Gay slaying victim to be remembered

Ryan Skipper's murder is being called a hate crime, but attention so far has been scant.

Published April 14, 2007

WINTER HAVEN -- Ryan Skipper's mother used to tell him not to advertise that he was gay.

Polk County, she warned, was not as accepting as some other places.

"I said, 'Ryan, honey. It's not that I'm ashamed of who you are,'"" Patricia Mulder recalled, "'but people will hurt you for that.'"

Skipper, too, feared that people would hurt him for being gay, his mother said.

On March 14, 25-year-old Skipper was fatally stabbed in what authorities believe was a hate crime combined with a robbery.

Two men have been arrested -- William D. Brown Jr., 20, and Joseph Bearden, 21. Brown told a witness he killed Skipper because Skipper was "messing" with him and making sexual advances, according to the Polk County Sheriff's Office.

By any standards, Skipper's murder was vicious. He was stabbed 20 times inside his car. His throat was slit, his face pummeled. The attackers took his jewelry, his laptop and his new car, and dropped his body by the side of the road in Wahneta, a small town outside Winter Haven.

The killing has sparked an outcry from gay rights groups and gay-oriented Web sites. Vigils for Skipper will be held today in 13 cities around the state as well as in Washington, D.C.

But Skipper's death has received little mainstream attention compared with the 1998 slaying of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student whose savage murder in Laramie, Wyo., drew national headlines and spawned a play and a movie.

Family and friends say that's in large part because Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd told local media that Skipper was cruising for sex when he met his attackers and that earlier in the night he had been smoking pot with one of his attackers and talking about an illegal check copying scheme.

"They've characterized Ryan as a pervert, a drug addict and a felon," said Brian Winfield, a spokesman for Equality Florida, the group organizing the vigils. "In the eyes of the media, it didn't carry the human interest that it should have."

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The time line of Skipper's last hours is still unclear.

At 9 p.m. that Tuesday, he closed down the Sunglass Hut in Winter Haven, where he worked. He met his friend Karl von Hahmann for dinner, and the two parted ways at 10:30 p.m.

Von Hahmann called Skipper at 11:10 p.m. to remind him to give a key to one of his co-workers the next morning. Skipper was at home when he answered the phone.

Roommate Kelly Evans said Skipper put some leftovers in the refrigerator and went into his bedroom. Evans didn't know when Skipper left the home.

Some time around midnight, the Sheriff's Office said, Skipper met Bearden and offered him a ride. They came back to Skipper's house, authorities say, where they smoked marijuana and talked about a scheme to copy checks on Skipper's laptop.

Then they went to Brown's house.

The three men left Brown's home in Skipper's car and, 15 minutes later, Brown and Bearden returned without Skipper, the Sheriff's Office said. His body was dumped a few miles away.

How Skipper met up with his attackers remains contentious.

Skipper's friends and family say he would have never cruised the streets for sex.

"He didn't need to do that. He didn't want to do that," his stepfather, Lynn Mulder, said. "He would have been afraid to do that."

Joyce Fraley, another roommate, said she had seen Brown come by the house a couple of times asking for Skipper. One time he came up to the door. Fraley wouldn't let him in, but when Skipper saw Brown they went out in the yard and talked.

The attackers abandoned the car near a boat ramp at Lake Pansy, outside Winter Haven. They tried unsuccessfully to set it on fire. Authorities found Brown's fingerprints in the car.

According to state records, Bearden spent six months in state prison for car theft and was released in September. He also pleaded no contest to a battery charge in 2004.

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Skipper had a hard time growing up in Winter Haven.

"In high school, people would call him a girlie man, gay boy, just names that kids in school call gay guys," said Stephanie Schiff, his best friend. People would push him in the halls and throw rocks at his car, she remembers. He never wanted to fight back.

Skipper was careful in public and didn't outwardly identify himself as gay. He didn't place a gay pride insignia on his new car, despite Schiff's encouragement, because he feared vandalism.

Despite the tough atmosphere, Skipper felt recently that he was coming into his own in Polk County.

He told von Hahmann that he had never been happier. He had moved out of his parents' home and was doing well at vocational school, learning computer repair skills.

Since the murder, Patricia Mulder has been in a state of shock. She wakes up in the morning and expects to hear from her youngest son.

"I started calling his house because the answering machine was still on and I could hear his voice," she said. That tape and a brief video clip are the only scraps she has of his voice.

She wonders how deep the stab wounds were and whether he suffered.

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Outside Skipper's family and friends, the news of his murder has echoed through the gay community in Polk County.

At the Pulse, a gay bar Skipper went to in Lakeland, the killing hit hard.

In the 1980s, the bar used to get pelted by smoke bombs and have its patrons harassed, said Terry Thompson, the partner of the bar's owner. But the city of Lakeland has become relatively accepting in recent years, he said.

Skipper's murder was an ugly reminder of the hatred beneath the surface.

"Ryan was too trusting," Thompson said. "He was too young to remember the days when we were smoke-bombed."

People in the community are being careful, but they're not hiding. The bar had two dozen customers on a recent Thursday night.

And the supportive response from the community has been a consolation to Skipper's family.

"I think the area has responded better than I expected," said Mulder, Ryan's stepfather. "Ryan's death has made an impact more than I would have thought."

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS: Remembering Ryan Skipper
Vigils for Ryan Skipper will be held in 13 cities around the state as well as in Washington, D.C. Local rallies will be held at three locations:

The foundation: The Ryan Keith Skipper Foundation, c/o Vice-President Jesse Bennett, 146 Ave B NW, Winter Haven, FL 33881.