BANGOR — Shawn Mabry and a buddy sat on a beach in Daytona, Fla., in 1989 and saw a biker with a T-shirt that read “Chuckahomo Bridge — Bangor, Maine.” When the biker learned who Mabry was, he patted him on the back and asked him to sign his shirt.
Mabry says he refused.
To the biker, Mabry was a hero to be acclaimed and commended. Even today, closer to home, there are those who meet Mabry and want to shake his hand.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the event that thrust Mabry into the spotlight and made a murder victim named Charlie Howard an unwitting symbol of the gay community. As reports of Howard’s death spread throughout the nation, Bangor was suddenly labeled a place of hatred and redneck pride.
The year was 1984. Headlines across the country screamed “A gentle man’s death bares town’s rough side” and “A city and its sins.”
When Howard was pitched from a bridge into the murky waters of the Kenduskeag Stream, the city itself plunged to a place from which it has yet to emerge.
Struggling to make peace with past
In an interview for this article, Mabry speaks publicly for the first time of the events that led to Howard’s death on July 7, 1984, and how he has altered his own life.
Mabry is a handsome and articulate young man. He lives with his mother, who is now divorced from Mabry’s father. He likes to golf and ski and works in the Bangor area as a bartender. He is polite and appears to have his life together.
One does not have to probe far below the surface, however, to find a young man who is struggling to make peace with his past and to assign meaning to an unfathomable act. Mabry maintains he no longer is offended by the gay lifestyle. But his history with police did not end with Charlie Howard and Mabry admits that he has had difficulty staying out of trouble.
A review of Mabry’s police record reveals arrests for drunken driving, criminal trespass and two assaults. He was arrested on a warrant when he left the state after violating his probation by breaking a window.
The last incident on file was a drunken driving arrest in September 1992.
Mabry seems sincere in his desire to make a future for himself. He wants to be a “professional.” He thinks he has really turned a corner in the past year and a half and says at 26 years old it’s time for him to take responsiblity for himself. He plans to go to a culinary arts school in Vermont this fall.
He is as unsure about his ability to succeed at school as he is about the rest of his life.
“I hope I can make it,” he says with urgency, “It costs $35,000 to go. That’s too much money to spend and then drop out. I’m going to try it.”
Getting involved in `gay bashing’
Charlie Howard was not Mabry’s first victim. In fact, Howard’s fate might have been sealed eight months earlier when Mabry first became involved in the nightly activity of “gay bashing.”
Mabry had dropped out of Bangor High School by the winter of 1984, but he still hung out with his school friends each night. It was from these friends that he learned that homosexuals were spending time on Middle Street, a steep, one-way road that descends to Main Street.
A group of boys had taken it upon themselves to gather and watch and harass the homosexuals who met there. Before long, gay men were being assaulted by the group. Their car windows were smashed. Their car keys were thrown into bushes so they couldn’t flee.
Mabry and a few friends joined in. They started just watching as other boys approached the cars and pretended to be homosexual. Those who fell for the scam were bullied and assaulted and forced to run away.
Mabry watched and listened, and the homosexuals began to anger him.
“It was something different. Totally odd. I didn’t like it. Some of the things they said did anger me,” he said last week as he sat in the sun-filled kitchen of his mother’s Bangor home, which is neat and fashionably decorated.
Soon Mabry began to participate. His first encounter, he claims, was with a teacher he had in junior high. He saw his former teacher talking with another man and went up and asked what they were doing. The teacher provided an excuse, but Mabry told him to leave. He did.
“The other gentleman did not leave and I broke his window,” Mabry said matter-of-factly.
Mabry felt powerful.
The first physical assault on a person took place not long afterward. Mabry recalls it hesitantly, but in great detail.
“It’s a complete horror story. It scares me to think back on it. It was madness that went on then,” he said as he cleared his throat in a rare moment of nervousness.
Mabry and a friend approached the car window of a homosexual parked on Middle Street. The friend pretended to be homosexual and he and Mabry got into the man’s car to go for a ride. A group of friends was supposed to follow the car. Mabry can recall the exact route of the cars and remembers looking behind him and seeing that his friends in the other car were not around. They had disappeared momentarily to collect baseball bats and pool cues. Eventually they all met up in a parking lot at what is now the Medicine Shoppe on Hammond Street.
