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The life and death of 'JR' Warren

A small town becomes battleground over hate

Sunday, July 16, 2000

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

GRANT TOWN, W.Va. -- In a gravelly spot a few hundred feet from the sign declaring this mountain town a "Growing, Progressive Community," the midday sun wilts flowers left beside small crosses.

  Arthur Warren's gravesite is visited by his friend, Richard Ravenscroft. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

This is the place Arthur "JR" Warren Jr. was dumped from a car, run over several times, and left dead on an Independence Day morning.

"We Love You JR," is scratched into a small, white cross. Arthur and Brenda Warren passed it this week on their way to nearby Fairmont for the first court hearing for the two 17-year-old boys accused of killing their son.

Warren was black, gay and, by all accounts, a profoundly lonely young man who walked the streets at all hours, striking up conversations, seeking friends, and living out the unobtrusive life that befalls many in this coal-poor town where the busiest spot on main street is a soda machine, and empty storefronts testify to a once-prosperous place gone desolate.

Larry Merico, the former police chief here, isn't sure whether to be angrier about the killing or the outpouring of affection that followed.

"Nobody had a kind word for JR until he was dead," Merico growls. "People used to point him out. They'd say, 'There goes that black faggot son-of-a-bitch. He better never hurt one of my kids.'"

Nobody knows for certain that JR Warren ever touched a kid in Grant Town. What they do know, after leaks finally found their way through a wall of silence erected by prosecutors and a county judge, is that, in the small hours of July 4, David Parker and Jared Wilson, apparently enraged because they believed Warren had spoken of a sexual relationship with Parker, beat, kicked and stomped the 130-pound man to death.

Since then, Grant Town and surrounding Marion County have become an involuntary battleground in the national debate over hate crimes. Just weeks before Warren was killed, West Virginia's legislature failed to act on a bill that would have included sexual orientation in the state's hate crimes statutes. Had it passed, the bill would have taken effect three days before Warren's murder.

"He was friends with everybody," says Warren's father, Arthur. "You could have an argument with him one day and, if you came and said you were sorry it'd all be over, he'd be friends again."

Born premature, with a deformed hand and a learning disability, the 26-year-old Warren worked briefly at a local fast food shop, but spent most of his life unemployed, living in the family home in the flats along the Paw Paw Creek. Like many West Virginia towns populated by the descendants of coal miners, Grant Town is a place small enough for the races to socialize, but, by and large, white residents live on the hillside above the main street, and its black citizens are gathered along the creek near Paw Paw Street.

Race relations are cordial on the surface, says Arthur Warren Sr., but the distances are still visible.

"They get along seemingly well. It's all undercover," he says.

The elder Warren once worked the mines. He sent two children to college, but JR attended a special school in a nearby town, then returned to Grant Town and walked the streets in search of someone to talk with.

Accepted in the way town eccentrics are accepted, befriended but never honored, he was, in the words of one local, "kind of the Grant Town mascot."

Described as openly gay in news accounts, Warren's sexuality was something generally assumed.

  Mike Sodomick of Morgantown, W. Va., holds up his "angel wings" to screen off anti-gay demonstrators in Fairmont Wednesday. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

Unlike larger cities, where gay people often can be open among friends and still keep their private lives private among neighbors and co-workers, Grant Town is a place where personal business is hard to keep secret.

"People are either extremely closeted or 'out.' There's no gray area," said the Rev. Brenda Dunn, who once served as pastor of the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church in nearby Morgantown.

When Warren telephoned a friend eight years ago and told him he was gay and lonely, he was sent north, to Pittsburgh, to the Metropolitan Community Church in Shadyside. Dunn, who was pastor of the church by then, remembered him stopping in a few times, but Warren eventually returned to his post as an usher at the Mount Beulah Baptist Church in Grant Town.

"I said, 'JR, you need to get out of this little town. You need to get a vehicle and just get out of this place,'" says Richard Ravenscroft, a local musician who befriended Warren. But Warren, he said, just didn't want to leave his town.

For people like Toni Price, Warren's sexuality created some awkwardness.

"It was different," she said. "I don't think anybody had any hate or bad feelings for him. But it was different having him in town."

Price's oldest daughter was a friend of Warren's. Her youngest was a friend of Parker's. In a town where everybody knows everybody, JR Warren didn't see it coming.

Merico, who repairs lawn mowers in his retirement years, was on the main street the last day of June when he noticed Warren walking by. As usual, they greeted each other. Merico says, though, that he tried to warn the guileless young man to be careful.

