On February 19, 1999, Billy Jack Gaither went to The Tavern, a Sylacauga, Alabama nightclub, where he had been friends with the owner, Marion Hammond, for twenty years. Gaither was a regular there, if he wasn’t at the Tool Box in Birmingham forty miles away. Hammond remembered that he was nonchalant about his sexuality. ” If they walked over to Billy Jack and they say, ‘Are you gay?’ he’d say, ‘Yes, and I love it.’ You couldn’t hurt his feelings on it, so we wasn’t worried about it.”
Another regular, Steve Mullins, 25, also started to hang out at the Tavern. His presence wasn’t so benign. He sometimes showed up wearing racist t-shirts and harassing African-American customers. He was known locally as a wannabe tough-acting skinhead. “He tried to walk around like a bully, but he wasn’t,” Hammond said. “He was mostly talk.” His buddy, a construction worker named Charles Butler, Jr., was quieter.
Gaither had a reputation for getting along with pretty much everyone, so nobody’s eyebrows were raised when Gaither left The Tavern that night with Mullins and Butler. The three drove to a remote area where Mullins and Butler beat Gaither, stuffed him into the trunk, and went for supplies: kerosene, matches, an axe handle and old tires form Mullins’s home. They then drove to the banks of Peckerwood Creek in neighboring Coosa County. They poured kerosene on the tires and set them ablaze. Then they pulled Gaither out of the trunk of his car. He tried to stand up and they beat him with the ax handle, cut his throat, and threw him onto the pile of burning tires. They moved Gaither’s car to another dirt road and set it on fire. It was found the next day.
After spending a night in jail for an unrelated offense, Butler went to police to tell them about the murder, saying God told him to confess. Butler claimed the gay panic defense, telling the police, “Well, sir, he started talking, you know, queer stuff, you know, and I just didn’t want no part of it.” Mullins also confessed, with the two blaming each other for taking the lead in the killing, but neither expressing remorse. In June, Mullins pled guilty to capital murder to avoid the death penalty and agreed to testify against Butler, who was also found guilty. he victim’s father, Marion Gaither, had asked that Mr. Butler not be sentenced to death, saying, “I can’t see taking another human beings life, no matter what.” Both men were sentenced to life with out parole.
Marion Hammond a resident of Sylacauga described the affect Gaither’s death had on both herself and her small town:
Well, I think the loss of Billy Jack has opened a lot of people’s eyes. Any town you live in, there is a gay person here, there, and yonder. And they didn’t realize it. It’s like there was no gays nowhere but in the big cities. They’re everywhere. They’re all over this country. And until then, I don’t think it was ever realized that they were in a small town.
I have two sons. It’s opened my eyes that one day they might have been gay. They’re 20 and 18, so I don’t believe they are. But if they was, I could live with it, when one day I might cried for three hours or more.
I remember thinking whenever they was so little, “Please, never be gay.” But now it’s like a part of nature. . . . He taught me that it just happens. It’s nothing you do. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the way you are.
For the past 20 years there has been an annual vigil to celebrate Billy Jack Gaither’s life, mourn his death, and remember all the victims of hate & violence on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol.