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Who Killed Brian Boothe?

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A year later, a family presses NYPD on East Village gay man’s murder

Just as they did last year, Brian Boothe’s family—his sister Donna Kukura, his brothers Jimmy and Shawn, their partners and children, and their mother Kay—came together last Thursday for Christmas dinner on Long Island.

This year the family gathering was at their mother’s home in Patchogue. In 2002, as they assembled at Donna’s home in Shirley, Brian, a 35-year-old gay man living in Manhattan whom his sister described as a devoted son, brother, and uncle, failed to arrive when due at 2 p.m. Accustomed to having her brother, whom she called “Mr. Punctuality,” arrive early for quality time alone with her two daughters, Donna “started panicking.” Just over four hours later, her husband Joe and her brother Jimmy found Brian stabbed to death, his naked body wrapped in a blanket on the floor of his bedroom, in his Stuyvesant Town apartment on East 14th St.

Brian’s murder has not been solved.

“My brother Jimmy didn’t want to do anything for Christmas, but for the kids we said we really had to do something,” Donna said about Christmas dinner in Patchogue. “At 6:15, the time when Joe and Jimmy got to the apartment last year, we did a moment of silence. Even the kids were crying. It was really sad. It just wasn’t Christmas without Brian.”

Each of the family members is grieving in their own way. Donna, who has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and spent the year prior to Brian’s death doing grief counseling with family members of 9-11 victims, has not been back to work and with the support of the Long Island chapter of Parents of Murdered Children is insistently pressing the New York Police Department to move more aggressively on the case.

One year later, Donna is frustrated and angry.

“I do believe that if it were me that was murdered that the investigation would have gone ten times faster because I’m a married woman with children,” she said. “I really feel like if you are gay in this country and you get murdered, you have no friggin’ rights.”

Donna’s frustrations are more specific than the mere passage of time. In several hours of conversations during the past week, she stated her belief that the search for her brother’s murderer was hampered by the NYPD’s failure to classify Brian’s death as a homicide until March 12—more than two and a half months after the crime—by the police failure to pursue avenues of inquiry on which she has ended up taking the lead, and by an indifference among detectives that she described as “homophobic.”

Basil Lucas, coordinator of hate crimes and police relations at the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (AVP), who has overseen that group’s work on the Boothe case, substantiated the thrust of Donna’s concerns.

Neither detectives at Manhattan’s 13th precinct nor department spokespeople in the office of the deputy commissioner for public information were willing to speak on the record, and none would even address Donna’s concerns specifically off the record beyond saying the that investigation is ongoing.

The family’s concerns about the police investigation surfaced as early as the day after Brian’s murder. NYPD detectives asked family members, including spouses, to gather at Jimmy’s home the evening after Christmas, where they were separated and questioned individually. By that time, television news was buzzing with the story, which several stations, citing “police sources,” reported as a suicide.

“I was totally ripped because it was not a suicide,” Donna said, recalling of the family’s first meeting with detectives. “[The TV news reports] kept saying it was ‘police sources said,’ and I said, ‘Who said that?’”

Donna said police assured her they were merely following the standard procedure of ruling out all possibilities in turn. Still, it is difficult to understand how the suicide story ever got started.

Donna’s husband Joe said Brian’s body was on the floor of his bedroom with his head facing the door and that there was no indication that he had been anywhere other than the bedroom after sustaining his fatal injury. The death certificate indicated that Brian had one stab wound in his neck with accompanying injuries of his trachea, esophagus, and right lung. Police told Joe and Jimmy on the night the body was discovered that the murder weapon, a kitchen knife, had been found in one of several bags of gifts Brian had arranged on his living room couch.

The talk of suicide had special resonance for Brian’s family—his older brother Tommy, estranged from the family at his wife’s insistence since the birth of their child in 1989, had killed himself just three months before. Over the years, Donna had made unsuccessful efforts to reach out to Tommy, but after learning that he and his wife had divorced, was never again able to track him down. Given her work with 9-11 survivors, the news hit Donna particularly hard.

“Needless to say, I was devastated to learn that my own brother committed suicide and here I was treating all these other people for depression,” she said.

But Donna said media speculation that Tommy’s suicide led Brian to take his own life was misplaced.

“Brian was particularly concerned about my mother and how she was taking it, how she would get through the holidays,” she recalled.

Fearful that news that Brian had killed himself would stifle any witnesses who might have seen him in the early hours of Christmas Day, the family looked forward to the final report from the medical examiner’s office which they were confident would rule the death a homicide. According to Donna, that finding was not forthcoming until mid-March.

The family says they never got an explanation of why the homicide ruling took so long, but Donna noted that after repeated calls to the medical examiner’s office, she finally received a message from Dr. Christopher Happy, who signed the death certificate, saying, “Your problem is not with me, it’s with the police department.” Donna interpreted that to mean that the medical examiner’s work was completely earlier, but not released by the NYPD.

Happy did not return a call seeking comment, and police officials would not comment.

Lucas at AVP called the delay “very strange.”

According to Donna, the lack of a homicide finding precluded the family from widely circulating reward posters, since newspapers and television stations that circulate such information require sign-off by the NYPD. Donna’s efforts to place an ad marking the anniversary of Brian’s death with the New York Post and to get a mention on Channel 5 News unsolved crimes segment were similarly stymied by police failure to approve the information she was providing those media outlets, she said. This past Saturday, December 27, more than a week after she initially sought that approval, Donna phoned 13th Precinct Detective Dan Danaher in the presence of a reporter and was told the matter was being taken up at the highest levels of the NYPD but would not be resolved until New Year’s.

