How the murder of Nicholas West changed LGBT activism in Texas
Tammye Nash | Managing Editor
Dianne Hardy-Garcia was in her first month as executive director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas in November 1993. She was excited about her new job and determined to make a difference for Texas’ LGBT community.
“We had all these ideas of what we wanted to push for, the big one being nondiscrimination,” she recalled this week from her home in California.
Then she got a call from Wesley Beard. And everything changed.
Beard, a young man who ran an antiques auction business in Tyler, was calling to ask for Hardy-Garcia’s help. His friend, Nicholas West, had been brutally murdered.
And no one seemed to care.
“Nicholas’ murder definitely put us [LGRL] on a different path,” Hardy-Garcia said. “That was the beginning of a major focus for LGRL — hate crimes — for years to come.”
It was a Tuesday evening, the last day in November 1993, when 23-year-old Nicholas West drove his red Nissan pickup truck to Bergfield Park, near the center of Tyler, an East Texas town with, at the time, a population of almost 80,000. The park was where gay men in town went to meet other gay men, and friends said at the time that West, the adopted son of a part-time church music director and former Baptist missionary, went there often.
Donald Aldrich, 29, and his friends Henry Dunn, 19, and David McMillan, 17, went to the park often, too. But they didn’t go looking to meet a friend; they went looking for victims.
Aldrich, on probation for two separate felony convictions — one for burglary and the other for robbery — the night that he, Dunn and McMillan kidnapped West from Bergfield Park, drove him to a clay pit outside of town and tortured him before shooting him to death. It was Aldrich who lured West in by pretending to be gay, but all three of the assailants participated in hitting and kicking West once they reached the clay pit, and all three participated in pistol-whipping him and forcing him to take off his clothes, leaving him wearing only the underwear he had soiled out of fear.
Both Aldrich and Dunn shot West numerous times as he lay, face down and nearly naked, on the muddy grown. They shot him in the hand, severing one finger almost completely. They shot him in the arms and in places along his torso and in the abdomen where they could cause extremely painful but not deadly wounds.
It was Dunn that eventually delivered the fatal wound, shooting West in the back of the head.
The three assailants left him lying dead on the ground, taking his truck with them when they left. West’s body lay there for two days, until two dirt-bikers riding around the clay pit found him and notified authorities. Aldrich, Dunn and McMillan were arrested the next day after an informant told authorities the three were bragging about having killed someone. On Dec. 3, Dunn confessed to the crime, with investigators getting the confession on videotape.
Aldrich also confessed, apparently expecting investigators to go easy on him and his friends since all they had done was kill a faggot. In fact, Aldrich explained to officers that he hated faggots because he had been raped by a gay cousin when he was 9.
All three killers were eventually convicted. McMillan, who apparently had not taken part in the shooting, was convicted of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery and sentenced to life in prison. He remains incarcerated at the Texas Department of Corrections’ Terrell Unit in Rosharon, Texas.
Henry Dunn was convicted of capital murder in August 1995 and sentenced to death. The 5th Circuit of Appeals in May 1994 stayed Dunn’s execution, just one day before he was to be put to death, to hear an appeal based on claims that Dunn’s attorney at trial was inexperienced and incompetent. After the court rejected that appeal, though, the execution was rescheduled, and Dunn was put to death via lethal injection at the Walls Unit in Huntsville on Feb. 6, 2003.
Aldrich was the first of the three to go to trial. He was also convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. In an interview with Dallas Voice — conducted on death row at TDC’s Polunksy Unit, outside Huntsville, in July 1995 — Aldrich claimed he was actually bisexual and that he sometimes had sex with his gang’s victims before the others showed up to take their money and vehicles.
He was executed by lethal injection on Oct. 12, 2004, in Huntsville.
Hardy-Garcia remembers the days and weeks following the call from Beard asking for help as being a big wake-up call for her.
“We were just reacting at the time,” she said. “There were so many things I was just so shocked about. And there were so many parts of this murder that really affected me, personally, and the community in general. This was the beginning of an awakening for many people to the real painfulness of hate crimes.”
