A digital photograph of Travis McLain and his friend Christina Mulligan taken on St. Patrick’s Day depicts two happy, smiling faces.
But hours after the photograph was taken, McLain was lying unconscious and bleeding on a parking garage floor and Mulligan had sustained a fractured wrist.
The two say their injuries occurred because McLain was the victim of a hate crime, perpetrated because he is gay.
But they say an even bigger injury was inflicted after the crime, when Savannah police refused to investigate it.
“They said there was too much St. Patrick’s traffic and they didn’t have time to deal with it,” McLain says. “They weren’t interested in pursuing it.”
McLain, Mulligan and another friend, Robbie Smolko, had entered the Liberty Street Parking Garage on Saturday, March 18 about 1:30 a.m. to use the restrooms. While Mulligan was in the ladies room, a man entered the garage.
“I was standing outside the front bathroom of the parking garage, waiting for Christina to come out,” McLain says. “The guy saw me and came to me and started calling me a faggot.”
McLain says he tried to avoid the man, but was attacked anyway.
“He started kicking me and beating me. He hit me on both sides of the face. He hit me several times,” McLain says.
“I was pretty out of it. I didn’t know much about it until I left the hospital and was able to talk to Christina,” he says.
McLain’s injuries landed him in a local hospital, where he had several tests, including a CAT scan and x-rays.
“I had four broken teeth and a concussion,” he says. “I was kicked and hit in many places.”
Because the man called McLain a “faggot” before hitting him, McLain believes the attack was a hate crime.
“I think he thought I fit a stereotype that fits a gay person,” McLain says.
“He didn’t beat me up because I have pink hair. He beat me up because he thought I was gay.”
Mulligan exited the bathroom in time to see the first blow land and McLain fall to the floor, so she tried to pull the man off McLain. The attacker then began kicking and striking McLain in the back of the head.
Mulligan relates, “I came out and saw him getting hit. Everything happened so fast. I just know I jumped on him and we fought each other. Another friend tried to rip the attacker off me. He stopped fighting me when he realized I was a woman,” she says.
“I hurt my wrist from reaching up to hit him. Also, I dug my nails in his neck.The cop was agitated that I was crying,” Mulligan says.
“I was upset. I was scared.”
Smolko also was struck when the attacker elbowed him in the face, but was not injured. Finally, the man ran to the elevator. Smolko called 911 and handed the phone to Mulligan, who told the dispatcher about the attack.
The police arrived within minutes, but McLain was unable to give them much information because of his condition. The garage’s parking attendant began helping Mulligan and Smolko look for the attacker by shutting the gates so the parking garage could be searched before the attacker had a chance to exit.
However, McLain and Mulligan say a search was never conducted and the man was allowed to escape. McLain says he requested medical help because he was in extreme pain, but the police left the scene before an ambulance had arrived.
(See sidebar to read our interview with Savannah Police Chief Willie Lovett in response to the incident.)
After the parking gates were reopened, Mulligan saw the suspect leaving in a black Chevy low-rider pickup truck and pointed him out to police. She was told nothing could be done because the vehicle was already leaving the garage.
Then, McLain says, the officers also left. McLain was examined at the scene by MedStar emergency medical technicians, who found his blood pressure was extremely high. They gave him an IV.
McLain has not yet filed a formal complaint with the police department, but says he will. He continues to seek medical and dental treatment for his injuries.
“I’m in a lot of pain. Everything I eat has to be soft. I can’t eat or drink anything that is cold. I have headaches. The concussion is still causing me to have double vision,” McLain says.
“They did ask if I would prosecute and I said yes. We gave the officer a full description of the attacker. They should never be too busy to pursue someone,” he says.
“The officer was more concerned with the St. Patrick’s Day traffic than with someone who has ben beaten,” McLain says.
“I plan to file a complaint with internal affairs. The police didn’t do their job. He didn’t pursue the attacker. He acted as if he didn’t care.”
McLain said his attacker stood about 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighed approximately 180 pounds.
“He was wearing a blue, white and yellow polo shirt,” McLain says.
The incident report that was filed after the attack has factual errors, McLain says.
“They said I was 5 feet 6 inches tall and 140 pounds with dark skin and brown eyes,” he says. “I’m 5 feet 10 inches tall and weigh 123 pounds. My skin is not dark, and my eyes are green.”
The report also describes the incident as a fight.
“This was one-sided,” McLain says. “A fight is between two people.”
The beating of McLain comes on the heels of two other local incidents this month that many local observers say are clearly hate crimes -- though local police have sometimes had a different interpretation.
On March 5, five soldiers from Fort Stewart’s 3rd Infantry Division were arrested after they beat a bisexual man outside Blaine’s Back Door Bar, a gay bar. Police said David Bennett was punched, kicked and stomped during the attack.
After the soldiers were arrested, at least one bragged to police about the beating, going so far as to call the victim a “motherf****** faggot.”
However, police declined to press charges against the soldiers after finding out that Bennett had stolen one soldier’s wallet.
Further investigation revealed that Bennett was wanted on warrants from Florida, Virginia and South Carolina.
Despite the soldiers’ inflammatory language as quoted in the incident report, police determined that the attack occurred because the wallet had been stolen, not because of Bennett’s sexual orientation.
Bennett himself declined to press charges.
One week later on March 12, three 3rd ID soldiers from Fort Stewart, who are white, were arrested after a fight with two African-American men. One of the soldiers has been charged with aggravated assault because he allegedly stabbed one of the men.
