Local Publisher Regrets Not Covering Hate Crime Murder of Ryan Skipper

Just ran across this item in the Daily City and had to pass it along. In an interview about the 15th anniversary of the founding of Watermark, a gay news source serving Tampa Bay and other Florida metro areas, publisher Tom Dyer acknowledged missing an important story in his market and to the nation:

In the final analysis, Ryan Skipper was assaulted twice — first, fatally by his homophobic killers and then in the media by the homophobic sheriff of Polk County.

[Daily City]: In 15 years of publishing Watermark, what has been your biggest regret?

Tom Dyer: We should have jumped on the Ryan Skipper story immediately. This young Polk County man’s murder just a few years ago was every bit as gruesome as Matthew Shepard’s, and every bit as telling about the persistence of violent homophobia in our area. There was almost no coverage in the mainstream press, and I let that influence my judgment. Big mistake, and I still regret it.

The fact that there was no coverage in the mainstream media about Ryan’s death in March 2007 is directly attributable to egregious malpractice by the top law enforcement official involved in the case, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

At his first news conference about the case, four days or so after the murder and hours after the arrests of Joe Bearden and William Brown, a couple of young meth heads with criminal records, Judd presented the media with a tick-tock of events around the murder that was based entirely on accounts given to investigators by Bearden and Brown.

According to Judd, Ryan — a clean-cut, 25-year-old student — was out looking for rough trade that night and picked up Bearden in what was purported to be a known cruising area in the rural community of Wahneta. He then took Bearden home where, interestingly, they did not have sex but instead smoked pot and schemed to forge checks using Ryan’s computer.

That mistaken profiling of a gay victim would be bad enough, but the clincher came in Judd’s own take on what happened:

“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.”

In other words, Ryan was asking to be murdered and got what he deserved.

Even if if had been true that Ryan was “looking for someone to pick up,” and it was not, and even if anyone had asked Judd to pass judgment on this behavior, which no one had, what a heartlessly improper pronouncement to make given the fact that Ryan’s family and friends — Judd’s own neighbors and constituents — were still raw with grief.

Aside from expressing an opinion based on faulty assumptions, there were two big problems with what Judd told the media. First, he didn’t mention that his source was the murderers themselves and, second, what the meth heads had told investigators was laced with self-serving lies.

Is anyone, especially the sheriff of a county under siege from meth addiction, really that naive?

The part of the story about cruising and check forgery was patently false, and Judd’s office later clarified that he hadn’t meant to imply that Ryan conspired to forge checks or that Ryan had done anything illegal. For a brief moment, Ryan’s family was given reason to believe Judd would apologize for suggesting Ryan deserved to be killed, but that never happened.

The events around the murder were covered in the documentary “Accessory to Murder: Our Culture’s Complicity in the Death of Ryan Skipper,” and on TruTV in February during the trial of Joseph Bearden. (Bearden was found guilty. His co-defendant, William Brown, will be tried this fall.)

But the story of Judd’s bungling has not been fully aired. Nor has the failure of the reporters in the room that night to ask him the foundational question, “Who was your source for this version of events?” It should have been obvious. Ryan was dead. The only other “witnesses” to the key events were the murderers themselves. But no one in the room asked that question and the story with its multiple layers of homophobia went out on the AP and elsewhere as Judd relayed it: A gay guy went looking for trouble and found what he was looking for. End of story.

Interestingly, a day or two before the murderers were apprehended, in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel (during which the murder of Ryan Skipper did not come up), Judd said this:

“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.” [Emphasis added.]

It went without saying, apparently, that Judd meant he wouldn’t impugn a victim unless he happened to be gay.

What other evidence is there that Grady Judd is homophobic? In the Sentinel interview, Judd was also asked about the influence of Christianity in his professional life:

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.

It’s hard to believe that statement, too. Did Grady Judd pray before he went before the media and played “smear the queer” in his description of Ryan’s last hours on earth? Or did he deliberately cast aspersions about Ryan in order to prevent him from becoming a hate-crime martyr like Matthew Shepard?

In the age of C Street and the Family, and with his militaristic bent, blindness to his own hypocrisy and his apparently virulent homophobia, Grady Judd has all the markings of an up-and-comer in the Christian nationalist wing of Republican politics.

Let’s hope that Tom Dyer, Watermark and other media in the region will keep an eye on him, and that no responsible reporter will ever take Grady Judd at his word again.

In the final analysis, Ryan Skipper was assaulted twice — first, fatally by his homophobic killers and then in the media by the homophobic sheriff of Polk County. Bearden has been held accountable, and it’s a dead cinch Brown will be too. But Grady Judd has not been forced to take responsibility for his role in assaulting Ryan’s memory. Unless and until the media holds him responsible for his actions, it’s likely he never will be.

5 Comments

  • Pat Mulder
    August 3, 2009 - 6:52 pm | Permalink

    I am Ryan Skipper’s mother and I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for standing up for Ryan. Your publication has been the only one to provide the truth about my son’s murder in the beginning and you continue. Again thank you.

    Pat Mulder

  • August 4, 2009 - 7:03 am | Permalink

    Pat –

    You, Lynn and Damien have shown us what grace under pressure and courage under fire look like. You have earned your status as icons in the movement to stop hate crimes.

    Thank you for the note and for all you and your family have done.

    – Jon

  • Pingback: Tampa Bay Gay Publisher Admits Neglecting Ryan Skipper’s Hate Crime Murder “A Big Mistake” « Unfinished Lives

  • Lillian
    August 4, 2009 - 10:48 pm | Permalink

    God bless you for telling the truth about my friend – you are one of the only media sources to actually do so.

  • kelly
    August 5, 2009 - 9:14 pm | Permalink

    thank you for being the one to to put this out their they all said it but didnt have the gutts to put it out their he was my friend and nothing that judd said was the truth he didnt even have the balls to correct him self thank you so much

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