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Md. man charged with targeting gays for assault in Meridian Hill Park

Federal indictment says attacker posed as police officer

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Five men were allegedly assaulted in Meridian Hill Park from 2018-2021 by Michael Thomas Pruden. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A 48-year-old man who has lived in recent years in Oxon Hill, Md. and Norfolk, Va., was arrested in Norfolk on July 14 for allegedly assaulting five men he believed to be gay by spraying them in the face with pepper spray between 2018 and 2021 in D.C.’s Meridian Hill Park, which is also known as Malcolm X Park.

The arrest of Michael Thomas Pruden came two weeks after a federal grand jury handed down an indictment on June 29 charging Pruden with five counts of assault on federal land, one count of impersonating a federal officer, and a hate crime sentencing enhancement alleging that he assaulted four of the men because of their perceived sexual orientation.

“After nightfall, Meridian Hill Park was informally known in the Washington, D.C. community to be a meeting location for men seeking to engage in consensual sexual encounters with other men,” the indictment by the U.S. District Court for D.C. grand jury states. “This practice is colloquially known as ‘cruising,’” the indictment says.

“Michael Thomas Pruden frequented Meridian Hill Park after nightfall and on multiple occasions, including those described below, assaulted men in Meridian Hill Park by approaching them with a flashlight, giving police-style commands, and spraying them with a chemical irritant,” the indictment states.

The D.C. federal grand jury handed down its indictment against Pruden 11 months after a U.S. District Court trial jury in Alexandria, Va., found him not guilty of a charge of assault with a dangerous weapon for allegedly pepper spraying and striking in the head with a large tree branch a man on Daingerfield Island in Alexandria, which is also known as a gay cruising site.

Federal court records in Virginia show that the Daingerfield Island assault took place on March 21, 2021, five days before the D.C. grand jury indictment says Pruden allegedly assaulted the fifth victim in the Meridian Hill Park attacks on March 26, 2021.

The Virginia court records show that Pruden was arrested for the Daingerfield Island assault on May 7, 2021, about two months after the assault took place. The trial court jury acquitted him in that case on Aug. 11, 2021, the court records show. The online court records do not provide information about the witness testimony and arguments by prosecutors and the defense attorney that may have prompted the jury to acquit Pruden in that case.

A July 14 statement released by the U.S. Department of Justice announcing the indictment against Pruden for the Meridian Hill Park assaults says the U.S. Park Police and the FBI’s Washington Field Office conducted the investigation for the case. The statement notes that Meridian Hill Park is one of several federal parks located in D.C. that are under the jurisdiction of U.S. Park Police.

Neither the indictment nor the DOJ statement mentions that U.S. Park police for years have been arresting gay men in Meridian Hill Park on misdemeanor sex-related charges. The most recent known series of sex-related arrests in Meridian Hill Park took place in 2019, when at least 14 of the arrests took place.

An attorney representing one of the arrested men told the Blade that undercover plain-clothes Park Police officers were posing as men cruising for sex and appeared to be enticing the men into masturbating or prompting them to touch the officer, thinking they were interacting with a willing sex partner but engaging in action resulting in their arrest.

LGBTQ activists familiar with this type of arrest have said that while they don’t condone public sex in places like Meridian Hill Park, most of the alleged sexual activity takes place at night in hidden places such as behind thick underbrush where the general public would not observe such activity.   

The Blade couldn’t immediately determine whether additional sex-related arrests have taken place in Meridian Hill Park since 2019.

“Pruden faces a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years for each assault count and a three-year statutory maximum sentence for impersonating a federal officer,” the Justice Department statement says. It says the hate crimes sentencing enhancement handed down by the grand jury increases the possible sentence for the assault counts.

“Before spraying the men, Pruden pretended to be a Park Police officer, shined a flashlight in the victims’ faces and gave the victims police-style directives,” the DOJ statement says. It points out that the indictment charges Pruden with assaulting four of the five victims because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.

WUSA 9 TV and the Daily Mail have reported that Pruden is a former elementary school teacher in Maryland, but the two news outlets did not say how they obtained that information or where in Maryland Pruden worked as a teacher.

Pruden, who had been held in custody in Norfolk since his arrest on July 14, pleaded not guilty to the charges against him at a virtual Zoom arraignment hearing on July 20 organized by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in Washington.

Without objection from prosecutors with the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office, Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey agreed to a request by Pruden’s court-appointed defense attorney, Alfred Guillaume, that he be released into the custody of a third-party guardian while awaiting trial. Guillaume said Pruden’s mother would act as the guardian and Pruden would be staying at his mother’s residence in Norfolk.

