but on the Belleau Wood he found a much more hostile attitude.

When in September the Belleau Wood departed San Diego for its new home in Sasebo, Japan, the pressure got worse. “Here I am again on a ship I don’t want to be on, going to a place I don’t want to go,” Schindler wrote in his journal. “For now I don’t know what my destiny is if I have one.”

“I saw the harassment personally,” said former Belleau Wood shipmate Rich Eastman, now out of the Navy with an honorable discharge. He and Schindler were part of the so-called Fabulous Five, a group of discreetly gay sailors who hung out together. “People bumped into him and shoved him out of the way. They made comments – ‘Queers coming down the passageway.’” Petty Officer Keith Sims, another member of the Fabulous Five, said that sometimes people carrying soup would pretend to stuble and spill it on Schindler.

When the Belleau Wood pulled out to sea to ride out Hurricane Iniki in ocean waters off Hawaii, Seaman Schindler was one of many sailors who didn’t get back from shore leave in time. But, says Eastman, nobody else was written up for unauthorized absence and punished at a captain’s mast – a non judicial proceeding.

En route from Hawaii to Japan, Schindler’s turmoil deepened. He was tired of dissembling. On watch one night he threw a dime overboard and made a wish – which he hinted in his journal had to do with getting off the ship. While operating the radio, Schindler transmitted a prank-call sign that effectively broadcast his sexual orientation to much of the Pacific fleet: “2-Q-T-2-B-S-T-R-8.” When he read it quickly it sounded like “too cute to be straight.” He was, as he noted in his journal, letting “my true colors” out. He had been talking about his true colors with the ship’s chaplain, and finally his soul-searching reached a climax on September 25, when he appeared at captain’s mast for the unauthorized radio message. He requested that the hearing be closed. It was open, with two hundred to three hundred people in attendance. He had often gotten ragged for wearing an earring. He had a film canister with nine studs and, provocatively, he wore one of them to the mast. At one point Schindler covered the microphone and whispered to the captain, “You know what I am.” He was given thirty days’ restriction to the ship. At a meeting with the ship’s executive officer, he admitted that he was gay. “If you can’t be yourself,” he wrote in his journal, “then who are you?” He met with the ship’s legal officer, Captain Bernard Meyer, and with the captain, Douglas Bradt. He was told the processing of his discharge would take two weeks. He was told to report any incidents of harassment. Rich Eastman says Schindler told him he had made complaints of harassment to his division officers but was discouraged because the complaints were not passed up the chain of command. The Navy says there is no record of Schindler filing any complaints of harassment.

On October 2 he wrote in his journal: “More people are finding out about me. It scares me a little. You never know who would want to injure me or cease my existence.” By October 20: “It would be a great idea for people of our type to stay together, especially when times are rough. I don’t want anybody else to go through the torture I did.”

Schindler was overjoyed to get off restriction on Friday evening, October 23. In five days the ship was shoving off for the Philippines, so he had a few nights to unwind in Sailor Town. On Saturday night in a bar called Captain’s, he met Valan Cain, one of the Huis ten Bosch dancers, and a young Dutch exchange student named Natasha Rijnbeek. Natasha had a five-by-seven modeling card of Eric Underwood, another of the dancers. Allen was mesmerized by the face of a paradigmatic “blond thing” and eagerly returned the next evening to meet Eric at the Fuji Hotel in Sailor Town. “Valan brought him by,” recalled Eric Underwood, who had a long-term monogamous relationship already. “I kind of felt sorry for him. He was dealing with people who didn’t understand him, or care to, and when he found people he could talk to, he was thrilled.” When he returned again Monday night, Schindler brought a sketchbook of cartoons he’d drawn on restriction and photographs of his family and the gay-pride parade he had attended in Long Beach, California, the year before. “Valan and I asked him about what happened on the ship,” Underwood said, “and he said that as far as harassment goes, he felt lucky not to have seen more.”

Back on the Belleau Wood Monday night, Rich Eastman went to bed in his berth, rack number 61 in the Air Department, V-3 division. While he was asleep someone approached his berth and hit him in the face, giving him a cut under his right eye and a bloody nose. “We don’t want any fags on our ship,” the person said. “You better get off our ship.” Within hours of Schindler’s murder, Belleau Wood commanders removed Eastman from the ship for his own safety.

That next evening, Tuesday, the last day of Allen Schindler’s life, he bumped into Valan Cain around 7:00 P.M. Schindler told Cain he was on his way to an AA meeting and that he would come back later that night to say his last goodbye to Valan and Eric; the ship was scheduled to pull out Wednesday morning. Eric Underwood got back to his hotel around midnight. He noticed a lot of military police on the streets with somber expressions. “One of Valan’s friends called up the next morning and said Allen Schindler had been beaten to death in the park in a restroom. We were stunned. I cried for two or three days. I knew his character. He was a harmless guy. He was easygoing and genuinely friendly, and he of all people did not deserve to die. When we heard that the Navy was saying the reason for his murder was a difference of opinion, we couldn’t let that rest. Allen tried to live his life honestly. He was learning about his sex and for that he was brutally murdered, and now his death was being swept under the carpet. We wanted the Navy to admit that it was a gay bashing and to make the world realize that the only reason Allen Schindler’s life was taken was that he was gay.”

