Wednesday, June 27, 2018

"Hushing Up Murder"

hushing up murder

On this day, June 24th, 45 years ago a fire was set on the first floor staircase and quickly spread to the 2nd floor gay bar known as the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans. The bar served as a church on Sundays for the pro-gay protestant members of the Metropolitan Community Church, a denomination founded in Los Angeles, with bar/churches in other cities as well.
       When the buzzer went off at 7:56, the bartender sent a man to check if the taxi he was expecting had arrived. The man, Luther Boggs, was greeted with an inferno on the staircase, and returned to the bar to warn of the fire. The bartender quickly took some 20 of the patrons out the back way to the roof from which they escape by shifting to nearby rooves. But the rest of bar members were accidently locked inside with no way of exit.
     That evening 31 men and one woman died of fire and smoke inhalation. 15 others suffered severe and minor injuries. The church’s leader, Reverend Bill Larson, died while clinging to the bars of a window, his charred body visible to onlookers for hours. Among the others killed were ordinary workers (barbers, shipping clerks, computer programmers, musicians, salesmen), some with their lovers. One of the dead, Guy David Owen Anderson, was a researcher visiting from Illinois. The ages of the dead ran from 21 to a 59 year-old woman, Willie Inez Whatley Warren, whose 2 sons also died in the fire. 3 bodies remained unidentified. There is a complete listing of the dead and injured on Wikipedia.
        The most likely perpetrator of these deaths was a local hustler, Rodger Dale Nunez, who had been asked to leave the bar earlier in the day after assaulting one of the customers. He confessed to the crime at least 4 times in later months. But at the time, the police, who found him in a hospital with a broken jaw, could not interview him; when they later attempted to, a witness described him as entering the building between 10-20 minutes before the fire; but since the witness seemed to the police to be nervous, they suspected the witness of lying. Nunez was never charged, and in 1974 took his own life. In 1970 he had been committed to psychiatric care and diagnosed to have “conversion hysteria.” A year before the fire he had once again undergone treatment.  
       Most of the local newspapers said little about the horrible event or simply made light of it. Not a single government official even spoke of the fire. As Robert L. Camina, writer/director of a documentary about the fire (Upstairs Inferno) said in 2013, “I was shocked at the disproportionate reaction by the city government. The city declared days of mourning for victims of other mass tragedies in the city. It shocked me that despite the magnitude of the fire, it was largely ignored."
       In some instances family members, embarrassed by the fact that their sons or brothers were now recognized as being homosexual, did not even claim the bodies of the dead. Three, whose families did not even know of their deaths, were buried in a group plot in a local black graveyard.
    Many local churches refused to hold services for the dead. Finally, Reverend William P. Richardson of St. George's Episcopal Church agreed to hold a small prayer service for the victims on June 25. But he was later reprimanded by Iveson B. Noland, the Episcopal bishop of New Orleans and received complaints and hate mail from over 100 parishioners. Soon after, however, two memorial services were held on July 1 at a Unitarian church and St. Mark's United Methodist Church.
       Two other MCC church/bars, one in Nashville and the other the home church in Los Angeles had been previously burned down without resulting in deaths or injuries.
      The Louisiana state fire marshal, declaring that they had no leads in the fire, closed the case in 1980.

Los Angeles, June 24th, 2018

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