More than 23 years after the brutal gay bashing murder of a U.S. Navy sailor stationed in Japan, new information about the Navy’s investigation into the incident has emerged from a Freedom of Information Act request filed by San Francisco gay activist Michael Petrelis.
Petrelis this week released to the public a 900-page Naval investigative report he obtained from his FOIA request on the death of Allen R. Schindler, 22, a radioman stationed aboard the Navy’s amphibious assault ship Belleau Wood, which was docked in October 1992 in Sasebo, Japan.
Naval investigators disclosed back then that two of Schindler’s shipmates were charged with beating him to death on Oct. 27, 1992 in a men’s bathroom at a public park in Sasebo not far from where their ship was docked. One of the two attackers, Airman Apprentice Terry M. Helvey, 21, was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to the slaying.
Helvey agreed to the plea after military prosecutors promised not to seek the death penalty, which could have been pursued under military law.
An accomplice in the attack, Airman Charles Vins, accepted a plea bargain deal from naval investigators. The deal included cooperating with authorities in the prosecution of Helvey in exchange for accepting a lesser charge that resulted in his serving only 78 days of a one-year sentence in the brig.
Petrelis traveled twice to Japan during the investigation into the case as an organizer of the gay direct action group Queer Nation. He has been credited with drawing international attention to the case by agitating for the Navy to confirm that the motive of the killing was anti-gay hatred.
“Allen Schindler was destined to become yet another gay man killed and forgotten,” Petrelis said in a statement this week. “Now, 23 years after his death, we finally share the full details of his murder,” he said. “In doing so, we honor his memory on Veterans Day 2015. People must know the role that governmental homophobia played in his murder and the subsequent cover-up.”
Petrelis was referring to new details that have emerged from the 900-page investigative report showing that naval investigators targeted some of Schindler’s fellow gay sailors on the ship for possible investigations into their sexual orientation. The report states that the fellow sailors provided information to investigations about how Schindler was being harassed on board the ship when word got out that he was gay, prompting investigators to look into whether the friends were also gay.
The Schindler case occurred at a time when homosexuality was automatic grounds for being discharged from the military. The murder took place during the 1992 U.S. presidential election campaign, when then-Democratic candidate Bill Clinton promised to lift the military’s ban on gay service members.
The following year, then-President Clinton backed down from that campaign promise following a groundswell of opposition from military leaders and many members of Congress, prompting Clinton to introduce his “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy as a compromise that Congress eventually adopted.
The investigative report obtained by Petrelis provides more details into reports that surfaced during Helvey’s court martial prosecution in 1993 – that Schindler had complained to the ship’s captain that he was being harassed and threatened for being gay and wanted to be discharged from the Navy.
According to the investigative report, the captain discussed Schindler’s request in front of other shipmates, further spreading the word that Schindler was gay, a development that intensified the anti-gay harassment against him.
The investigative report also for the first time provides the full text of Schindler’s personal diary, which became part of the evidence presented by prosecutors at Helvey’s trial. Petrelis, who said he spent more than a month reading through the voluminous report, notes that in his diary Schindler recounts “meticulously the anguish and abuse he experienced” in the weeks leading up to his murder.
Among other things, the investigative report includes records of the autopsy showing the severity of the beating by Helvey that rendered Schindler’s body unrecognizable by his mother.
“His head was bashed repeatedly against a urinal so violently that the porcelain broke,” a statement accompanying Petrelis’ release of the investigative report says.
“It took me 22 years to file a FOIA with the Navy for their investigative file on Schindler, but I finally did it in the past year,” he told the Washington Blade in an email. “Frankly, since I had worked on and lived with this case so intensely, I was not looking forward to getting emotionally upset again over the tragedy.”
But he said he moved ahead with the FOIA request so that the full story of what he considers an anti-gay atrocity made possible by rampant homophobia in the Navy at that time could be publicly aired to help prevent such a heinous crime from happening again.