Guillaume, acting on Pruden’s behalf, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Frederick Yett, one of two prosecutors assigned to the case, agreed to a series of restrictions placed on Pruden as a condition for his release that were recommended by the court’s Pretrial Services office.

Among the conditions, which were approved by the judge, are that Pruden must stay away from all individuals he is accused of assaulting and refrain from taking any action that could be interpreted as an attempt to threaten or influence any witnesses in the case.

Other conditions require that he not travel out of the state of Virginia without getting permission from the court; that he remains indoors at his Norfolk residence between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.; that he submits to location monitoring; if recommended by the Pretrial Services office, he must enter a substance abuse counseling program; and he must confer regularly with the Pretrial Service office staff.

In response to a question asked by Magistrate Judge Harvey about his educational background, Pruden said he has a master’s degree in education. Media outlets have reported that Pruden previously has worked as an elementary school teacher in Maryland, but no specific details have surfaced regarding the school where he taught.  

His next court appearance for a status hearing, which the judge said will also be virtual through Zoom, was scheduled for July 28.  

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District of Columbia

GW transgender, nonbinary student group criticizes Utah governor’s on campus comments 

Spencer Cox decried ‘genital-mutilation surgeries’

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Republican Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (Photo courtesy of Cox's office)

A George Washington University transgender and nonbinary student group has criticized Republican Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s comments about gender-affirming health care that he made last week during an on-campus.

The GW Hatchet reported Cox on Feb. 21 described gender-affirming health care as “genital-mutilation surgeries” during a “Disagree Better” event the university’s School of Media and Public Affairs hosted. Jonah Goldberg, a conservative writer and commentator, and NPR “Morning Edition” host Michel Martin also participated in the event that Frank Sesno, a GWU School of Media and Public Affairs professor who was previously CNN’s Washington Bureau chief, moderated.

The Transgender and Nonbinary Students of GW in a post to its Instagram page said it is “hurt, ashamed and frustrated that such harmful language was allowed to be given a platform on our campus.”

“Fear mongering claims that young trans people are ‘mutilating our bodies’ are factually incorrect and damaging to our community,” said the group in its post that notes the event took place days after Nex Benedict, a nonbinary student in Oklahoma, died after a fight in their high school’s bathroom. “Gender-affirming care for minors saves lives, and is approved by reputable institutions, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Psychiatric Association.”

The GW Hatchet notes Cox told Sesno that he invited trans youth and their families to the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City “to discuss state measures that pertain to transgender people, a conversation that he said led to legislative change.” 

Cox in 2022 vetoed a bill that banned trans students from playing on sports teams that correspond with their gender identity. The Utah Legislature later overrode his veto.

The governor last year signed a bill that bans gender-affirming health care for minors in his state. Cox last month signed a bill that prevents trans and nonbinary people from using restrooms and locker rooms in public schools and government buildings that correspond to their gender identity.

The GW Hatchet reported Cox in response to a student’s question said “no one” in Utah has died by suicide because they were unable to access gender-affirming care.

“I care deeply about these kids. I love these kids. I want these kids to thrive. I want these kids to be successful,” Cox said, according to the GW Hatchet. “I think there’s a better way to do that than by having genital-mutilation surgeries before they’re 18 and old enough to have a rational decision, to actually make a decision for themselves. And so we can disagree with that.”

“As the only trans student org at GW, we refuse to let our community have their right to exist be put up for debate and threatened by disinformation,” said the Transgender and Nonbinary Students of GW in their statement. “We call on GW administration to consider ways in which they can repair the harm caused by Gov. Cox’s statements on campus, and make the safety of their trans students, faculty and staff a priority in a sociopolitical climate that is fixated on our eradication.”

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District of Columbia

Nex Benedict honored at D.C. candlelight vigil

Upwards of 100 people paid tribute to nonbinary Okla. student at As You Are

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A candlelight vigil is held outside of the LGBTQ café and bar As You Are on Feb. 22, 2024, for 16-year-old nonbinary student Nex Benedict. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

Nearly 100 people turned out on Feb. 22 for a candlelight vigil hosted by the D.C. LGBTQ café and bar As You Are to pay tribute to 16-year-old nonbinary student Nex Benedict.

Benedict died Feb. 8 at a hospital in Owasso, Okla., one day after family members say Benedict was beaten up by three older female students in an Owasso High School bathroom after a fight broke out. Owasso police have said they are investigating the circumstances surrounding Benedict’s death but said preliminary autopsy findings do not show the death was caused by physical injuries.