"He said, 'Aw, nobody's going to bother me.' I told him, 'JR, I told you before, honey, you're going to have to watch,'" Merico says.

Sheriff Ron Watkins has no illusions that his domain is a peaceable kingdom. He still bears the scars of the day he got into a police car and was injured by a bomb meant for a fellow officer.

He is finishing his second term as Marion County Sheriff -- by law he cannot run for a third term -- and has spent the past two weeks in a precarious balancing act. On one hand, he has said he had no evidence that JR Warren's killing was a hate crime -- primarily because West Virginia's law doesn't cover it. On the other, he has had to keep an angry contingent of gay rights advocates at bay. During one visit to his office in Fairmont, according to David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, Watkins produced two members of Fairmont's gay community to assure them that he is not hostile.

In the middle of it all, Watkins is under orders, both by statute and from Judge Rodney Merrifield, not to reveal the names of juvenile suspects in crimes.

Watkins, a congenial man whose office walls include photos of Oliver North, the Iran-Contra figure, and Don Knotts, a Marion County native who played television deputy Barney Fife, has his own theories about the killing. He wonders if it has less to do with the fact that the killers lived in rural West Virginia than that the killers were 17-year-old boys.

"They knew he was black. That's a fact. They knew he was gay. They'd known each other for years and hung around with each other," Watkins says.

Watkins initially thought he had a hit-and-run death after a newspaper carrier found Warren's body. But a third boy, 15-year-old Jason Shoemaker, also had witnessed the beating. He was at the one-story, frame house along View Drive in Grant Town, helping to paint. The house is owned by Parker's father, Bill, a Grant Town water department employee. The family was planning to move in.

It was nighttime when JR, on one of his interminable walks -- he never drove -- saw the lights on. He stopped in to visit.

That, said Watkins, was when the beating erupted.

Shoemaker, after helping to clean up blood stains around the house and bury bloody clothing, told his mother. She called the police. They found Parker and Wilson at the Old Fashioned Fourth of July festival in nearby Fairview.

Police began searching for clues.

"Bedrooms usually tell what a boy is doing," Watkins said. They searched the rooms and found only the usual stuff -- clothes, a computer, athletic equipment.

Marion Countians flooded onto the street outside the courthouse to honor JR Warren, to hear his friends demand justice, to hear gay rights advocates insist that his sexual orientation had to have something to do with his killing. The tension between visiting investigators for the Human Rights Campaign and the sheriff's office was unmistakable.

Brenda and Arthur Warren didn't attend.

Their own recollections of how Grant Town treated their son didn't quite match the accounts of friends and acquaintances.

Several years ago, Brenda Warren said, her son was sitting in a car, listening to music, when a local boy went up to him from his blind side and punched him.

She said her son told police Chief William "Lug" Gower, but never heard anything more about the incident.

David Smith, an HRC investigator dispatched from Washington, said a friend of Warren's also told him about a beating that happened within the last year because Warren had supposedly told someone in town about a sexual relationship with a local man.

Several months ago, Brenda Warren said, her son said Gower had ordered him to stop wandering the streets at night.

"I told him, 'JR, you're an adult. They can't tell you you're not allowed on the streets,'" Brenda Warren said.

"He just liked to walk. He liked to move," said Arthur Warren.

Gower, who runs a two-member force and once was acquitted of trespass charges for entering the town's American Legion Hall by jiggling the door open to borrow a deep fryer, isn't talking.

"It's a juvenile matter and I have no comment," he says. The Warrens have told friends they are unhappy with the way Gower informed them. According to Smith of the HRC, Gower showed up asking Brenda Warren when her son left their house the night before.

It was only after asking, Smith said, that Gower told the Warrens their son had been found dead and that he had identified the body.

This week, as the role of Warren's sexual preference in his death became clearer, the respective sides prepared to do battle. Prosecutor Richard Bunner, a 71-year-old Korean war veteran who is in his last term as prosecutor, is preparing to ask the courts to try Parker and Wilson as adults. The Department of Justice has monitored the case and the Pittsburgh FBI office has been given a copy of the file.

Whether it means a federal hate crime can be found, however, is unclear.

"This is a bunch of lives turned upside down," said FBI agent Jeff Killeen. "And one absolutely snuffed out."

That reminder meets Arthur and Brenda Warren every time they leave Grant Town to do business in nearby Fairmont.

"I have to cross that bridge and go past that spot where my son's body was left," Arthur Warren says. "That's hard. That's hard."

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