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Remembering Winkie, 30 Years Later

Winthrop Bean, a young gay man brutally murdered, should be counted among the LGBT honored dead

This month will mark the 30th anniversary of the day that a man named Alfred Desjardin, all of 25 at the time, took a plea for first-degree manslaughter in connection with the stabbing death of Winthrop Bean on May 19, 1983. It was a story little reported in the mainstream media, nor even in the LGBT media of the time. But in the area of the White River Valley of Vermont, it was the major news of the year because of the effect that Winkie had on all around him.

My own connection with this case came through my job at New York State Crime Victims Board. I was an investigator there, only four years on the job and only out at work for one year. A woman who volunteered at the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project named Linda Strohmeier acted as a conduit to the agency, and specifically to me, for Alta Varney, Winthrop’s mother, who filed a claim for funeral reimbursement. As it happened, Ms. Strohmeier was from the area and knew Winkie and his family. She told me of his ambitions for a career in the theater; it was why he was in New York City, living with friends on East 93rd Street. I knew that the location where his body was found was right near a gay bar called Chaps, long since gone now. All the police of the 19th Precinct in New York told me in an official capacity was that he was indeed an innocent victim and there was no reason not to grant $1,500 from the state to help Alta Varney to bury her son.

The case always nagged at me, and when I got a chance to speak on my experiences for a documentary on anti-gay violence, I decided to do some research on it.

Ten days after Winkie was killed, there was an arrest made of Alfred Desjardin, described as both a truckdriver and a junkie. As Jerry Orbach used to say on Law and Order, “I love it when they’re stupid”: Desjardin left a steak knife with his fingerprints next to Winkie’s body.

But it was Winkie’s story that really got to me. The Herald of Randolph, which was the newspaper that covered the area of Vermont where he was from, provided a lot of answers. By all accounts Winkie was a charismatic young man who had the great good fortune to grow up in a primarily loving and accepting atmosphere. He came from South Strafford, Vermont, population 1,024 at the last census—and that’s about a 25 percent growth than 1983. It’s a haven for artistic types of all kinds: sculptors, painters, and folks who make their living at the theater. That’s where Winkie at an early age developed a love for the theater. It was the passion of his life. While still in grade school he wrote plays, designed sets, and organized the other kids into theater groups. Later on in high school he worked at adult theater companies. Peter Williamson Smith told me that he remembered Winkie building out of whatever scrap material he could find a set for a local production of The Elephant Man of Westminster Abbey. Smith later wrote a beautiful obituary for Winkie for the Herald of Randolph.

For most people, Winkie being gay was simply not an issue. That in itself makes his story unique, as most of the gay men and lesbians I’ve become acquainted with from small towns couldn’t wait to get out of them to move to the big city, because of the prejudice against them. To be sure he heard the word “faggot” every so often, usually from other kids. But Therese Linehan, whose mother Kate was friends with Alta Varney and whose older brothers were Winkie’s contemporaries in school, said that those same kids who called him “faggot” would listen to him, as they were part of his theater projects. Winkie had to have an extraordinary charisma and leadership skills for that to happen.

Kate Linehan told me that Winkie was loved by just about everyone in the area, including the surrounding towns in the White River Valley. She remembers him always having a kind word for all, never failing to ask sincerely about people’s health and welfare. When he left to go to New York to become a set designer in the theater it was with the well wishes of one and all in the region. No exile to the big city for Winthrop Bean. He could have been the local high school jock hero who signs a major league baseball contract. A story about gay youth I had never heard before from a small town.

But on the night of May 19, 1982, after an evening of good food and drinks with some friends, Winthrop Bean decided to have a night cap at Chaps, which was on Third Avenue in the upper Eighties in Manhattan. Maybe feeling a bit liberated and not on his guard, he was easy prey for Desjardin, who was waiting outside the bar, no doubt looking for gay victims, who were not known to put up much struggle. Winkie was stabbed about eight times and left in a pool of his own blood to bleed out and die in a stairwell at 229 East 88th Street. His screams awakened residents, who called the police.

I grew up in Brooklyn myself, and in the big city you do learn street smarts. My own theory of the crime is that Winthrop Bean, because of the loving and nurturing atmosphere he was raised in, never developed them. Therese Linehan told me that Winkie believed in the best in everybody. It was beyond his grasp that people could want to harm him for any reason. He would not have been alone. Evil is a concept that a lot of people can’t comprehend.

A police tip led to Desjardin’s arrest, and the case was ready to be tried by the New York County District Attorney’s office. A source in the DA’s office told me that a key witness, whose tesimony could have linked the circumstantial and forensic cases, that had gone bad on them. After that, assistant district attorney Patrick Dugan had no choice but to make the best bargain he could. Desjardin copped to first-degree manslaughter and got eight and a third to 35 years for a brutal murder that to me had overtones of bias: the fact that Desjardin selected the area around Chaps as a hunting ground; the fact that Winkie was stabbed multiple times, which could only be the result of some primitive rage; and, most important for me, not only was the incriminating steak knife left behind with the killer’s fingerprints, but, though Desjardin said was a robbery, nothing was taken.

Dugan himself was saddened by this turn of events. In a letter to Alta Varney, he wrote that “during the course of our investigation…I have learned that Winthrop was a wonderful person whose loss to his family, friends, and society is irreplaceable.”

As for Desjardin, he got out after his minimum and went back to a life of crime. He was caught, pled guilty to a robbery, and got 12 additional years that started in 1994. Who knows where he is now?

The savagery of the crime is similar to a few other crimes motivated by homophobia, some that I had claims for in the course of my years at the Crime Victims Board. And to one that got national attention, that of Matthew Shepard. Kate Linehan says she has no doubts that homophobia was the motivating factor in Winkie’s death. There is another similarity: Both the mothers in each case became activists of sorts. Judy Shepard’s life as a spokesperson for hate crimes legislation is well known. Alta Varney chose a different route. A Winthrop Bean memorial scholarship was established shortly after Winkie’s death to give funds to students who want to go into the theater. That’s something that honored his passion, and something I believe he would have approved.

Winkie’s name should be on a list of LGBT honored dead, right up there with Matthew Shepard, Julio Rivera, James Zappalorti, Henry Marquez, and so many others. Time and circumstance have allowed his case to fade from consciousness in a way the others haven’t. Except in the White River Valley of Vermont, where people still talk of him as one of the most unforgettable individuals they ever came to know.

Bruce Kogan is an LGBT community activist who has worked with Stonewall Democrats of Western New York, Gay and Lesbian Youth Services, and OutSpoken for Equality, among other organizations.

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