(This article was originally published on February 18, 2014. It has been updated for events that have occurred between its original publication date and 18 February 2018.)
This is my dear friend,David Self. I met him on a warm autumn evening in 1980 while hanging out with a group of friends at the gazebo in Burnett Woods, Cincinnati, Ohio’s notorious gay cruising park. He came up the hill from Clifton Avenue driving a 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme convertible, top down, stereo blasting the Gang of Four’s “Entertainment!” and looking so sophisticated and cool wearing a skin tight white t-shirt and 501s, I couldn’t believe he was getting out to join our group. Everyone seemed to know him, and as I watched he exchanged niceties, and immediately became the center of attention. I had never encountered anyone who exuded confidence the way he did and I was mesmerized: by the way he spoke without ever moving his lower jaw, the cavalier way he pulled out a joint and began smoking it right out in public, and the way he would roll his enormous blue eyes at the mention of anything he disapproved.
Eventually he came up to me standing off to the side of the group clinging shyly to a book, introduced himself and asked what I was reading. I remember it was “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius because at the time I was rereading all of the foundations of Western Philosophy ,trying to make sense of any of what I was going through since I had come out three years before. He warned me with a flat, droll tone in his voice not to take up Stoicism until I had been an Epicurean for at least a few years, then I laughed, nervously but hard at his joke so he knew I had understood, and he too began to laugh. That is how our friendship began.
We were, in many ways, opposites: he had gone to an East coast boarding school, I to a small town public school: he was listed in “The Blue Book” social register, I wasn’t even listed in the phone book: he was a staunch Republican and I was beginning to develop Socialist ideals. We were, in many ways, just alike: artists, music lovers, intellectually insatiable, and true romantics. Some days we spent together doing nothing but sitting around reading; each of us with a different book; only speaking when we stopped to have a pot of coffee; then back to reading. Other days could be spent frenetically exploring antique shops, thrift stores, malls, even Spring Grove Cemetery. For my eighteenth birthday he bought me an ounce of pot. Telling me he was tired of me not being able to roll a joint when he was driving, we went to Spring Grove and sat in his family’s section on his plot while he had me roll the entire ounce; ripping up any that weren’t perfect; smoking one then rolling more until we had a Zip-Loc bag full of perfect white cylinders.
One night, very early in our relationship, after a night of bar hopping we ended up in bed together but when we tried to have sex we just started laughing, which we did until we fell asleep in one another’s arms. He was like a brother to me. I truly adored him and looked up to him as I had no one before, nor after.
On February 18, 1985 I got home from my classes at the University of Cincinnati around 5:30pm, the phone ringing as I came in the door. It was my mother. She asked if I had spoken with David that day. I responded “no” but I would be calling him later because he was coming to dinner the next evening. There was a pause then she said that she had heard on the radio that there had been a murder in his apartment building. They had given the address but not the name or sex of the victim. Assuring her it couldn’t be him, I told her I would give him a call, hung up, called him and got his answering machine. I called her back, letting her know that I had gotten the answering machine, and insisted there was no way that it would still be on if he had been murdered, but I would keep trying to get ahold of him. At 6:10pm she called back, saying that my Grandmother had seen a newscast identifying David as the victim, then the world fell out from under me. I’ve never really recovered and I don’t think I ever will.
I was able to go back to school after a week. The first class of my day was a history class. A friend I’ll call Jeff was in the same class. When he saw me he said he had heard about what had happened. By this time the suspect had been identified as Robert “Bulldog” VanHook. Jeff then told me VanHook had robbed him in Burnett Woods the previous October. I asked if he had reported it then, and with an incredulous look he said “I’m an Education major, I can’t have my name associated with Burnett Woods!”
I was twenty-one and David was twenty-five when he was murdered. He was strangled then brutally mutilated by Robert Vanhook, who had spent his formative years learning how to work then intimidate gay men for money, but David shocked Vanhook by fighting back. Vanhook would unsuccessfully attempt the “Gay Panic” defence, but his criminal history undeniably disavowed any such frailty.
I am now more than twice as old as David was and not a day goes by that I don’t think of him, miss him, mourn him, and although ten years ago all of this came back to haunt all that had survived this senseless act when Robert Vanhook’s conviction was overturned because the police in Florida, where he was apprehended, continued to interrogate him by lying to him that his mother had asked him to confess causing him to do just that. He was retried and convicted with his execution date set for July 201: more than 33 years after David, this beautiful, brilliant, loving son, brother, uncle, friend and so much more was deemed by Vanhook to be dispensable for a chance to get a car, some cash, and a really nice, fashionable coat. After all of that, I understand how people want a swift trial and execution, but I just cannot condone the state sanctioned taking of a life.
I go to Spring Grove Cemetery a few times every year and visit David on the hilltop where he had taught me to roll a joint, coming by the Dexter Mausoleum, a small scale replica of a Gothic cathedral that David had written a short story about a suave vampire (unmistakably based on himself) that lived in it, and I still can feel his presence.
(Dexter Mausoleum, Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo:Troy Lynch)
I have always wondered “What if Jeff had reported his robbery? Would David still be alive?” Making things worse: Jeff never became an educator, he never even finished college; he’s a waiter in a gay restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. There are those who contend that it’s nobody’s business if someone wants to remain closeted but my personal history makes me believe differently.