Using the computer in the production office at Huis ten Bosch, the dancers wrote the letter that launched Allen Schindler’s posthumous career as the gay Rodney King.

And in San Diego, there was nothing his friends and supporters could do for him now, other than to make it impossible for the Navy to deny the context of his death. They gathered the first week in January at the Lesbian & Gay Men’s Community Center, which is puckishly located on Normal Street in the Hillcrest neighborhood. A memorial service was planned for January 17 at the Metropolitan Community Church; Jim Woodward of the San Diego Veteran’s Association agreed to raise money to fly in Schindler’s mother. Schindler’s friends were asked to draft statements to document what the dead sailor had told them about his treatment aboard the Belleau Wood. Christopher Brown, who knew Allen from Café Pigalle, said that Schindler had told him people on the Belleau Wood called him faggot and fucking queer. Jim Jennings said that Al had said people on the ship were always calling him a faggot, and when he was heading out for an evening on the town, they’d say, “Oh, you’re probably going to a fag bar.” A Navy active-duty serviceman who had spent much of the summer of 1992 with Schindler in the Navy Alcohol Rehabilitation Center said that Schindler had told him he wasn’t an alcoholic and that he’d been sent to the center to “cool off” after he had complained to his commanding officer about crew members who were gluing his locker shut and saying, “There’s a faggot on this ship and he should die.”

The atmosphere aboard the USS Belleau Wood vis-à-vis the treatment of gay sailors is still in dispute. Journalists and gay activists were quick to brand the Belleau Wood a “rough ship.” Americans hired to perform at Huis ten Bosch said men and women were warned by the production company to stay off the streets when the Belleau Wood was in port. Its reputation wasn’t helped when many of its sailors got involved on a giant brawl on October 9 that spilled off the base into Sailor Town. Sasebo’s ubiquitous vending machines, some of which dispense beer, were overturned in the street. Shore leaves were canceled and general quarters declared at 12:45 A.M.

One the other hand, Steve Morgan, the American owner of the Sailor Town bar Shooters, says that the ship’s bad reputation is overblown. Lots of nice people on the Belleau Wood; just a few “bad apples.” “The town was really wild twenty years ago when there were about seven hundred bars,” he said.

Months after Seaman Schindler’s death, stung by the accusations of a floating Animal House in the fleet, the Navy conducted an investigation on board the Belleau Wood “to determine the conditions and attitudes that prevailed at the time of the murder.” The report concluded that the ship’s command and senior personnel “actively discouraged violence, threats, and illegal discrimination of any type, including against homosexuals.”

VII. The Killer's Scars
All that spring, Terry Helvey had called home weekly from the brig at the U.S. Navy base in Yokosuka, Japan. Home was halfway around the world in Fredericktown, Missouri. He was maintaining his innocence then, saying Chuck Vins was the guy who killed Allen Schindler. If Terry was guilty, it was of misplaced loyalty to a buddy who’d sold him out. His mother, Regena, who’d had a phone installed and was struggling to keep up with the $500-a-month bills, was desperate to believe him. “My son is innocent of murder,” she wrote in a letter to the Democrat News in March. “He has given the name of the person he is sure is responsible…” Most of Fredericktown wanted to believe him, unable to square the story in the papers with the kid they knew, the kid they’d watched grow up, the kid they’d cheered when he starred as the six-feet-four, all-conference, all-district center for the Fredericktown Blackcats. The hometown boy.

As they’d tried to help him when he was growing up, they were trying to help him now. Verna Thompson organized an auction that raised $700 for a legal-defense fund; people donated lube jobs, oil changes, flower arrangements, and sessions at the tanning salon. A dance at the Eagles club netted $600. Helvey’s friends placed spare-change buckets in restaurants and gas stations; they’d set up a friendly roadblock on courthouse square to shake down motorists. Their intentions were the best, they hoped the best for his future, but if there was something hollow about the effort, it was because he’d broken a covenant with them; assuming what the papers said was true, no one could really understand it. Misfortune of this order scourged their faith. They did not want to believe, as Philip Larkin once wrote, that “man hands misery on to man.”

Fredericktown lies in the Ozark foothills two hours south of St. Louis. It lies, more aptly for the purposes of this lament, along the Trail of Tears, which delivered the Cherokee to their exile in Oklahoma. Most of the hardwood forests have been cut, and what sawmills are left churn out packing crates and shipping pallets. The county economy survives on ranching and farming and the remnants of a mining industry; there’s one movie theater, a couple of local rags, and hardly any news.

