The shock gunning down of New York City councillor James Davis last week spurred a series of press reports and rumours about both the murdered man and his assailant.
It quickly emerged Davis’ killer Othniel Askew was an HIV positive gay man who had, on the day of the shooting, phoned the FBI with allegations that Davis was blackmailing him with threats to out him.
Davis accompanied his assailant into City Hall allowing Askew to bypass metal detectors that would have picked up his compact MK 40 pistol.
On the way into the council chambers Davis introduced Askew to a fellow councillor as a former opponent who was now with us.
Minutes later both Askew and Davis were dead. Askew had emptied his pistol shooting Davis five times as they stood on the council chamber’s balcony. A duty police officer responded quickly, shooting Askew down as he stood over Davis’ body.
Davis, 41, an ordained minister and former police officer was a popular first term councillor representing several districts of Brooklyn. The black politician was an advocate for minorities and a campaigner for gun control.
Alan Van Capelle, the executive director of New York gay rights group Empire Pride Agenda said last week that Davis was a great friend to the gay community.
He was a sponsor of the Equal Benefits Bill and the Transgendered Rights Bill, Van Capelle told 365Gay.com. He also supported several AIDS projects in Brooklyn.
But the Village Voice pointed out Davis’s record was not perfect on gay issues. He had refused to answer an Empire Pride questionnaire during his election campaign and he had gone ahead with an official trip to Zimbabwe despite its dictator’s homophobic policies.
Many commentators have dismissed the blackmail and outing allegations. But the Voice’sÂ Richard Goldstein concludes that Davis was a very ambitious master pol and was quite possibly not above outing an opponent.
The picture to emerge of Askew is no more clear-cut.
Photographer Victor Carnuccio, who met Askew in 1992 just after the young man had graduated from college, told the StarÂ that at the time Askew had aspirations to be a model and never mentioned politics.
He was a sweet guy and we would go out to bars together and everyone would look at him when we entered, it was all new and he was enjoying the attention, Carnuccio said.
There was a peculiar edge sometimes -¦ one time we were crossing the road and we were nearly run over and he was very shaken and he took it as deliberate, a racial thing -¦ he took things very personally, Carnuccio said.
It seems that in recent years Askew had become much more conflicted about his sexuality.
He didn’t want to be gay, one close friend told the Voice.Â For years, he talked about, -˜I’m leaving this. I’m going to meet a woman and have a child.
Although at times he claimed to be Jewish, Askew had grown up in a strict Jehovah’s Witness family. According to friends many of his problems with his sexuality stemmed from this religious upbringing.
Some friends have said his violent turn surprised them while others had witnessed his violent side before.
Askew had a sealed court conviction for assaulting a former lover with a hammer and another former boyfriend had taken out a restraining order against him.
Former lover Randy Fandrich told the Daily NewsÂ that Askew stalked, harassed, and threatened him, and that he was so afraid he had taken out a restraining order against Askew.
Eighty-five percent of the time he was the nicest, gentlest person – and then these other times, you could see it in his eyes that he was going to snap, Fandrich told the Daily News.
Askew had originally launched a campaign to secure the Democratic nomination to run against Davis in the next election but had withdrawn at the last minute.
A spokesperson for the FBI told the New York TimesÂ that Askew had rung to complain about Davis on the morning of the shooting.
Askew alleged that he was the victim of harassment by Councilman Davis in connection with the upcoming primary election. He expressed no intention to cause harm to Councilman Davis, the spokesperson told the Times.
Other press reports have included claims that Davis was threatening to out Askew as gay and as the subject of a domestic violence prosecution. He also claimed that the councillor had offered him a no-show job and a $45,000 payment not to run.
Davis’s staff have told a different story – that it was Askew who had approached Davis for a job and that the councillor was seeking to mentor the younger man.
Fandrich, the former lover who talked to the Daily NewsÂ said he believed the killer was capable of concocting a twisted fantasy about Davis and then exacting revenge.
The reporting of the case has not gone unremarked by gay activists. A number have criticised the media for sensationalist reporting of Askew’s sexuality.
The New York Post ran with the headline: HIV Assassin, claiming, HIV and failure fuelled his rage. The Daily NewsÂ ran a single frame from a TV shot of Askew with the header: Wide Eyes of a Killer.
There’s a great difference between being homosexual and being violent, Richard Haymes, executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, told New York’s Newsday. Hayme said while Askew’s history as a violent domestic partner was relevant his homosexuality was not.
Other gay commentators have responded to the accusations that Davis was threatening to out Askew.
Gary English, executive director of People Of Color In Crisis, an advocacy group for gay black men, told NewsdayÂ Davis was a vigorous supporter of that community.
He worked with us and was extremely helpful, English said adding that the councillor’s help had been instrumental to the success of several recent gay-pride events.
NewsdayÂ also reported that one of the first messages posted at the impromptu memorial outside the dead councillor’s office read Brother James Davis, thank you for all the love, support and kindness you openly showed the gay community.
Davis apparently had a politician’s charm. He had by all accounts worked hard to neutralise Askew’s campaign but whether this was by threats or charm or both is still unclear.
As Richard Goldstein concluded in this week’s perceptive cover story for the Village VoiceÂ a lot about this case remains unclear and many have allowed stereotyping to fill in the gaps.
All we have are clues too easily assembled into the portrait of a martyred hero and a homicidal homosexual, Goldstein concluded.