Official Misstatements about Ryan Skipper’s Murder Have Been Propagated in the Media

One of the saddest aspects about the aftermath of Ryan Skipper’s murder is that no one outside his friends and family seems to care about the heinous manner in which he was killed.

“I want to identify with the people that I serve. I want them to identify with me. And I want to be blatantly honest with them. I don’t intentionally say anything that will impugn anyone other than a real criminal, and then I’m not too concerned about that.”
— Sheriff Grady Judd, March 18, 2007

Neither the governor nor the attorney general in Florida — both of whom are Republicans — has expressed concern about the fact that Skipper’s murder has been labeled a hate crime. National gay organizations have been largely mute, and coverage in the local and national gay press has been very slim, especially considering the brutality of his murder.

Sheriff’s Assertions Were Based on Killers’ Statements

It is likely that the lack of outrage stems from a series of misstatements to the media at the outset of the investigation that have been attributed to Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and others in his office. On the face of it, the motivation for making these statements appears to be bigotry toward gay people.

On Friday, March 16, two days after Skipper’s body was discovered, the local newspaper, The Ledger, reported:

Skipper, 25, was driving around Eloise late Tuesday night looking to pick up someone when he met [his all edged killer, Joseph] Bearden, whom he took back to his home in Winter Haven, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

The next day, the paper ran a quote from Sheriff Judd that sounded like it could have been the basis of the earlier reporting:

“What we do know is that Ryan was out looking to pick up someone that evening,” Judd said.

Elsewhere, the full quote has been given as:

“What we do know is that Ryan was looking for someone to pick up that evening. And unfortunately for Ryan, he picked up the wrong person.” [Emphasis added.]

In fact — and as we have said in other coverage of this story — Sheriff Judd did not “know” this. It was immediately obvious to my colleague Trish, who reported the story here on March 18, that, since the victim was dead and could not speak for himself, the only source for this information had to have been the alleged killers.

But the slander against Ryan Skipper did not stop there. In its coverage on March 17, The Ledger published the trawling-for-sex allegation as well as three additional completely unsubstantiated statements:

[1] Skipper was driving around Wahneta on Tuesday night when he found [murder suspect Joe] Bearden walking along Sixth Street in Eloise about 11 p.m. Tuesday, and offered him a ride. [2] The two went back to Skipper’s house, where they [3] smoked marijuana and [4] discussed using Skipper’s [laptop] computer to copy checks, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Three weeks later all four of these statements are in dispute:

  • No one who knew Ryan Skipper believes he had a propensity for trawling for anonymous sex.
  • The other alleged murderers, William Brown, was an acquaintance of Skipper’s. We have seen a statement from one of Ryan’s roommates that Ryan got a call after he got home from work at 10:30 that night, which appeared to have prompted him to go back out. It seems more likely that Brown phoned Ryan and asked for help in the form of giving him ride somewhere, and that the call was part of premeditated ambush plot by Brown and Bearden against Ryan.
  • No evidence has been produced that Ryan was involved with these chuckleheads in a check forgery scheme — and no one who knew him believes he would do anything of the sort.
  • Ryan’s roommate has said that after Ryan received the phone call, he left and never came back. She denies that he brought anyone home with him that night.
  • Ryan’s friends and family all confirm that he had a desktop computer but did not own a laptop. And yet, early reports stated that Brown and Bearden were charged with stealing a laptop from Ryan after they murdered him..
  • No one who knew him believes Ryan smoked pot.

Even if all these assertions were true, it was highly unprofessional for the Polk County sheriff and his spokespersons to make these statements without first trying to verify them. (Did they even contact Ryan’s roommates to check the alleged killers’ story that they were at his house?) The fact that most of the statements appear to be false would make this a serious matter in any jurisdiction where the rights of victims, even dead ones, are important.

Smears Propagated in the Press

The real problem is that all these dubious assertions were picked up in the coverage of the crime in the mainstream media — and even in the national gay press. While most gay news sites either simply stated the facts or expressed doubt about the events as they were described, one of the best known gay news sites — Queerty — piled on:

According to friends, Ryan Keith Skipper, 25, went cruising Wahneta, Florida, for some quick and easy sex when he came across 21-year old Joseph Bearden … Testing his luck, Skipper offered Bearden a ride, which Bearden accepted. Skipper then took him to his house, where they smoked a bit of ganj and, according to police reports, chatted about using Skipper’s computer expertise to copy checks.

Skipper and Bearden then apparently took Skipper’s laptop and headed off to meet Bearden’s friend, 20-year old William David Brown Jr… From what police gather, Bearden and Brown, nestled in Skipper’s car, then stabbed Skipper 20 times before tossing his body on the side of the road.

After Ryan’s friends objected to Queerty’s depiction of events, the site acknowledged their grief but refused to apologize:

[Ryan’s friend Summer:] …You have now bashed someone who was murdered for no reason.

[Queerty:] Rest assured, Summer, that was not our intent. We simply report the news as we find it. We’re sure Skipper would be pleased to know that you’re keeping his good name alive. We must say, however, that we find nothing wrong with cruising for sex and, thus, cannot agree that we assassinated anyone’s character. Regardless, we’re sorry for your loss. It’s always upsetting when people are murdered – especially when it’s a senseless a crime as the one that took Skipper. We’ll be sure to keep our virtual eyes on any and all developments in this convoluted and multi-faceted story.

Sheriff Judd Said He Would Never Impugn a Victim

In an interview in the conservative-leaning Orlando Sentinel that was published four days after Skipper’s murder — but which does not reference it at all — Sheriff Judd, who is serving the third year of his first term, was asked about his style of leadership and his tenure in office:

Q: How do your Christian beliefs affect you personally and the tone you set for the county as sheriff?

Judd: God is No. 1 in my life. And I make no big decisions for this organization without first praying about it….

Q: You are known for being exceptionally candid to the media and the public. Have you ever said something that you later read in the newspaper or watched on TV and wished you hadn’t?

Judd: Oh, absolutely. … I am quick-witted by nature. And sometimes I say things that I wish that I hadn’t said later on. But quite frankly, I’m a real person every day. I’m not a figure that sits in an office and has just a formal picture in the newspaper. The people I’m talking to on television and in newspapers are real people. I speak like we’re having a candid conversation with each other. I want to identify with the people that I serve. I want them to identify with me. And I want to be blatantly honest with them. I don’t intentionally say anything that will impugn anyone other than a real criminal, and then I’m not too concerned about that.

The Real Hate Crime

We have yet to learn the real story of what happened to Ryan Skipper late in the evening of March 13. What we know so far contradicts the original depiction of the crime as a random pick-up of “rough trade” that went horribly wrong.

It appears more likely that it was a premeditated trap set for an unarmed man who happened to own a late model car. However, the fact that he was stabbed 20 times says unequivocally that this was not a “normal” robbery-homicide, that his killing came from a strong emotional impulse that we can safely assume was hatred.

When the sheriff and his investigators learned that Ryan Skipper was gay, they reflexively and instinctively believed the worst about him. They compounded their prejudice by announcing in the local press assertions tainted by their bigotry. The local media published these apparently false allegations without questioning them or leaving room for doubt.

As a result, false facts have become ingrained in the story of the murder of Ryan Skipper, and these falsehoods seem to have mitigated public outrage that is otherwise wholly justified. The impugning of Ryan’s character in the national media has compounded the hate crime here.

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