I drove down from St. Louis to call on Regena Helvey and her sister Sheryl Sarchette about a month before Terry Helvey’s trial in Japan. They had not been able to raise enough money to hire a civilian lawyer, but Terry’s military counsels – Leiutenant Jacques Smith and Major Bernard Doyle – had flown to Fredericktown and were videotaping testimonials from Terry’s friends and supporters. The statements would be presented at the court-martial, which Regena and Sheryl were planning to attend. They were braced for the worst, but they hadn’t faced it yet.

At forty-one, Regena had most of the leggy good looks that had made her want to model when she was younger, but she seemed to exist within a protective air of sphinx-like detachment, and her eyes were filled with faraway sorrows. Like Dorothy Hajdys, she had not had an easy life: Her parents had divorced when she was six, she was forced to be the parent to her sisters and brothers; she’d been physically abused by a neighbor and battered by two husbands. She had been just sixteen, living at her mother’s in Detroit, when she took up with Colin Helvey, a glue-sniffing, heroin-shooting musician and tattoo artist. By the time she was twenty, she had two sons, Wade and Terry. Terry was born while his father was in jail, serving a ninety-day sentence for possession of drugs while in the U.S. military. Regena left the kids her mother’s care to follow Colin to California; she moved back to Michigan a few years later and then divorced him.

Regena fell in with a truck named Ron Lynch and gave birth to Terry’s half sister, Becky. Ron Lynch handed his miseries on with his fists. He hit his stepsons. When he was four, Lynch closed Terry’s hand in a bathroom door; the tip of Terry’s right index finger had to be amputated. Regena tried to stick up for her kids, but for those complex reasons that seem to paralyze battered wives, she was unable to break away. “Sometimes, she would say, ‘This is enough,’” said Sheryl Sarchette. “She kicked Ron out a couple of times. She packed up his stuff, but she let him come back. I don’t understand it. Love’s blind.”

Regena didn’t have any money or a profession. She worked in bars and factories, often leaving the kids unsupervised. “We were so hungry we used to steal food from our own house,” recalled Terry’s older brother, Wade. “We never had coats in the winter – I still don’t wear a coat. I guess I’m immune to the cold.” When the family moved to Fredericktown in January 1980, the stepfather’s violence got worse. Wade and Terry lived in terror of Friday evenings, when Ron would roll in from the road in time for supper. They weren’t allowed to look up from their plates or ask for seconds. They weren’t allowed to crumble crackers. Ron took a cake that Gena had baked from scratch and smashed it in her face. He broke a leg off a table and beat her with it. He gave her the welt of scar tissue that is still visible under one of her eyes. He cracked a paddle over Terry’s face – the scar crosses Terry’s chin. The boys often had welts on their backs and knots on their heads.

“Ron always used to call us fags, ‘You little faggots, you little queers,’” recalled Wade when I talked to him over the telephone. “Terry doesn’t remember much of what happened, he doesn’t hold grudges. But I remember. I seen Terry get the hell beaten out of him by Ron. He used boards and paddles. We’d hide his paddles. He would throw us against the wall. He wasn’t drinking. Whenever he was drunk, he was nice. My mother didn’t turn her back on us, but she didn’t really help us. One time Ron scrubbed Terry’s ass with a wire brush until it bled. He wouldn’t let us go to the bathroom in the house. He’d say, ‘Get the hell out of here, you shoulda shit while you were at school.’ Terry was afraid to go the bathroom in elementary school. One time we couldn’t hold it no more. I was nine, Terry was seven, we got to Becky’s room and we shit and pissed in her closet, in a roll of linoleum. A week later he found it, and he went and got us a fork and he made us eat it. That’s the worst thing in the world, it’s your shit and you’re putting it back into your system. Terry’s blocked it out. He knows Ron was bad to us but not to the extent. I wasn’t just scared – I was paying attention, I was trying to be awake, I didn’t want Terry to die. I told my brother a long time ago that nobody would ever hurt either one of us again. What he did was wrong, but what he did wasn’t anything that wasn’t done to him – the only difference is that he didn’t die and Allen Schindler did. We never had a chance to get our lives started. We got our start and something went sour. Terry’s not a murderer, I know that for a fact. He’s not a murderer, and I’ll never look at my brother as a bad person because nobody knows what we went through.”

Regena finally split up with Ron in 1982. Ron Lynch is now fifty-six, and he has honored his obligations to Becky, spoiling her with presents; in recent years he has tried to make amends for what he did to his stepsons. He buys them shirts for Christmas. “Every time I go to talk to him, he just apologizes,” Wade said. “But he doesn’t want to talk about it. He’s an old man now.”