Yes, there had been high-profile hate crimes before. Just two years prior, on July 4, 1991, a 27-year-old Houston banker named Paul Broussard was leaving a bar in Houston’s Montrose area when he was attacked by a group of teens from a wealthy Houston suburb that had gone to the gayborhood specifically to beat up gays. They beat Broussard with nail-studded two-by-four boards and stabbed him twice with a pocketknife; he died several hours later. In the wake of his murder, then-Gov. Ann Richards called the Texas Legislature into a special session, and lawmakers approved a hate crimes statistics measure as an amendment to a crime bill.
But there was something different about Nicholas West’s murder, Hardy-Garcia said. “There was just something about him being such a young man from a small town, relatively isolated [and closeted]. There was just something so many of us could identify with,” she said. “So many of us had been there, where he was, and had migrated to the big cities — Dallas or Austin or Houston, wherever we could go to feel safer.
“But the part that was really painful was the indifference of our government to his murder,” Hardy-Garcia continued. “I couldn’t get one public official from [the East Texas area] to issue a statement about it. Not one. And from a public policy position, that was just appalling.”
Working together, Hardy-Garcia and Beard put together a rally to both remember West and focus attention on the horror of his death and of hate crimes in general. They held the rally on Jan. 14, 1994, in Bergfield Park — the same park from which West had been kidnapped by his killers. Estimates of the crowd attending ranged from about 800 to as many as 2,000, as LGBT people and their allies from around the state converged on Tyler.
“People came from all over, they could identify with Nicholas, with the isolation of being gay and in a small town,” she said. “That solidified our resolve that we had to do something about hate-related violence, not just to bring attention to it, but to address it in terms of public policy.”
There were, Hardy-Garcia noted, only two state legislators who attended the rally that day, “only two that I could get to show up. And I called everyone — and I do mean everyone.”
Those two were state Rep. Glen Maxey, the former LGRL executive director who had become Texas’ first openly-LGBT legislator in 1991 when he was appointed to an unexpired term by Ann Richards, and Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston. It turned out to be the beginning of a very important friendship between LGRL’s Hardy-Garcia and Ellis.
Although West’s murder was the beginning of efforts to get a comprehensive hate crimes bill passed in Texas, it turned out to be a long, long road. “You’d think,” Hardy-Garcia said, “that in a ‘tough on crime’ state like Texas, it would be a slam dunk. But it took us 10 years. Nicholas’ murder was a tipping point for us here in Texas, but nationally, the tipping point was five years later, in 1998, with the murders of James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shephard.”
Byrd was a black man dragged to death in June 1998 by a trio of white supremacist ex-cons in the Deep East Texas town of Jasper. Shephard was the gay college student kidnapped, robbed, beaten and left tied to a fence to die in Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998.
“James Byrd was definitely not the first black man to be lynched in East Texas. But with his murder, the public was really awakened to the horror of hate crimes,”
Hardy-Garcia said, and it was Byrd’s murder that finally, in 2001 got the Texas Legislature to pass a hate crimes bill. And it was the relationship between Hardy-Garcia and Sen. Ellis, started at the rally for Nicholas West, that helped ensure LGBT people were included in that measure.
“That bond I had with Sen. Ellis and, later, [state Rep.] Senfronia Thompson, was really significant,” Hardy-Garcia said. “We had built a very powerful bond through them with the African-American community [and later with the family of James Byrd]. That was essential. Without that, the hate crimes act would not have passed.”
In each session of the legislature following West’s murder, a hate crimes bill that included LGBT people was introduced. And each time, until 2001, it failed. Hardy-Garcia and other proponents kept fighting, but she admits now there were times she came close to quitting.
“In 1999, there was this moment, when the hate crimes bill was failing — again — and the Senate filibustered for us for eight hours in protest as the bill was going down, to try and keep it alive. I was devastated. I mean, Nicholas’ murder had been a wake-up call for us, but there had been 30 murders after that. Thirty! And still we couldn’t get the bill passed!
“I had worked very intensely with the Byrd family, and I was sitting with the family when the bill was voted down again that year. It was just so very painful,” she said.
“After the vote, I was walking down the hall, just defeated, and I saw a couple of [long-time lobbyists] walking toward me [one of them] said to me, ‘Girl, why are you hanging your head? Here you are, a brown gay woman leading this effort, and you shut down the Senate for eight hours. Do you think this would have happened 20 years ago? Be proud of what you’ve accomplished, and then keep fighting!”