Lucas said that in his experience police sometimes downplay a homicide finding in order to keep their investigation under wraps and not tip off suspects. In fact, in the months before the homicide finding was released, police asked Donna to tell AVP nothing more than that Brian had been found dead in his apartment on Christmas Day.

Brian’s family was not given access to his Stuyvesant Town apartment until April, and what they found there fueled their growing concerns about the investigation. A blood-stained laundry bag and a business card from someone nobody knew sitting near the block of knives where the murderer found his weapon were among the things that confronted Donna, her brothers, and her husband. Police explained that they already had sufficient blood evidence and that the blood on the bag was probably just Brian’s.

The business card reinforced a nagging concern Donna had that the police had not yet followed up on Brian’s phone records, and she made the decision at that point to seek copies of his cell phone and land line accounts to check for any acquaintances unknown to his family and friends.

The police investigation, however, had uncovered a good profile of how Brian spent Christmas Eve, 2002, his last night alive. Credit card purchases, ATM withdrawals, and interviews with witnesses indicated that after a late afternoon purchase of cashmere sweaters for Donna’s two daughters, Brian spent the evening at three East Village bars—the Phoenix, the establishment then known as Wonder Bar, and finally the Cock, where he was seen leaving alone about 1 a.m.

Donna is convinced that if Brian met up with someone after that, it was not a stranger, an opinion shared by Tom Gestal and Fran Spinelli, both of whom became friendly with him on Long Island back in the 80s. Gestal has lived in Fort Lauderdale in recent years, but as an employee of Continental Airlines he often travels to New York and used to stay at Brian’s apartment every few weeks. The two often went out to bars together, and Gestal said he could not recall his friend ever taking someone home who he had just met. Spinelli, who had frequently vacationed with Brian—including a cross-country car trip and excursions to Florida, Maine, and Provincetown, said he was “ a very level headed guy… not the sort of person who would pick someone up.”

Asked whether she was confident that gay friends of Brian’s such as Gestal were giving her the full story, Donna said yes. She also recalled that one summer in the late 80s when Brian was a bartender in Cherry Grove, she used to take the ferry with him to Fire Island for the day.

“He shared that part of his life with me,” Donna said. “I was very comfortable in all the settings he was in.”

She noted that Brian’s autopsy determined he had a blood alcohol level of about .05, well below the legal driving limit, and that no drugs were found in his system. Gestal agreed that Brian “absolutely” did not take drugs.

After the murder, Gestal traveled to New York three times to pursue a possibility that haunted him. Several weeks before Brian death, the two men were out at The Monster and met a Latino man who introduced himself as Marcos. The man rubbed Gestal the wrong way, but Brian chatted amiably with him for a while before he and Marcos left the club to get a quick bite to eat. Gestal said Brian later casually said that Marcos was a nice guy, but gave no indication of any ongoing contact between the two men. Coordinating with 13th Precinct detectives, Gestal visited bars around town in the hopes of running into Marcos again.

Gestal said he and Brian typically spoke every other day at least, and expressed doubts that his friend might have dated somebody that he had never mentioned. In fact, however, the business card Donna found on Brian’s kitchen counter and his phone records turned up two men that neither Gestal nor Brian’s family knew. Brian had called both men several times in the week before his death, each of them after 3 a.m. on one occasion. Donna said police contacted both men in the late spring at her insistence, but that neither was considered a suspect. Gay City News spoke to one of the men, who said he met Brian in a bar and traded e–mails and phone calls, but never saw him again. The other man did not return a call seeking comment.

Donna said that beyond the police inertia, she has also been concerned about what she sees as an implicitly anti-gay tenor in some of the comments coming out of the 13th Precinct. She recalled one instance in which Danaher, responding to her exasperation, said, “We don’t know what happened in this homosexual crime,” he said. “Sometimes its people they know. There is a different culture in these clubs. People picking people up. You don’t know what goes on in these clubs.”

Lucas confirmed that despite years of sensitivity training AVP has done with new police recruits, he often runs across troubling attitudes at the precinct level in the NYPD—including some comments he termed “highly insulting.” In the Boothe case, he said, he had some constructive conversations early on with the hate crimes task force, before the decision was made not to pursue a bias inquiry, but that he often felt that detectives at the 13th Precinct were “stonewalling” him.

Despite her frustration and anger, Donna was buoyed by news this past weekend that the Manhattan district attorney’s office was joining the case effective January 1. She had several times asked Danaher why the DA was not involved, and he had responded that prosecutors enter a case when police request their assistance. Donna said the detective sounded frustrated himself when he broke the news to her last Saturday, and said to his knowledge it was not the result of an NYPD request.

Sherry Hunter, a spokesperson for District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, confirmed that Maxine Rosenthal, an assistant district attorney, has responsibility for the case, but could not comment about the significance of her office’s involvement.

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There is a $12,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest and a conviction in this case. Calls, which are kept confidential, can be made to Detective Danaher at 212 477 7444, to 800 577 TIPS, or to AVP at 212 714 1141.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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