For young Wade and Terry, a year in a boys’ home in Dutzow, Missouri, gave them some valuable structure. In high school, while Wade got into smoking pot, Terry seemed to go in the opposite direction. He joined an anti-drug crusade. He made friends with the children of the wealthy families. He dressed neatly; he wanted the status jeans and the cool shoes. He was eager to belong, and it seemed as if he might make it past the adversity of his boyhood. He aspired to be a lawyer, an advocate for abused children, an agent for the DEA. The Sports Spotlight section of the local paper published a quote of his that now resonates with ironies: “I would like to improve my maneuverability. I would like to be able to dribble around other people better.” He recognized his temper and his tendency to go through people, not around them. He did get into fights but also tried to control his outbursts. When things were rough at Regena’s house, he had any number of surrogate parents to call on – the Mosers, the Thompsons, the Hanners. They set a place for him at the table and gave him the run of the fridge; sometimes they took him on trips; when he entered the Navy, the Thompsons gave him a calling card so he could stay in touch.

His senior year, after a fight with his mother over whether Becky should be allowed to see an older boyfriend who Terry thought was a scumbag, he moved in with the Hanners. Sue Hanner worked as a guidance counselor at the high school; her husband, Dave, had his own construction business; Terry had dated and stayed friends with their daughter, Audra. The temperature was zero when he showed up wearing a muscle shirt. He didn’t have a coat. The Hanners bought him a coat. They bought him socks, shoes, underwear; they even paid some of his debts.

And in August 1991, newly graduated from Fredericktown High School, he joined the Navy for the same reasons Allen Schindler had; travel, adventure, and money for college under the GI bill. In February 1992 he reported for duty aboard the USS Belleau Wood. He had violent dreams and confided them to some of his friends he lifted weights with. “He used to tell me about dreams that he would have about killing people, tearing their arms off and beating them with it,” Charles Vins would state months later to the NIS. “He would also talk about biting people’s noses off.” Troy Peck – who was drinking with Helvey the night Schindler was murdered and had traveled to Helvey’s home in Fredericktown on leave – told me one night in a bar in Sasebo, a week before the court-martial, “I was always trying to get Terry Helvey to cool down. I was always trying to get him out of trouble. He had a short fuse. He was always saying, ‘I’ll tear your head off and shit down your throat.’”

In early November, nine months after he boarded the USS Belleau Wood. Terry called the Hanners from Japan. His mother had moved and he didn’t know where she was living. “I got drunk and got into a fight,” he said.

“Oh, no,” Sue Hanner said.

“It’s pretty serious,” he said. “I’m in the brig. The guy was gay. It’s going to be a nightmare because of the politics.”

“He didn’t die, did he?” Sue Hanner asked.

“No,” Terry Helvey said, unable to bring himself to tell her the truth. He couldn’t say anything more.

In December Sue Hanner heard on the television news about a sailor on the USS Belleau Wood who had been killed. She put two and two together. And now, a May evening six months after that first call from the young basketball star they’d hoped to set on the straight and narrow, Dave and Sue Hanner are trying to explain the decision they reached.

“We had helped Terry twice,” Sue said after reflection. “We had given him a normal kind of life for part of two years. He knew our values. We told him, ‘You cannot drink. Stay out of that kind of crap. Don’t hang around in taverns.’ I wrote to him at the end of December and told him what I felt about it. He was part of our family. We would love him and the person we believed him to be. But he would have to work this out himself.”

IX. “What did my son do to you?”
There were only two questions wanting answers at the court-martial of Airman Apprentice Terry M. Helvey: What had happened in the bathroom in Sasebo Park on October 27? And why? And yet for the longest time it seemed that the proceeding was to air the facts of the case most thoroughly would answer neither. During their months of declining to comment about the death of Allen Schindler, Navy public-affairs officers said they had to strike “a delicate balance” between the public’s right to know and the accused’s right to a fair trial. “A delicate balance” explained all the hatch battening and the sidestepping.

But “a delicate balance” also described the politics of the court-martial. There were really two defendants in the dock – Airman Helvey, of course, the nominal defendant charged with murder, and the U.S. Navy, accused by gay activists and others of covering up a hate crime. Ideally, the damage to the Navy’s image after the miscarriage of the Vins court-martial would be wiped away by the successful prosecution and punishment of his colleague. But there was a real danger that the Helvey court-martial could make the Navy look even worse. It could raise questions about the conduct of the officers of the USS Belleau Wood who had, fairly or not, been excoriated for failing to protect one U.S. sailor from another. It could focus attention on the way in which the command at Naval Forces Japan had managed to turn a politically sensitive incident into a cause célèbre. It could have fueled the argument that violence against gays is a consequence of a policy that anathematizes them as unfit to serve their country.

But the Navy had convened the show, and it was determined to keep itself offstage and to keep the trial from roiling the political debate. And so the question of gay bashing, the question of motive itself, was pushed aside. From the government’s point of view, the motive of the murder was irrelevant. And yet Terry Helvey’s state of mind figured so largely in what he had done that the motive became a kind of elephant in the corner of the courtroom that everyone worked around but pretended not to see.