They began to beat the driver of the car. They tried, but failed to get his keys out of the ignition. Mabry and another boy punched him through the windows of his car while the other boys bashed in his headlights, windows and taillights with baseball bats. The man cowered in a ball on the floor of the car, trying to avoid the blows.
“He eventually reached up and put the car in drive, and then while lying on the floor, pushed the gas pedal and sped straight across Hammond Street. He got into another parking lot across the street and was able to get away,” Mabry recalls with a hint of amazement in his voice.
That was two or three months before Mabry and his neighborhood friends, Jim Baines and Daniel Ness, met Charlie Howard.
`Just another day’
Baines, Mabry and Ness were 15, 16 and 17, respectively, when they spotted Howard and a companion walking along State Street on Saturday, July 7, 1984.
Mabry sighs as he begins to recall the events that resulted in Howard’s death and changed the lives of those who were responsible.
It was just after 10 p.m. The three boys had been drinking heavily. There also were two young girls in the back seat with Baines. Mabry was driving and Ness was in the front passenger seat.
They were headed to a party. They had stopped to get gas and tried unsuccessfully to buy beer at the former 7-Eleven on Hammond Street. They were crossing the bridge on State Street near Bangor Savings Bank when Ness and Baines saw Howard and Ray Ogden and recognized them as gay men. One of them said Howard had made a sexual comment to him a few weeks before.
Mabry stopped the car and the three began walking toward the pair.
“We didn’t say anything at first, but they understood that we were there to cause trouble,” Mabry recalls.
Soon somebody yelled and the two men began to run. Howard’s companion took off up State Street and Mabry chased him.
“He was going to pull the fire alarm. I chased him toward Exchange Street, but then I turned around and went back down toward where the other two were with Howard,” he said.
Howard had tripped on a curb.
Before he could get up, Baines and Ness were on top of him, kicking and punching him. Mabry joined in.
“I remember that he was on the ground. We punched and kicked him. I was barefoot. Somebody yelled, `Over the bridge.’ One of them took his feet, one took his head and I took his midsection, and we just picked him up and threw him over,” Mabry said while staring out the kitchen window of his home.
Howard was a 23-year-old gay man who, unlike many of his friends, did nothing to hide his homosexuality. An earring often dangled from his left ear, he wore a touch of makeup and carried a purse. His motto was “I am what I am.”
It was people’s unwillingness to accept him for what he was that found him floundering between the smooth cement walls tunneling the stream into the Penobscot River, preventing his escape.
Ogden ran frantically along the stream, yelling for Howard to swim while desperately waiting for help to appear. But when the rescuers arrived they were greeted only by the silence and darkness of the stream.
As firefighters and police combed the stream for Howard’s body, Mabry, Baines and Ness were at a Bangor party telling their friends that they “had jumped a fag and kicked the s— out of him, then threw him in the stream,” according to a court affidavit.
The fact that Howard died still seems unfathomable to Mabry.
“We never considered that he might not get out of there,” he said. “We never gave it any consideration that he might drown. We drove away laughing. … To us this was just another day. Another incident that would go unreported and life would go on.”
Dark journey to fork in the road
The next morning Mabry was sleeping in a camper behind his parents’ home on Harthorn Avenue in Bangor. Ness woke him up and informed him that the guy they had thrown into the stream had died.
“That was the weirdest feeling I’ve ever had. I didn’t know what we were going to do,” he said.
The teens decided to leave town. They rode around the city gathering money from their friends. Their attempt to borrow a car failed. Ness decided to stay in the city one more day to see his girlfriend, but Baines and Mabry went home and threw some belongings into army duffel bags.
They went down to the railroad yard and jumped onto an empty boxcar as the train pulled away. The train went three miles down the track and then backed up. The two boys wound up stopped at the back of the Penobscot Inn.
They discovered that the next train would not be leaving until Monday morning and decided to spend the night in the woods off New York Street, a dead-end street on the west side of the city near Interstate 95.
They were walking in that direction when they were stopped by a friend.
“A friend stopped us and told us we should get lost because there were cops everywhere. We turned a corner and there they were,” Mabry recalled.
When they arrived at the police station, Ness was there being questioned by detectives. The three were taken to Hancock County Jail to spend the night because juveniles could not be housed at the Penobscot County Jail.
