REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. — Before Brian Meegan left for work on June 30, 2012, he updated his Facebook status, “Working [a] double today, ready for Super July Fourth Week.”
The double shift bartending at the L Bar was long, extending from afternoon happy hour to past close at 1 a.m. and there was a promotion that day. Representatives from a vodka company were on hand promoting new flavors and cocktails and Meegan joined in, downing shots throughout his shift.
Even though he had two previous arrests for driving under the influence, Meegan left work early in the morning and climbed into his 2003 Jeep Wrangler. He turned left onto Rehoboth Avenue, headed for Route 1 when he hit what he thought was a bicycle from a nearby bike shop. For a moment, he couldn’t see anything through the windshield but kept driving, finally pulling over in a CVS parking lot nearby. He got out and noticed a bike stuck in the wheel well and tried to pull it out when he was spotted by police.
Meegan had struck a fellow gay man and one of the L Bar’s patrons that night, Russell Henman, 44. The impact sent Henman onto the hood and windshield of the car. He was carried 400 feet before the Jeep struck a curb, sending Henman onto the road. He died at the scene.
Meegan’s blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit; he was charged with first-degree vehicular homicide and driving under the influence, pleaded guilty and sentenced to 15 years with a chance to reduce the sentence to eight-and-a-half years by completing a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in prison.
Nearly two years after that tragic night, Meegan is serving his time at the Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown, Del., and is one of the only openly gay men at the facility. He granted the Washington Blade his first interview to discuss the events of that night and what he hopes to do with his life during and after prison.
There are conflicting versions of exactly what happened at the L Bar that night and lingering concerns about the problem of drunk driving in Rehoboth and the safety of busy Route 1. Some of Henman’s friends remain angry that Meegan was allowed to drink alcohol while working; others are frustrated with Delaware officials for not making safety improvements to Route 1 in the wake of the crash.
Meegan touched on a wide array of topics during about two hours of interviews, conducted in prison with Meegan wearing a white Department of Correction jumpsuit and handcuffed to the cinderblock wall of a private office. He’d had no visitors in prison, until this interview.
“I wouldn’t want to be anyplace else,” Meegan said, “because I killed someone. It was one of the Ten Commandments I thought I could never commit.”
He continued, “This is someone I never knew, someone who had never done anything to me or anyone I know and I never met and I have no animosity for. There’s no way to ever take it back, to make it better; there’s nothing you could ever do. I remember watching TV afterwards and something was funny and I was laughing and I just felt horrible because that’s something he could never do again.”
Asked if he had anything to say to Henman’s family and friends, Meegan replied, “I really hope this article doesn’t hurt them. I don’t want to hurt them more than I already have. There is nothing to say. I hate the fact that it doesn’t change how people drink and drive. It doesn’t stop us. … To his family I should just be dead. I want to hide and for them to never remember who I am. I don’t think anyone wants to hear from me.”
To the gay community in Rehoboth, Meegan offers a piece of advice: “Get a designated driver and stick to it. The first thing to go is your judgment. If my story stops one person from drinking and driving, then it’s worth telling.”
Meegan said he didn’t know Henman and doesn’t remember seeing him in the bar that night. He also said he has no idea how much he drank that day, but that it was a lot.
“It was not unusual for bartenders to drink,” he said.
But John Meng, the L Bar’s co-owner, denied that Meegan was drinking during his shift.
“Brian was not drunk,” Meng told the Blade in an interview last year. “We have video of him at work. I don’t understand what the State Police said. He was not drinking while on his shift.”
Meegan disputes Meng’s assertions and said definitively, “I was drinking.”
Some of Henman’s friends questioned why Meegan was allowed to drink on the job, but there’s nothing in Delaware law that prohibits bartenders from consuming alcohol while working.
“There’s nothing that says they can’t,” said Robert Kracyla, deputy director of Delaware Alcohol & Tobacco Enforcement. He noted that legislation would not be required to make it illegal for bartenders to drink on the job. Such a rule could be enacted by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.
Kracyla said there was no fine or penalty assessed against the L Bar for what happened the night Henman was killed.
“We conducted a full investigation,” Kracyla said. “We were not able to move forward with enough to issue a violation on our end. We did a parallel investigation to the police but there was not enough forensic evidence.”
Delaware is not a dram shop state. Such laws allow for the criminal prosecution of a bar owner or anyone who provides alcohol to someone who causes injury or death as a result. Meegan was not interviewed as part of the investigation as he invoked his Miranda rights against self-incrimination, according to Kracyla.