When the show opened on the morning of May 24, courteous, white uniformed public-affairs officers were waiting at the gate to usher more than a dozen reporters into the Lighthouse Lounge, where a silver urn of coffee had been set out. Tables were covered with yellow HELVEY TRIAL ID tags and blue folders stuffed with nearly all of the relevant press releases issued in past months – although not the very first ones, those early essays in prevarication, which only would have reminded the press of what the Navy hadn’t been saying in October.

Dorothy Hajdys and her daughter Kathy sat in the front row on the far right side of the main courtroom in the Legal Services building. She was the most famous mother of a gay serviceman in the country, a star of the march on Washington four weeks earlier. Crowds along the parade route chanted “Mom! Mom! Mom!” when she passed – flanked by Jim Jennings, Allen’s ex-lover, and another of Allen’s Navy friends, Allen Pemberton, who fended off the photographers with a little American flag. For the duration of the court-martial, Dorothy and Kathy were staying on the base; they had been assigned a Navy escort. Dorothy’s right forefinger was splinted and taped; she had cracked it getting out of a Japanese bathtub.

Regena Helvey, her sister Sheryl Sarchette, and Terry’s boyhood friend Joe Thompson were sitting in the front row, far left, behind the defense table. They had had a chance to visit Terry before the court-martial began and had sat for newspaper photographers to take their picture. In front of each family on the waist-high partition that divided the gallery from the court there were boxes of tissue.

Now came Terry Helvey trailed by his lawyers: a tall, well-built sailor with painfully young features and tiny scars on his face. His hair was close-cropped, and a long stock of a neck rose above the shoulder bib of his enlisted whites. He looked like a shorn version of the kid on the Dutch Boy paint can. He kept his right fingers curled under, hiding the one that was mangled.

When he was just a flat-eyed headshot in the newspaper or a handcuffed figure in a snippet of video footage, it was easy to demonize him; the mask of a demon is not so easily slipped over a living face. He seemed nervous and frightened. His eyes were a hard-to-reconcile mix of boyishness and trouble, eagerness-to-please and subdued conceit. The one jarring note was something his lawyers might have advised him against: He was chewing gum.

He had given three accounts of what happened the night of October 27. In the most recent, he had tried to shift the blame to Charles Vins. But on April 16 Helvey had signed a thirteen-page, single-spaced stipulation of fact. It would serve as the final and official narrative of what happened in the bathroom in Sasebo Park. In order to avoid the death penalty, he had agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of murder with intent to harm great bodily harm.

From the Navy’s point of view, the plea bargain neatly removed the headache and embarrassment of having to explore Helvey’s motives or to call Vins to the stand, the only person capable of giving a ringside account of the beating. With the main issue not guilt but the degree of punishment, much of the drama of the court-martial had been drained away. The prosecution put on its witnesses essentially to support its proposition that Terry Helvey should be sentenced to life in prison. And so the people who discovered Allen Schindler, who had tried to save his life, who had performed his autopsy, were sworn and examined. Many spectators in the gallery gasped when the bailiff carried the autopsy photograph of Schindler’s face from the panel of jury members to the witness stand. Even glimpsed from thirty feet as it sailed across the room in the bailiff’s hand, it was shocking, a red, raw ruin. When Commander Kilbane, the plainspoken pathologist, recited the damaged Terry Helvey had wreaked on her son’s body, Dorothy Hajdys began to weep. Helvey’s aunt Sheryl began to cry as well and had to leave the courtroom. Regena sat stoically, like a character in a film noir, hurt but unable to show it. During recesses she and Sheryl; sometimes stepped outside on a fire escape to smoke; Dorothy and Kathy went up the hall and drank sodas in a little lounge. The air vibrated tensely whenever their paths converged.

The testimony of the two NIS agents who had taken Helvey’s voluntary statements established that antipathy toward gays had something to do with the assault on Schindler. The accused had denied being involved when Special Agent Dale Wallace first interviewed him. “We had learned in the early hours that the victim might be homosexual,” Wallace testified. “We brought up homosexuality. We asked [Terry] how he felt about homosexuals. We threw it out to him. Was that a reason it might have happened? Terry hesitated. Then he said yes. He said he was disgusted by homosexuals. He said he was sorry it had happened but he would do it again.”

When it was the defense’s turn, Major Doyle and Lieutenant Smith more directly addressed the question of motive. They introduced evidence that Terry Helvey’s violence may have been exacerbated by self-administered steroid injections. A robot-voiced defense psychiatrist testified that Terry’s behavior was influenced by “a culture of physicality” and that there was evidence from magnetic resonance imaging of scarring on his brain, the handiwork of the abuse he had received as a child. He expounded on the influence alcohol might have played on Terry’s inability to control his temper or break off beating a man when the fight was clearly won. Sheryl and Regena testified; Regena was in a position only a Greek tragedian could do justice to – obliged to condemn herself to save her son. In a strange and affecting way, she was at last, and at great cost to herself, exercising her parental responsibility by detailing her failures as a parent. Terry’s troubles had forced her to confront buried feelings of her own. She admitted to the court that she had taken LSD when she was pregnant with Terry. She told the court how Ron Lynch had always said her boys were faggots, and how he’d dragged them down the stairs by the hair and made them eat their own excrement, and how despite the abuse he had received, Terry was upset when Ron went away and blamed his mother. More boxes of tissue were brought into the court.