When asked to recall what went through his mind as he spent his first night in a jail cell, Mabry said, “It was all a blur. We had no idea what was going on. The seriousness of what we had done had not sunk in and our top priority was getting out of there.”
Mabry, Baines and Ness were lined up for fingerprinting and mug shots. The three teen-agers stood in front of a camera and guards hung wooden signs around their necks. The signs bore their names and the word “murder.”
“It wasn’t until I saw that sign that I realized what we had done and how serious things really were,” Mabry said.
The next morning Mabry remembers waking up in the darkened cell. Before he opened his eyes he reached up and felt the brick wall. It was cold and it dashed his hope that the whole ordeal was just a nightmare.
Meanwhile, members of the gay and lesbian community were rallying. More than 300 people — gay and straight — attended a memorial service at the Bangor Unitarian Church. They vowed to keep Howard’s memory alive and to ensure that his life and death had an impact.
They verbalized their rage at an open microphone and marched to the State Street bridge, where they left candles. In front of the police station they sang, “We are a gay and lesbian people singing for our lives.”
Court officials were gathering up police and court security officers in anticipation of the trio’s initial appearance at Bangor District Court.
Letters began to flow into the newspaper.
Howard’s death attracted national attention, and when a judge released the three teens to their parents’ custody, the head of the Human Rights Commission of San Francisco was prompted to write a letter to then-Gov. Joseph Brennan requesting that he reverse the judge’s decision.
In October, Baines, Mabry and Ness stood before a District Court judge and pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter. The reduced charge resulted in protests outside the courthouse, and members of the gay and lesbian community accused authorities of disregarding the crime because the victim was a homosexual.
A week later the trio stood together again and cried as the judge handed down the maximum sentence allowed under the state’s juvenile law. They were ordered imprisoned at the Maine Youth Center for an indeterminate stay, not to exceed their 21st birthdays.
Mabry had difficulty conforming to the rules and eventually was placed in Cottage One, the strictest cottage, reserved primarily for violent and sex offenders, as was Baines.
Mabry figures about one-third of his peers in the cottage were homosexuals. Mabry and Baines, who were convicted of killing a man because of his sexuality, found themselves co-existing with several gay men.
“I didn’t like it,” he said, “having to live under the roof with these types of people, not realizing that they were probably looking at me saying, `What kind of guy is this that would do what he did?”‘
Mabry claims he eventually began to respond to the counseling provided at Cottage One and began to accept what he had done.
“Living with homosexuals every day made me realize that they were not different than me except for the sexual preference. We began to talk and eventually I defeated that part of me. I realized I just didn’t know what they were about. That’s why I didn’t like them,” he said.
By the time Mabry was released, 22 months later, he felt he had benefited from his stay at the youth center. While there his grades had improved and he had learned to accept people for what they were.
It didn’t take long, however, for him to fall into the old routine with his friends back home. Though he no longer felt animosity toward gays, he soon began to skip school, and drink and party with his friends. He never finished high school.
He traveled for a while, living in Texas and Colorado for short periods. He spent some time in jail and had little direction.
Today he thinks he has reached “a fork in the road” and is headed in the right direction.
Dealing with the guilt
In a very frank moment, Mabry discussed the reason he doesn’t talk about what happened on that July night. Jim Baines, who was the youngest of the three, gives lectures to students and talks openly about how hate and prejudice changed his life forever.
Mabry does not feel comfortable doing that.
“I guess I never felt like I should talk to kids about what I did. Although for the last year and a half I have turned my life around, before that I had some trouble and never felt like I was the one who should be doing much talking much about reform.”
Mabry won’t be taking part in the gay pride festival and parade planned for Saturday. He has been asked to participate in the Charlie Howard memorial service in the past, but declined.
“The memorial and the parade are a big deal to those who participate. But these people didn’t commit the act. To them it’s one day of the year that they spend dealing with what happened. I deal with it every day. Ten years later there is not a day that this does not cross my mind. Some days are worse than others. I can’t imagine that ever changing,” he said.
It took a long time for Mabry to accept what he did, and to feel remorse and guilt. While at the youth center, he admits, guilt “was not on the top of my mind.” Today that guilt has a tight grip on his life.
“How could you not feel guilty? Of course I do,” he said. “Charlie Howard was so young. He was helpless that night and three reckless kids come along and just for the hell of it toss him over the bridge. Because of our actions Charlie Howard lost his life.”