One issue that remains unclear is whether the company promoting its vodka that night violated a rule about giving away alcohol for free. Meegan said representatives of the company gave him the vodka he consumed. Meegan identified the company as Absolut, but the Blade could not confirm that account.
“According to Alcohol Beverage Control rules you can’t give away alcohol, so if that was going on that would be a violation,” Kracyla said.
The L Bar, which catered to a gay clientele, has since closed and been replaced by a dance club that appeals to a mixed crowd. Meng and his business partner retain ownership of the building, though they are not operating the new club, called Dive.
‘He killed my best friend’
“Meegan had a DUI and came back to work unsupervised and was allowed to drink, that’s one thing I’m angry about,” said Barbara Kessler, 56, a close friend of Henman’s. “From a business point of view, the bar should have done something to intervene.”
Kessler and her husband, Steve, 59, live part-time in Rehoboth. They met Henman at a popular area Mexican restaurant, Dos Locos, listening to live music, and quickly became close friends, with Henman regularly staying at their home.
“He was the biggest-hearted guy in the world,” she said. “He loved his family and was utterly devoted to his mother.”
Henman had two brothers who have families of their own and he lived with his mother in Snow Hill, Md. “He used to always say, ‘I’m going to take care of my mom,’” Kessler added. Henman had always dreamed of owning a place in Rehoboth and just eight weeks before he died had purchased a trailer there, she said.
“He was loving life, this was going to be his summer, he had his own place to call home,” Kessler said. “It was so unfair it was snatched from him.”
Asked about Meegan’s sentence, Kessler said, “I feel bad for his situation but he killed my best friend. I don’t know what to think of that. I miss Russ every day. I feel for Brian’s family having a son who went to the dark side. I’ve forgiven him, it doesn’t bring Russ back to hate him.”
Her husband Steve echoed other friends who said they hope Meegan will find help while in prison.
“It’s a confounding thing that people can have so many DUIs and remain on the road,” he said. “To drag him and then drive away, we were distraught over that. I don’t know what’s fair but nothing brings Russ back. I hope he uses prison to turn his life around.”
Barbara Kessler said Henman’s mother has decided against pursuing a civil lawsuit against the L Bar. “She said ‘we’re not the type of people that sue, nothing can be gained from it,’” Kessler recalled.
Two previous arrests
Meegan moved to Rehoboth in May 2012 from Fort Lauderdale. He had never been to Rehoboth before but said he met some people from the area in Florida who encouraged him to visit. He was arrested six weeks before Henman was killed on a DUI charge in Rehoboth after he said he backed into another car in the L Bar parking lot.
“The other guy wanted a police report,” Meegan said. “He called the cops and they did sobriety tests and I got arrested for a DUI.”
In 2005, Meegan was arrested in New York on a DUI charge. He said he drove 20-30 miles out of his way on the Southern State Parkway in Long Island, headed in the opposite direction of his intended destination.
“That’s one of those moments when, as a drinker, you delude yourself,” he said. “You should say, ‘I’m an alcoholic’ and instead you say ‘Wow, I‘m a really great driver.’ It scared me then, but it didn’t last.”
He was sentenced to attend driving classes but received no jail time.
From privilege to addiction
Meegan, 39, grew up in Garden City, N.Y., a small town of 22,000 mostly white residents about 20 miles from Manhattan. A 2007 estimate put the median income for a family there at more than $160,000. It’s a wealthy enclave and a privileged place to grow up.
“One thing about rich white suburban kids is that we drink,” Meegan said. “Drinking was fun especially if you feel awkward.”
After high school, Meegan pursued a degree in marine sciences at the University of Miami but dropped out in 1994 after just one year. He said he wanted to come out to his father but feared being cut off financially as a result. His mother discovered he’s gay in high school, but Meegan said they kept it from his father. He dropped out and became independent so his father wouldn’t have financial control over his life.
“My Dad didn’t want me to go through the struggles associated with being gay,” Meegan said. “He was afraid of me getting HIV and he still doesn’t know I’m positive.”
The pressure of fitting in and feeling “awkward” is something Meegan said he experienced again later in life when he came out as gay.
“Going into the gay community is like going through adolescence again,” he said. “So you feel like a 13-year-old awkward kid again and now you’re legally able to drink and it helps.”