The jury was presented with a montage of photographs of Terry at the prom and Terry shooting hoops and Terry standing with his family. A television was wheeled in and suddenly the citizens of Fredericktown were heard in Japan on videotape, telling how Terry had helped them out, how he’d busted up concrete and hauled firewood, and how he was the sort of guy who stayed in touch with old girlfriends and remembered to pat the water boy on the back, and he was the one person the family dog never barked at… There was something surreal and sad in the way the testimonials drifted on to absurdly irrelevant points. And the prosecutor finally object.

“If everybody in town is behind him, does that mena we have to see everybody in town?” Captain Marchioro asked. The defense agreed to fast-forward to the end of the tape. And there was Wade Helvey, his six-feet-nine frame hunched in front of a washing machine, speaking in a quiet, powerful voice: “If Terry did this to Allen Schindler, he hasn’t done anything different than what’s been done to him a thousand times… All we ever wanted was to have a family where we felt safe and at home. Terry is still fighting for the family he never had. I don’t understand how Terry could go through as much as he has and still be the person he is today… I don’t believe I should sit here and pour my heart out for people who will never understand. I’ve tried talking but you can only have so much hardship. Terry Helvey was my family for the longest time… the only family I ever had, and for him to still be going through this…” Wade stared at the floor. “As far as I am concerned he is one of the best people God ever put on this planet.”

Lieutenant Smith turned off the videotape. Sheryl had already left in tears. Dorothy had removed her glasses and was wiping her eyes, but her tears were hot with rage. She stared at Regena, whose face was a mask of checked grief, and then muttered to the journalists in the second row, “How can she sit there with these things being said about her?”

Helvey stood numbly at the defense table.

“Now, Terry, can you tell us what happened to your finger?” Lieutenant Smith said.

He opened his mouth to speak but no words came out. He swallowed hard. His shoulders sagged. He bowed his head and then sat and put his face in his hands and sobbed silently. Lieutenant Smith requested a five-minute recess. From the gallery just a few feet behind him, Regena called out in a low voice, “Terry! Terry! Terry!” But he raised his hand and waved her off. He would not look at her. He blew his nose. He turned to face the curtains over the windows, and then he put his head under the curtains and stared out at the parking lot and the export traffic on Tokyo Bay.

He was able, a bit later, to collect himself enough to address the violence that it was ever more apparent he had little understanding of and even less ability to contain. His sentences came out in halting gulps; he choked and floundered like a drowning man. The pain he had caused Mrs. Hajdys was penetrating his narcissism. His powers of denial were breaking down, and now he was struggling to hold onto what he believed was good about himself in the face of what was ineluctably bad. How could it not be overwhelming? He was being asked to account for the horrible things he had done even as he was facing, perhaps for the first time, the horrible things that had been done to him.

“I guess you could say that I didn’t care about too much…” he said just before the catharsis. “The Hanners… taught me how to be nice to people. It’s not widely known, but I had received counseling for my temper, and it’s gone, I don’t have a temper anymore…” And now afterward, turning in circles: “I have always had a temper, I’m terribly sorry I have that emotion, I have prayed I could get rid of it, I can’t, I wish I could…”

“Did you attack Radioman Allen Schindler because he was a homosexual?” asked Lieutenant Smith.

“That is probably – sir… No. I didn’t in all honesty, I did not attack him because he’s a homosexual… I can’t excuse what happened, I will never be able to live with it. He was not my enemy…”

He sighed and fought for words. He apologized to the people of Fredericktown, to his shipmates, to the captain of the Belleau Wood: “The Belleau Wood was a great ship, and Captain Bradt – I probably ruined his career. I don’t understand it, it’s way above my head, all the media and the politics…” And then he apologized to Mrs. Hajdys. “I know in my heart that Mrs. Hajdys can never forgive me for what I have done. I can never expect her to forgive me, I did not want what happened to happen. If I had to do it over again, this would not have happened. I wish – I wrote a letter to Mrs. Hajdys, I would like to read it if it’s all right.”