Family members, including Benedict’s mother, told news media outlets that Benedict suffered severe bruises to their face and head and the family believes the injuries from an assault caused their child’s death. Family members have also said Benedict had been targeted for bullying at school because of their status as a nonbinary person.

People who spoke at the As You Are candlelight vigil said they considered the death an anti-LGBTQ hate crime.

“Today we are brought together to mourn the loss of Nex Benedict,” As You Are co-owner Rachel “Coach” Pike told the gathering, which was held on the As You Are outdoor patio and surrounding sidewalk. “Nex Benedict, your life matters. It will always matter, and more than that your life was precious,” Pike said.

“You had the right to live as you were and all parts of your identity were beautiful and should have been celebrated, supported, and safe,” Pike added.

Pike and other speakers, some of whom identified as nonbinary and transgender, pointed out that Benedict’s family are members of the Choctaw Nation, a Native American community. A speaker at the vigil who identified himself as Bo and said he identified as a two-spirit individual called on the gathering to pay tribute to Benedict’s role as one of the Choctaw people.

“When I first heard the news of Nex Benedict’s murder I was shocked,” Bo said. “I thought of how young. I thought about how much life was taken from this child.”

Another speaker, native American advocate Shiala King, whose family are members of the Sicangu Lakota Nation in South Dakota, arranged for her father, Frank John King, a faith leader and medicine man, to speak to the gathering by phone hookup from his residence in South Dakota. After greeting the gathering and expressing his condolences over the death of Benedict, Frank King further honored Benedict by singing a spiritual song in the Lakota language as part of a tradition of uplifting the spirit of beloved people who pass away.

Jo McDaniel, the other co-owner of As You Are whose also Pike’s spouse, said they were pleased with the response to their announcement of the vigil on social media. 

“To see this child taken from us this way, it’s chilling and it’s horrible and it’s not right and it’s not fair,” McDaniel told the Washington Blade after the vigil ended. “And so, we knew that the only thing we could do to help our community heal was to gather. And we wanted to do that in as honorable and wonderful a way as possible as that kid deserves,” she said.

Sue Benedict, Nex Benedict’s mother, told the British newspaper The Independent that Nex was a “courageous, smart teenager who had simply been living their true identity.” The Independent reports that Sue Benedict said Nex had been subjected to taunts, insults and bullying due to their gender fluid identity for over a year. 

Owasso police officials have said detectives were interviewing school officials and students to obtain more details on how the fight started and whether charges will be brought against those who allegedly assaulted Benedict. A police spokesperson told The Independent police were awaiting the findings of toxicology and autopsy reports from the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office to determine whether anyone will be charged with a criminal offense.

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District of Columbia

New gay bar on 14th Street to open in April

Owners say Crush to offer ‘cozy, inclusive space’

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Exterior of Crush. (Photo courtesy of Crush)

A new D.C. bar catering to the LGBTQ community called Crush is expected to open for business in April in a two-story building with a roof garden at 2007 14th St., N.W., in the center of one of the city’s bustling nightlife neighborhoods. 

A statement released by co-owners Mark Rutstein and Stephen Rutgers says the new bar will provide an atmosphere that blends “nostalgia with contemporary nightlife” in a building that once was home to a popular music store and radio supply shop.

“This new venue, catering especially to the LGBTQ+ community, offers a cozy, inclusive space that reminisces about the times of record stores and basement hangouts with friends,” the statement says. “In its past life as a music store and radio supply shop, Crush transforms its legacy into a modern-day haven,” the statement continues. “It features top-notch DJ booths, a dance floor and a summer garden, alongside a premium sound system to ensure every night is memorable.” 

Rutstein told the Washington Blade the new bar will have a capacity of accommodating 300 people on its two floors. He notes that the name ‘Crush” stems from the romantic crush that people often have for one another and his and Rutgers’ new bar is aimed at providing a friendly space for people to meet and socialize. 

“We’re looking to be inclusive to everyone,” Rutstein said. “It’s certainly going to be heavy on the LGBT community” because he and Rutgers have been part of that community for many years. But he added, “We want to be inclusive to gays and lesbians being able to bring their friends and allies in along with them and not feel weird about it.” 

Crush will be located across the street from the Reeves Center D.C. municipal building where government agencies and community groups, including the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community, has its office. 

“Crush isn’t just our name,” the statement issued by Rutstein and Rutgers says. “It’s the essence of our space. We aim to create an atmosphere where everyone can celebrate life and love.”

Editor’s note: Stephen Rutgers is the Blade’s Director of Sales and Marketing.

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