By Christopher M. Turner
Jim died in August 1993 at age 29, his decomposed body found in a closed garage where it lay for a week during a sweltering Midwest heat wave. His tortured life over, Jim was believed to be the second victim of years of his heavy drinking that his ex-wife has always maintained was “caused’ by her husband’s shame and refusal to acknowledge and accept himself as a gay man.
In 1988, five years before his death, Jim was driving drunk in a nearby county and struck and killed a 30-year-old mother out for an early evening bicycle ride. She is the first known fatality on Jim’s road of destruction. Jim served four years in prison for drunk driving resulting in death and was on parole less than a year when he died. With his death, Jim was thought to be the second casualty of his own making.
But a third victim was identified weeks after Jim’s death as the stifling heat of summer yielded to a cooler autumn and as relatives assimilated to their lives without Jim. The third of Jim’s casualties met a violent and bloody end in his own bed that he shared with Jim one night, a 35-pound dumbbell crashed repeatedly into his chest and skull, a murder that police said Jim carried out in a drunken rage after a night of sex with his victim.
Jim’s relatives vehemently decried investigators’ conclusion that Jim was a bloodless killer and accused police of targeting a dead man simply to get an unsolved murder case off their books. Family members also rejected a coroner’s conclusion that Jim died by his own hand, a suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in the closed garage of a sister’s house. The keys of a car in the garage were in the ignition switch and still in the start position and the car empty of fuel when Jim’s body was found.
Jim’s relatives instead attributed his death to a heart attack despite the lack of medical evidence.
Today, nearly 24 years after Jim’s death, one of his acquaintances cannot remember when or how the two met. But the acquaintance remembers well two impressions that were quickly formed: that Jim was never really serious about not drinking and that he was either dangerously homophobic or, possibly, so tightly closeted that the extremity of Jim’s self-loathing bordered on the psychotic.
Jim and his friend sometimes went to the same meetings of a 12-step recovery group for alcoholics, and Jim occasionally suggested after meetings that the two go drinking at nearby bars, one of them a known gay establishment. The friend always declined. Riding with Jim in a car was sometimes a drive of paradoxes for the friend. Jim often singled out men walking on the street as “f**king faggots” while, other times, Jim noticed other men and speculated about their sexual endowment.
The acquaintance’s suspicion that Jim might be a self-hating gay man who had not come to terms with his sexual preference was validated one day when Jim, drinking but not yet drunk, made a sexual advance. The friend wasn’t interested. By then, he had become alarmed at the the seriousness of Jim’s drinking. Jim, his sexual move rejected, reacted angrily. “F**kin’ p*ssy. Whadda ya’ think friends do?’
Jim’s wife was older with a teenage daughter from an earlier marriage. She sounded genuine in her hope, a desperate one, that her husband stop drinking before he “kills himself or someone else.” Some two years after Jim’s wife and friend first met, Jim was in the county jail’s drunk tank for driving while intoxicated. That night Jim’s wife shared for the first time her theory about the “cause” of her husband’s drinking and the toll it had taken up to then. “He’s either bi or gay and can’t stand himself,” she decreed. The toll of Jim’s drinking up to then was his job for excessive absenteeism caused by severe hangovers and crushing credit card debt from charging bar bills and motel rooms he used often to sober up and took men for sex.
While he was on probation for the drunk driving conviction, Jim – drunk again and in violation of his probation – finally came out to his wife, or so he thought. He’d found a man with whom he wanted to live, and Jim argued that being honest with his sexuality and living with the man he loved would stop his drinking.
Despite her own despair of losing her husband, Jim’s wife gave him her blessing and cooperation in his effort to begin his new life. She was better than her word: not only did she find an apartment for her husband and his lover, she furnished and decorated it.
Jim’s new life as an open gay man living with a man he loved did not “cure” his alcoholism, of course. In short time, Jim’s lover was a frequent overnight guest at the ex-wife’s house because he could not endure another endless night of fighting and cleaning up Jim’s vomit.
Less than a year into his relationship with his lover, Jim drove to a bar in another county. It was that night that Jim, too drunk to see and drive, struck and killed the cyclist. Little was heard about Jim during the four years he was in prison. But, after being paroled, Jim resurfaced in his hometown, seen frequently in public parks and bars notorious as gay hangouts and cruising places for anonymous sex. A rumor, later confirmed, was circulated that one man known as a people user took Jim into his home for a place to sleep and drink in exchange for sex on demand.
Despite the arrangement, Jim was a regular patron at gay hook-up places. A bartender recalled weeks later that Jim had been in the bar, “half-drunk” and left with another man. The bartender assumed the two were going someplace for sex. No one had reason to connect Jim or the other man to a newspaper account a couple of days later of the discovery of a man’s body in his bedroom, presumably blugeoned to death by a bloodied barbell found at the scene.
But the connection was made by police in their investigation of the killing, and their findings were detailed in a Page 1 story in the city’s afternoon newspaper some two months after Jim’s death. According to police, Jim and the stranger he met in the bar went to the man’s home for consensual sex. At the man’s home, Jim got progressively drunker and, after the sex and for reasons unknown, crushed his victim’s skull and chest with no fewer than eight blows with the 35-pound weight.
Only days before Jim is believed to have died – based on the extent the decomposition to his body when it was found – he was hauled in by police. It was reported that police informed Jim that officers would have sufficient evidence within days to recommend a charge of murder. Jim avoided that accounting with his death. In closing their murder case, police pointed to the coroner’s ruling that Jim died a “probable suicide” by carbon monoxide poisoning, his death Jim’s way to cheat a sentence of life in prison.
Jim’s ex-wife remarried years after Jim died and is now permanently disabled by a degenerative muscular disease. The house she shared with Jim is occupied by other residents now although the structure has fallen into disrepair and some decay after years of neglect. Jim’s friend passes the house often and plays back memories he has of Jim. He seldom talks about Jim and has declined to answer a couple of people who have asked if he thinks Jim died a killer.
Instead, the friend answers that the circumstance of Jim’s death was a metaphor for a brief life that was a profile in tragedy and violence, a life that was lived in the dark shadows of denial and addiction. The sacrifices they exacted were Jim’s life – and probably two others.