And then he read his if-I-could-change-places-with-your-son letter, with its hope that someday she would forgive him for what he had done, and its plaintive faith that God knew what He was doing with their lives. After the jury returned from its brief deliberations to render a sentence of life imprisonment and a dishonorable discharge from the Navy – Terry swallowing hard and blinking; Dorothy Hajdys sobbing and saying, “Thank you, thank you” – the whole show was abruptly folded up, bang, bang, bang. In a conference room off the courtroom, Helvey tried to give his letter of apology to Dorothy Hajdys. She said, “What did Allen ever do to you?” And he said “Nothing.” And she said, “Then why did you kill him?” And he said “I don’t know.” She had been told to restrain her emotions in the courtroom, and for the most part she had, but now she bagan to scream. “What did my son ever do to you?” He couldn’t meet her eyes. He could only murmur, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

X. Just a Simple Gay Bashing?
What can’t be fathomed in this sorry affair is the face of hate, its brutal, pointless, and somehow essentially human terms. It may be hopelessly naïve to expect broad-minded, empathetic people in the military; the dirty work of war doesn’t put a premium on cultural sensitivity. But there is something shocking about the way the question of gays in the military has generated so many casual predictions of violence; 81 percent of the troops responding to a Los Angeles Times poll said that violence was “likely” if openly gay people were permitted to serve. The statistic, like the death of Allen Schindler itself, invites the question – What is the American military for? Does it have something to do with the assertion and defense of the country’s values? What are those values, and ought they be embodied in the members of the armed forces?

The tragedy of the ban, as it existed a year ago October and as it would exist in the future in the guise of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” is that it served to nourish rather than confront the hatred in a sailor like Terry Helvey. In this sense Terry Helvey is as much a victim of the ban as Allen Schindler. No, there won’t be legions of people weeping on his behalf. But Terry Helvey didn’t have any better reason to hate fags than the Navy has. They were just “disgusting” and “scary” to him, the way they were simply “incompatible” to the Navy. In his first statement to the NIS, less than twelve hours after the murder, Terry Helvey had the temerity to suggest that in the future the Navy would be a safer place for everyone if it excluded gays rather than the sailors who felt like bashing them – as if the temptation was something no good sailor could resist, and a bashable queer in the berthing was tantamount to entrapment. Where could he have gotten an idea like that?

What if instead of catering to his confusion and ignorance, the U.S. Navy had tried to educate him? What if instead of accommodating his bigotry with its tacit sanctions, it had told him in no uncertain terms what it essentially told white sailors in 1951: This black man who represents everything you have been taught to loathe and fear – this man who your culture has brought you up to believe is inferior or “scary” or “disgusting” – this man is your one hope; float together or sink alone. But sad to say, the Navy didn’t lead Terry Helvey, it followed him – it accommodated the worst of him and shortchanged the best. The justice meted out in the end was a strong rebuke to what he did, but by then it was beside the point.

Toward the end of the trial, Lieutenant Spann, one of the public-affairs officers at Yokosuka, said to me, “Still think it’s just a simple gay bashing?” It took a few moments to realize that he believed the fact presented at the court-martial had more than justified the Navy’s refusal to characterize the beating as “a simple gay bashing.” It was more complex than that, and he seemed almost proud that the Navy, like a great novelist, had not given in to easy stereotypes, the black and white of op-ed propaganda, but had by its discreet silence honored the gray nuance of real life. Yes, one had to grant him that it probably wasn’t just “a simple gay bashing.” But when had there ever been such a thing as that? And what sort of comfort was he finding in yet more proof of the depth and complexity of hatred?

“I believe Terry Helvey killed my son because of all the hatred in him and because Allen was gay,” Dorothy Hajdys said several weeks after the court-martial. “If Allen had been a Mexican, he would have killed him. Whoever he ran into who was different, he would have killed.”

XI. A Fall Night
It may never be possible to fully unravel why Allen Schindler was killed, the stuff of why being too fine and tangled for the hands of the law. As for what happened in the bathroom on October 27, 1992, it was not the court-martial that provided the clearest picture but the documents the Navy released immediately after the sentence was rendered: the statements Helvey and Vins gave to the NIS, the psychological evaluations, the autopsy reports, an extensive stipulation of fact.

It is from these papers that one can follow two lives intersecting on a fall night, a night that would take its place with ten thousand others on the trail of tears. The Fates dispatch Terry Helvey and three buddies to watch a movie called Single White Female at the base theater. Afterward they load up on beer, vodka, and peppermint schnapps, and they start drinking on the bleachers in Nimitz Park – Nimitz Park, with its green visitors-and-home scoreboard standing over the ball field like a nostalgic totem of simple conflicts and easy distinctions. The sailors drink until nearly 11:00. They are approached by the shore patrol, one of whom is Artilles Faxas, a Cuban-born sailor. Faxas recognizes Terry Helvey. He has taught Helvey punching and kicking techniques. He tells Terry Helvey and his friends that the park is closing soon. And so the sailors quit Nimitz Park. They walk through Sasebo park. The illuminated, outsize kanji characters of a local hospital float beyond the branches of the camphor trees. Albuquerque Bridge. They come to Four Corners, the intersection in Sailor Town where shore patrolmen often hung out. The fecund air of the river is mingles with the smell of fried meat and beer. Here they split up. Troy Peck and Seaman Floyd Wills impatiently head off for dates. Helvey and Vins were intending to go along, but Helvey has spotted Allen Schindler strolling through Sailor Town.