The scene of the crime today
This summer the State Street bridge is being repaired. The sound of jackhammers breaking up the pavement reverberates off the old buildings that line the Kenduskeag Stream.
Downtown businesses have opened and closed and teen-agers still hang around the streets.
The Kenduskeag Stream still flows gently into the Penobscot River, and on Saturday, flowers will be dropped off the bridge as a remembrance to what happened there.
Tolerance growing in Maine
The city’s most famed author apparently was affected by the incident, referring to it in his book “IT,” which traces a pattern of evil in a small Maine city.
Stephen King writes about a gay man who witnessed his boyfriend’s murder.
“`How many times do I have to tell you idiots?’ Hagarty was still screaming. `They killed him! They pushed him over the side! Just another day in Macho City for them!’ Don Hagarty began to cry.”
To the gay community Howard’s death was personal and it made the city face up to its intolerance. Gay and lesbian residents used the opportunity to confront this conservative community and demand consideration and acknowledgement. It inspired some gays and lesbians to disclose their sexual preference.
The state has shown some improvement in its acceptance of the homosexual community. Since Howard’s death a hate crimes bill has been passed, the state Attorney General’s Office has formed a public protection unit responsible for prosecution of hate and bias crimes, and Gov. John McKernan has signed a bill that forces police departments to enact policies to deal with hate crimes.
Statistics show that about 25 percent of the hate crimes reported to the Attorney General’s Office involve acts against gays and lesbians.
In Bangor, a gay bar was opened, but closed recently because of financial problems. Another one is slated to open soon.
But while some gays and lesbians gather openly at the bar, some still retreat to the isolation of Valley Avenue, where intermittent assaults are thought to occur but go unreported.
Saying no to the oppression
Jim Martin was in high school in Turkey and preparing to move to Bangor to attend the University of Maine when he first read about Howard’s death in USA Today.
Martin is gay and the article made him nervous. He did not know then that it was Howard’s death that would prompt him to reveal his sexuality and become an activist for gay rights.
“Charlie Howard’s death solidified some people’s commitment to the fact that we need to speak out against these incidents of bigotry and homophobia,” Martin said.
His decision to “come out of the closet” was made while attending a Charlie Howard memorial service about six years ago. The minister of the Unitarian church recalled his friendship with Howard and how he had spoken to him two weeks before his death.
Howard was a flamboyant gay man who never attempted to hide his homosexuality.
“The minister had asked Howard why he couldn’t tone things down just a bit. Charlie said, `I can’t participate in my own oppression.’ That struck me and something inside of me clicked,” Martin said. “I realized that every time I switched my pronouns when I talked of someone in my life or went back to work on Monday and made up stories about what I had done during the weekend, I was taking part in the oppression.”
Martin decided to educate people about bigotry and hatred, and today is the president of the local chapter of Equal Protection Maine, a group that works toward teaching people about understanding and diversity.
On some levels life has improved for gay men and lesbians since Howard’s death, but as the gay community becomes more visible, the ramifications increase.
Martin claims that one lesbian woman was raped as she left The Rage, the gay bar that recently shut down in Bangor. Another was attacked while she walked along the street. Neither woman would report the assaults for fear of the publicity.
Martin himself has received death threats on his answering machine, and his family worries about him because of his public stance.
He can’t forgive what Baines, Mabry and Ness did on the State Street Bridge that night, but he believes the human spirit is capable of changing and “that they can recognize that what they have done is wrong.”
He commended Baines for his decision to share his experience with others in an attempt to prevent a similar occurrence.
“We can’t just blame those three individuals that actually committed the crime,” he said. “How much did society contribute to the ideas of those young men that it is all right to kill someone because of who they are?”
So the struggle continues for many gays and lesbians, but there is strength in numbers and the community is getting more powerful — socially and politically.
“On the surface people think things are getting better, but I have access to some horror stories,” Martin said. Every time they (a gay or lesbian victim) keep silent, these guys think they can get away with it and will do it again.”
Martin continues his fight and his family continues to worry. His mother called him the other day and reiterated her concern. She warned him of “crazy radicals” who may try to harm him because of his position in the gay community.
“I suppose that’s possible, but nothing is going to change if people are allowed to keep us silent,” he remarked. “If their intimidation keeps the gay community quiet, then they win.”