A life changed
For Beard, the weeks, months and years after West’s murder were, truly, life-changing. He went from a 21-year-old antiques dealer trying to handle the fallout from his own coming out to a nationally-recognized activist working for passage of hate crimes legislation. And the work took its toll on him.
Beard sat through every trial, listening to Aldrich and Dunn and McMillan talk about how his friend was tortured and killed. He was there outside the walls of the prison when first Dunn and then Aldrich were executed. He never forgot, and he wasn’t going to let others forget either.
“When I was vocal, there was a target on me,” Beard said. “I got death threats. KKK stickers were put on my business. People were going to my lake house and taking my furniture out and throwing it in the lake,” he recalled. “When the police finally showed up, they just looked at me and said, ‘Well, what do you expect with all the shit you’ve stirred up?’”
Even members of his own family reacted with anger and violence. When he announced that he would be appearing on the national Phil Donahue Show to talk about West’s murder and his own activism, a member of his family beat him up so badly that he was bleeding from his ears, he said.
Beard put himself on the line, personally and professionally, risking his own safety and the future of his business. When the Houston chapter of PFLAG named him as the first recipient of the PFLAG Human Rights Award, presenting him with a check for $2,500, that money was “crucial to my survival and to the survival of my business. Still, I chose not to live in the shadows. I tried to be there to give strength and support to the ones who couldn’t do that.”
But Beard persevered, and he succeeded. “I’ve been blessed,” he said this week. “I’ve built a successful business. Recently, I was able to give the same amount that PFLAG gave me [back to the community]. I have friends and family around me. Even [the family member who beat him] has come around. We are good now.”
Still, he said, as the 25th anniversary of his friend’s murder approaches, he still feels the weight of the hatred that took West’s life, especially with an administration in power in Washington, D.C., that seems to use hate and bigotry as a weapon.
“The 25th anniversary of Nick’s murder has rehashed it all,” Beard said. “I’d like to think we are further along than we actually are. I’d like to be able to say things are great. But we just aren’t there. We have a commander-in-chief, a president, who promised to include us, but then turned around and put the target square on our backs.
“We made so much progress. We thought we were safe. But the hate was still there, it was just in the shadows. Now it’s coming back out into the light again.”
And yet, progress
The LGBT community is still fighting for equality and to be safe from violence and discrimination. And, Beard said, he is still fighting, too, even though not as publicly now.
“People have asked me through the years, why don’t you move some place more accepting, but this is my home. This is where I need to be,” he said. “Sometimes, my phone rings at 2 or 3 in the morning, and it’s some mom or dad, somebody who remembers from one of those old articles in the newspaper. They have a son or a daughter who has come out as gay, and needs help, who’s maybe suicidal or depressed. They don’t feel comfortable going to their clergy for help, so they come to me.
“It happened recently, in fact, and I got up and put on my clothes and went to their house at 2 in the morning to try to help,” he added. “It’s so sad to think that still happens. But I am still here, too. I will still be a voice. I will still get up at 2 in the morning and get dressed and go to somebody’s house if they call. I will still stand up against injustice.”
And now, Hardy-Garcia said, the community doesn’t stand alone.
“The Texas hate crimes bill finally passed in 2001. The first time it was introduced, [state Rep.] Steve Wolens from Dallas introduced it and he was the only sponsor. Nobody stood with him,” she recalled. “But in 2001, when Senfronia Thompson filed the hate crimes bill, it was a packed chamber. We sat and wept as we watched people filing in, one after the other, to sign on as co-sponsors. Then Rick Perry signed it — Rick Perry! That’s progress. That’s change, and it is irreversible. We are visible now. We are not silent any more. We have solid relationships. These kinds of murders might still happen, but there’s no way we’d be standing alone like we were when Nicholas was killed.
“That’s the real difference between then and now. Now, we are not alone. So many of us have relationships with our parents. So many of us have children. We are out,” Hardy-Garcia said. “It doesn’t mean bad things aren’t still happening. It doesn’t mean we won’t lose some battles. But we are not isolated any more. We are not alone.”
Tyler Area Gays will hold a memorial service marking the 25th anniversary of the murder of Nicholas West on Friday, Nov. 30, at 6 p.m. in at the memorial to West in Bergfield Park, 1510 S. College Ave. in Tyler.