He has heard rumors that Schindler is gay and is being discharged. He doesn’t like Schindler. He was assigned to clean a passageway with him on a work detail in March, and Schindler, who ranked higher, had bossed him around.

“Let’s go fuck with him,” Helvey says to Vins.

They follow Schindler on a roundabout route through Sailor Town. Now he is heading toward the river. Now he is crossing Albuquerque Bridge. They head toward the river. They cross Albuquerque Bridge. They lose their quarry for a moment behind bushes. Helvey points to the bathroom near the indoor swimming pool: “He walked in there.” They are about fifteen yards away. Helvey breaks into a run and disappears inside. Vins walks up and, as he enters the doorless granite and tile bathroom, he can see Schindler facing one of the urinals. Helvey is facing the urinal next to him, his right hand raised beside his head and cocked in a fist.

This is the freeze-frame moment on which Helvey will erect a fiction of intimacy and desire: “I glanced over my left shoulder and that was when I noticed it was Schindler. He was smiling at me and just said ‘Hi.’ I recall he was standing behind me but sort of at an angle to me. I believe he was wearing a black outfit of some kind, maybe a black sweater and black slacks. I recall his slacks being undone and pulled down from his waist, exposing his penis. I do not remember if he had an erection. I was very surprised and frightened as he approached me. At that point, I just reacted and struck Schindler hard in the nose with my fist. I remember striking Schindler three times, it seems, before he hit the floor. I know that I hit him hard because he lost consciousness and fell to the floor by the urinal on the far right side. At that point I felt scared and confused but yet still out of control. I went down to the floor with Schindler and continued to punch him…”

A day later he will amend his fantasy: “I saw Schindler walk up to my left and put his right hand on my left shoulder. He had his left hand down at his crotch area. He did not have his penis out of his pants, and his pants were not down. I said that yesterday because I was trying to make those people reading this think that I was more justified in hitting Schindler. I regret that I said his pants were down… I want to add that I felt threatened with him standing beside me. He moved toward me facing me with a smile and said, ‘Hi.” I am afraid of faggots and I was scared. I felt boxed in and I reacted.”

In fact, Schindler does not say anything. No words are exchanged. He turns to look at Helvey – merely, thinks Vins, to register the man beside him. And then Vins sees Helvey’s fist crash down on Schindler’s face. Vins sees Schindler fall hard to the floor. Still no words are exchanged. Helvey bends down behind Schindler and clamps him in a headlock, choking him. Schindler throws his arms up, struggling to break free. He bites Helvey’s right arm.

“The son of a bitch bit me!” Helvey yells.

Vins now abandons the role of tagalong pal and moves in, intending to break the deadlocked couple apart. He delivers a kick to Schindler’s head, a kick that is perhaps even more morally problematic than Helvey’s visceral smash to Schindler’s face, for it rises not from emotion but from what Vins believes is logic. The kick was tempered, he will explain later, “just hard enough” to get Schindler to “release his grip from Helvey.” And Schindler does let go of Helvey. And Helvey leaves off choking Schindler. The gay sailor crouches on his feet dazed but conscious. The bathroom is bathed in fluorescent light. Vins now thinks Schindler is going to lunge at him, and to solve this problem, he kicks Schindler again, on his left side. And then he kicks him again, and then again.

“Chuck!” says Helvey, moving Vins aside. He’ll finish what he started. Helvey swings his leg. His foot whistles against Schindler’s head and the gay sailor sprawls backward, not to rise again. He lies beside a white Toto urinal, near the see-through glass, and Helvey kicks him at will, again and again and again, his arms flying up each time for emphasis. Who – or what – is he trying to kill? his military psychiatrist will ask months from now. “It looked like he was kicking a soccer ball,” Vins will recall. “I kept hearing thuds every time he kicked him… Helvey kicked Schindler to the left side of his head at least five to ten times real hard. Blood was all over the place. His [Schindler’s] face was covered with blood. Helvey then started down and began to kick and stomp on Schindler’s chest and torso… Everything happened so fast. He used his right foot most of the time. I could not tell you how many times he kicked and stomped on his chest, but it was several. It lasted at least thirty seconds.”

The sounds that have now lured two sailors to the outside of the bathroom, where they are peering through the fish-eye glass, are not those of a couple having sex but the expulsions of air forced from Schindler’s lungs by the piston strike of Helvey’s kicks. Head, heart, lungs, liver, bladder, penis: Helvey works his way down. Before Vins leaves, he sees the airman perform one final bit of violence so bizarre it seems almost ceremonious, a twisted kiss to seal a midnight passion. Helvey steps hard on Schindler’s neck and shifts all his weight, 200 pounds, onto the dying man’s throat. He lingers there a moment. Vins turns from the bathroom in what he will want the world to believe is horror, and a moment later he finds Helvey right behind him. They repair to the river to cleanse themselves of a shipmate’s blood. And Seaman Allen R. Schindler lies alone on that dire floor, unconscious and near death. He knows nothing of the new life to come.