Looking back, Meegan now says that dropping out of school was one of the biggest mistakes he made. After leaving school and coming out to his father he spent some time in Miami working as a bartender, then moved to New York City. That period began a spiral of destructive behavior, including drug abuse, prostitution and stripping that spun out of control. There were years spent following the gay party scene — Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Aspen in the winters and Fire Island and Provincetown in the summers.
He also found work as a model, which ironically led to more problems with his self-esteem.
“I was not a cool kid,” he said. “Suddenly to be a bartender and model and to be sought after by people was hard for me. I’m a geek who’s fat with braces and bifocals and now people want to pay me $7,000 to stand in front of a camera.”
He turned to alcohol and drugs to cope, a strategy familiar to many in the LGBT community, which suffers disproportionately high rates of alcoholism and drug addiction, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“When you start doing the bartending and acting and modeling, they are scenes that are very big on drinking and drugs so it just becomes part of a normal life, you don’t think of it as this seedy lifestyle,” Meegan said. “You’re not going to the back alley to get these things.”
In 2001, just after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Meegan returned to the city from Fire Island to check on an ex-boyfriend who lived near the towers. His friend was OK but on that same day, Meegan said he received an email from a former client of his prostitution services informing him that he was HIV positive and urging Meegan to get tested. A few weeks later he did and learned he, too, was positive.
“At the time, HIV was more of a death sentence,” he recalled. “I obliterated my feelings [with alcohol] so I don’t remember that time very well.”
Crystal meth soon became his drug of choice.
“I drank for confidence and comfort, then I met meth,” he said. “I was thin, felt sexy, had energy to do everything I wanted. I could clean, cook, do laundry, have sex, spend time at the beach and work because I barely slept.”
In 2007, he said he started to gain weight and to sleep on meth and that’s when he knew he was doing too much and quit on Aug. 4, 2007, cold turkey. His weight ballooned to 250 pounds and he continued to drink.
“My ex dumped me for weighing 250 pounds but he was supportive of me quitting drugs,” he said.
Meegan’s peripatetic existence eventually led him to Rehoboth, another gay-popular resort town.
Rehoboth dream realized
Henman loved Rehoboth, according to friends, and he saved money for five years to purchase his first place in 2012.
“As Rusty got more enamored with Rehoboth he wanted to see if he could swing a place on his own,” said Brian Gray, 46, a close friend and part-time Rehoboth resident. “He bought a camper and was renting space and was talking about buying a permanent mobile home.”
Friends describe him as fun loving, someone who appreciated an over-the-top gesture and who enjoyed entertaining, spending weekends with friends and especially karaoke.
“He lived a simple life but would give you the shirt off his back,” Gray said. “He loved Rehoboth, karaoke, Rigby’s, he loved Purple Parrot, anywhere with karaoke. He loved music and he liked to sing.”
Henman worked for about 25 years as a loan officer at PNC Bank and was single when he died. He adored his dog Maddy.
“He always did things by the book,” said Bryan Hecksher, another close friend. “His heart was as big as he was. He loved to cook and to do crafts. I used to joke with him that ‘I’m not that gay,’” he said laughing. “I really miss his Facebook posts on what he made for dinner. I used to look forward to those every night and would comment on them.”
A fateful night
In a small town like Rehoboth, everyone crosses paths with everyone else eventually. Hecksher knew Meegan from the L Bar and even picked him up from the police station after his first Rehoboth DUI arrest in May 2012.
“I made him promise not to do it again,” Hecksher said. “People cared for Brian too. I don’t hate Brian Meegan but I don’t understand his actions. You can call a cab or call a friend — he could have called me. He had plenty of choices.”
Gray, meanwhile, was with Henman on the night he died and even offered him a ride home just minutes before he was killed. Earlier in the evening, he was at Henman’s home for a cookout and the two decided to go to the L Bar. When the bar closed at 1 a.m., they walked to 7-Eleven, ordered a pizza and sat in a nearby park talking and eating. Gray recalled that Henman talked about his family and his young niece in particular. After about an hour in the park, Gray said they walked back to the L Bar, where Henman had left his bike. Gray said Henman turned on his bike’s safety blinkers and invited him to breakfast in the morning.
“I offered to drive him and put his bike in my car and he said no,” Gray said. “He rode into town most evenings and felt safe doing that. He avoided Route 1.”
Gray insists neither he nor Henman was intoxicated. Other friends said Henman wasn’t a big drinker. Meegan, on the other hand, appeared drunk, Gray said. He said he and Henman observed other customers in the L Bar buying shots for Meegan.
“His eyes were bloodshot,” Gray said. “He seemed under the influence of something. You never see that happen at the Blue Moon — you don’t see bartenders drinking. All of the bartenders were doing shots that night.”
