WASHINGTON DC -- New developments in the case and jail house statements by the confessed killer of two lesbian activists in Oregon have raised the level of concern about the cause of the murders, which have been previously reported in the press as a "botched robbery."
In a letter to U.S. Attorney Janet Reno, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) executive director Melinda Paras cited recent statements made by Robert James Acremant, who has been apprehended and has confessed to killing Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill of Medford, Oregon. "Mr. Acremant's reported comments of this past weekend have increased the concerns" about the motives behind the murders, said Paras.
The Oregonian (12/17 and 12/18) and the San Francisco Examiner (12/17) have both reported lesbian-phobic statements made by Acremant while in custody. In press interviews, Acremant said the sexual orientation of victims had nothing to do with the murders, but then goes on to say that the fact they were lesbians "made it easier [to kill them] because I don't like them." He's also quoted as saying he did not feel any remorse for "these people."
The Examiner story made Acremant's disdain for lesbians even more explicit: "I don't care for lesbians. Bisexual women don't bother me a bit. I couldn't help but think that she's [Ellis] 54 years old and had been dating that women for 12 years; isn't that sick? That's someone's grandma for God's sake. Could you imagine my grandma a lesbian with another women? I couldn't believe that. It crossed my mind a couple of times -- lesbo grandma, what a thing, huh?"
The Oregonian (12/18) went on to report that Acremant said he asked Roxanne Ellis "out of curiosity" if she and Abdill were lesbians, a fact the article points out he may actually have already suspected. Apparently, the article says, Acremant had spent time looking over county records and had noted that the victims, who he knew lived together, were listed as co-owners of the property management firm. Ellis told Acremant they were a lesbian couple and that they were open about it. He is quoted as saying, "[i]t kind of made me sick to my stomach that she was someone's grandma," after which he burst into laughter.
"I'm writing to indicate our continuing concern regarding the investigation in the murders...especially in light of recent developments, and to again urge the Department to monitor the investigation by local law enforcement," said the letter to Reno. The Dec. 19 letter follows another letter to Reno sent the previous week asking the DOJ to "monitor the Medford situation and lend assistance if possible to local law enforcement to assure that all of the evidence and information is collected to determine whether or not this was a hate crime."
"The most recently reported statements by [Acremant] regarding his attitude toward lesbians, the fact that he knew the victims were lesbians and that their sexual orientation made it easier for him to kill them raises the level of concern about this being a hate crime" said Paras.
According to the FBI, the definition of a bias or hate crime is "[a] criminal offense committed against a person or property which is motivated, in whole or part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, ethnic/national origin group, or sexual orientation group" (Uniform Crime Reporting code, U.S. Department of Justice). "Mr. Acremant's reported comments...have increased the concerns about the possibility of these murders being a hate crime," said Paras.
The two women had received threats in the past, according to local police, based presumably on the visibility both women had as open lesbians active in ongoing fights in Oregon to counter anti-gay ballot measures. Medford is one of the local communities where a city-wide anti-gay initiative was passed. The previous threats have not been connected to Acremant.
"We may not know all the details of this case right now, but one thing we do know is that in communities that battle anti-gay initiatives, violence against lesbians and gays increases,'' said Scot Nakagawa, Oregon field director for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.
Statewide, two ballot measures to limit gay rights were defeated by Oregon voters last year. The latest won a majority in Jackson County, where the women were murdered.
In addition to monitoring the case, NGLTF has asked the DOJ to "establish an alert system of some kind within the Department in those states which are expected to have anti-gay/lesbian/bisexual ballot or legislative initiatives next year. We know from past experience that the heightened visibility given to those who would condemn gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender persons during such campaigns leads to an increase in hostility and violence against our communities. Hopefully we can work jointly to stop, or at least lessen, these incidents."
Newspaper articles also reported that the suspect's family said that Acremant was desperate for money and that he intended to rob, not kill, the victims, and that the murders took place after the robbery went wrong. But it has also been reported that money and credit cards were left behind at the murder scene, raising serious questions about the suspect's claim that robbery was the initial motive. Since then the killer has also stated he plans to sell his story of the murders to the "highest bidder."
"The local gay, lesbian and bisexual community in Medford...and elsewhere believe there are still many unanswered questions," said the letter to Reno. "In any event, of course, the issue is not just what the suspect's initial motive was, but whether his motive in killing the women had to do with the fact they were lesbians."
Speakers at a service of "remembrance and celebration" for Ellis and Abdill called for an end to hatred. The service brought more than 300 mourners to the sanctuary of the Medford Congregational Church.
Republican Mayor Jerry Lausmann declared Medford a "hate-free city" and got a standing ovation. Lorri Ellis, daughter of one of the murdered women, was the only family member to speak, and through tears said, "This is everybody's worst nightmare. We have to stick together."
Many of the speakers were gay men and lesbians for whom the murdered women had been role models - not just for them but for any people living with difference.
Mark MacDougall, a gay, HIV positive resident of Medford, brought everyone in the room to tears. MacDougall and his partner, who has AIDS, have no family in the Medford area.
"We always said, 'Roxanne and Michelle will take care of us.' That's the kind of people they were. I don't really believe in God," he said. "I believe in things I can see and touch. But I believe in angels because I've seen them and touched them. They were Roxanne and Michelle."