That fight broke out at the corner of Bay and Whitaker streets after one of the soldiers allegedly used racial slurs, including the “n” word, because the two black men were with a white woman.
One of the black men confronted the soldier, who used the slur again, and all five men began fighting.
One of the black men was stabbed in the back. The other was treated for a dislocated shoulder.
Chuck Bowen is the executive director of Georgia Equality, an Atlanta-based, statewide advocacy group for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. The group held a press conference in Savannah in response to all three incidents that have occurred in Savannah during the month of March.
“Over the past year and a half, we have shifted our focus from lobbying to becoming more involved locally,” Bowen says. “In order for change to happen, we must address the local level first.
“Three individual cases in as many weeks have involved hate crimes and hate speech we feel the Savannah police department did not adequately address,” he says.
“The police allowed the attacker to go free and refused to investigate. An openly gay man was brutally assaulted for no other reason than that he is gay.”
Bowen said police excused the soldiers’ actions in the second incident because they had just returned from Iraq, and also because they were intoxicated.
“The police department completely downgraded the seriousness of the nature of the attack,” Bowen says. “There is no excuse for that attitude.”
Bowen also took local media to task, especially the Savannah Morning News.
“The Savannah Morning News recently issued an editorial in which it said it opposed the state hate crime legislation,” Bowen says. “That is very sad.”
Bowen also noted that an article in the Savannah Morning News detailed arrests made for indecent exposure and public urination that occurred during the St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
“The police had time to make those arrests, but didn’t have time to look for this attacker,” he says.
“The Savannah Police Department sent a clear message -- don’t expose your breasts or urinate in public or you’ll be arrested and hauled off to jail and the keys will be thrown away,” Bowen says. “But beat someone near death because they are different from you, and they’ll give you the keys to the city.”
Bowen says the officer who left McLain unconscious and bleeding should be fired, while the officer’s supervisor should be disciplined.
“We call on the chief to implement diversity training on hate crimes,”
Bowen says. “The media have the obligation to tell the real stories. Ask yourselves if this would have happened if it was a woman who had been attacked.”
A state hate crime law should be enacted, Bowen says. However, the State Senate has refused to consider a recommendation by the Senate Judiciary committee to adopt such legislation.
“Georgia is one of the few states that doesn’t have a hate crime law,” Bowen says.
Bowen says McLain is “courageous and brave.”
“A lot of times, victims of hate crimes are afraid,” Bowen says. “He felt he needed to step up.”
Kevin Clark, who is a member of the Georgia Equality board of directors, heads the Savannah chapter of the group.
“Those of us in the gay community are all really fed up with this. I want to commend the courage this man has,” Clark says of McLain. “It has taken a tremendous amount of courage to come forward.”
Clark says incidents such as the attack on McLain are not rare in Savannah. “It has got to stop,” he says. “This happens frequently.”
If something isn’t done, the impact could affect all of Savannah, not just the GLBT community, Clark says.
“We have a huge gay population here,” he says. “The organized community is not that large, but we are working on it. This needs to be dealt with severely and harshly.”
Clark is co-owner of Under the Rainbow, a local bed-and-breakfast catering to the gay community.
“As a gay business owner, I fear if it continues, that it will hurt tourism, specifically gay tourism,” he says. “That will have an effect on all tourism, which is our number-two industry. We rely on it heavily. This needs to be taken seriously.”
Clark says he served on Mayor Otis Johnson’s crime task force. He has harsh words for the Savannah police department.
“We have the most inept, dysfunctional, ineffectual police department in the entire state of Georgia,” Clark says.
“There’s always an excuse and I’m very sick and tired of it. They’re understaffed, morale is in the toilet, they are disorganized and dysfunctional.”
Lovett responds to charges
It was a tough week for Interim Police Chief Willie Lovett. Journalists throughout the state are calling him for interviews about allegations the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department is not pursuing perpetrators of hate crimes.
Even though the heat is on, Lovett isn’t saying much about the allegations-- for now. He has ordered an internal investigation into the matter, however, and says he can’t really speak about the incident “until we get all the information and all the facts are in.”
“This internal affairs investigation is being done at my request to find out if the officer neglected any part of his duty,” Lovett says.
Further investigation also is ongoing to try to find the man who attacked McLain, even though thus far McLain has not filed a formal complaint against the officers, Lovett says.
Reports over the weekend indicated that security cameras in the parking garage may be enough of a lead to identify suspects.
Even though the initial report stated the incident was a fight, that may not be the case, Lovett says. “I don’t really know what happened, but what I’m hearing is it was an assault,” he says.
Even though the initial incident report termed the incident a fight, that does not mean it will not be taken seriously, Lovett says. “Depending on the amount of injuries received by the victim, a fight can be a felony,” he said.
Lovett declined to say if the case would have been handled differently if it had occurred at any time other than St. Patrick’s Day weekend. However, he did say the officers involved were not assigned to patrol the festival events.
“They were nor part of that detail stationed in the festival area,” Lovett said. “They were doing what they do every day. For them, this had nothing to do with St. Patrick’s Day.”
Savannah police officers already are given diversity training, Lovett says. “Every year, our officers are required to do this as part of their training,” he said. “They learn that you don’t profile people.”
Lt. Mike Wilkins, a public information officer for the department, confirmed that officers receive diversity training. “Every year, we are required to do three days of training,” he says. “We have had and will continue to have diversity and sensitivity training as part of it.” w