Gray said he followed Henman for a short distance, then drove home. It was only minutes later that Meegan pulled out of the parking lot.
“I texted him the next morning about breakfast and there was no response,” Gray said.
Meegan said he remembers very little about what happened.
“I thought I hit the curb, I couldn’t see out the windshield,” he said. “The police were adamant that I must have known but I didn’t. I remember the police being very upset that I wasn’t more upset. I had one cop tell me, ‘I’ve had people arrested for shoplifting and they’re crying,’ but I was in shock.”
Despite his lengthy sentence, Meegan said he doesn’t regret pleading guilty. The prosecutor sought six years in prison, but in February 2013, Judge Richard Stokes sentenced him to 15 years, reduced to 8.5 years upon completion of the “Key” program, a drug and alcohol treatment program. “The judge decided to make an example of me,” Meegan said.
Bias behind bars
Today, Meegan’s days are spent reading, writing and serving food in the prison cafeteria. Early on, he described fits of crying at night. Now he survives by isolating himself from other inmates and writing. As an openly gay man, he knows there are constant risks to his personal safety. He said he endures frequent anti-gay slurs from inmates. “Sometimes the corrections officers chime in, too.”
“I’m upfront about being gay,” he said. “When someone new starts talking to me, I tell them right away because just for talking to me, people are going to hate you.”
Even the lone minister at Sussex Correctional preaches against homosexuality, he said. “The only minister who comes in every Sunday is against it and I have people saying things like ‘God bless you, fucking faggot,’” he said. Meegan has stopped attending services but has maintained contact with his former Episcopalian minister from New York, who did not respond to a Blade inquiry.
Despite the abuse, Meegan seems to have found a purpose in coming out behind prison walls — a purpose inspired by Rusty Henman. Meegan said Henman’s mother talked at the trial about her son’s advocacy work for LGBT and other charitable causes.
“I think my sentence here is to make it easier for the next generation,” he said. “I know some people in here who are in their 20s and have long sentences and are gay and they hide it. They won’t talk to me because it would implicate them. They’re worse to me than other inmates. If I can make people understand that being gay isn’t this horrible thing … maybe that could help.”
He added that he prays for Henman’s mother every night and has even talked to Rusty in prison.
Although he’s out as gay, Meegan said the inmates do not know he’s HIV positive. He lies to them about the daily medication he takes when they ask, “What’s the Skittles you’re getting?” He’s been positive for 13 years and his health is good, he said. He attends weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Henman’s friends seem satisfied with the sentence and hopeful that Meegan will turn his life around after prison.
“I hope he uses this time to change his core behavior,” said Hecksher. “I think the sentence was fair and will give him time to reflect.”
Gray echoed that sentiment.
“People make mistakes in life,” Gray said. “Hopefully he’ll have an opportunity to take care of the alcohol problem he has. He’s being punished and hopefully when he gets out he’ll be a changed person.”
Barbara Kessler urged forgiveness. “I think he’s hurting also,” she said. “You have to find forgiveness in your heart, otherwise it’ll eat you up.”
Another thing they agree on: Sussex County needs to improve pedestrian safety on Route 1, especially the spot where the highway intersects with the main road leading into downtown Rehoboth and the service road where Henman died.
“What’s tragic is that two years later, we’re still working on ideas for improving safety on Route 1,” Hecksher said. “Something should be done.”
Gray said there are plenty of ideas for improving safety, including construction of a jersey wall at the accident site to better insulate the service road from Route 1. In addition, he noted the lack of crosswalks in the area and said a seasonal shuttle should be expanded to year-round service.
“Absolutely nothing has been done to improve safety on Route 1,” he said. “How many people have to die for Sussex County to wake up and do something?”
The other fear they share is of drunk drivers, especially in summer, which arrives unofficially this week with Memorial Day celebrations.
“In Rehoboth, I worry all the time about drinking and driving,” Hecksher said.
In prison, Meegan has settled into a new routine and he worries that as life goes on, he will forget the details of what he did that put him there.
“We have a very easy time of disassociating,” Meegan said. “Something I thought I would never stop thinking about every single day, in here, there are days when you forget completely now, which feels horrible the next day when I remember it. How could I do that and now it’s becoming a distant memory, which feels horrible.”
The memory remains fresh for the friends and loved ones left behind.
“One life ended and one is forever changed,” said Hecksher. “One careless move left a huge void in the whole community.”