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Stranger danger: Pickup crimes in the gay community
Windy City Times Special Investigative Series: LGBTQs and the Criminal Legal System
by Erica Demarest, Windy City Times

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On April 15, 2010, a well-known Washington, D.C., school principal named Brian Betts was found murdered in his home.

In the weeks that followed, investigators learned that Betts, 42, had arranged a meeting with his attacker through a sex chat line a few hours before the murder.

Betts agreed to leave a door to his house unlocked so that 19-year-old Alante Saunders could enter discreetly, news reports said. But when the teen arrived, he brought along three other men. The group proceeded to rob Betts, kill him and steal his SUV.

The brutal slaying sent shockwaves through D.C.'s gay community. Many believed Betts was the victim of a pickup crime—one of the least-discussed and least-reported types of crime that affect the gay community.

Pickup crime occurs when someone meets a potential date or sexual partner and is then victimized as a result, said Lisa Gilmore, director of education and victim advocacy at the Center on Halsted. Gay men are most likely to be targeted, and pickups can occur online, in bars, on the street or through phone lines.

"People will pretend that they want to hook up or go on a date with somebody in order to perpetrate some kind of crime or violence," Gilmore said.

Once a meeting is arranged or the victim is drawn away from a crowded environment, crimes committed can range from robbery to battery or sexual assault to—in extreme cases—murder.

While police, activists and victim advocates across the United States are aware that pickup crime exists, it is impossible to pinpoint exact data. When crimes are reported, Gilmore said, they're often filed under categories like "aggravated battery" or "sexual assault"—not "pickup crime."

But mostly, pickup victims simply don't report.

"A lot of people are embarrassed because they feel like they should've known better," said Officer Jose Rios, the Chicago Police Department's LGBT liaison.

Many of the men arranging anonymous hookups are in the closet. Others have called escort services or used recreational drugs with their attackers and are fearful they'll be charged if they contact the police. Still others are crippled by shame.

"They feel like, 'I was doing something wrong in the first place,'" said Charles Nelson, a member of the Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus. "They feel like, 'I shouldn't have been in the park looking for some kind of a sexual relationship.' They're afraid of what's going to happen and how the police are going to respond to them."

Rios said he has known about pickup crime for years but, in the first quarter of 2013, has seen only one set of incidents described.

In April 2013, five separate men called Rios—who is based in the Lakeview neighborhood's 19th (Town Hall) District but operates citywide in his liaison capacity—to talk about being victims of pickup crime.

Three of the men met their attackers in bars. Two were online hookups. All five said they were robbed, and one man claimed he had also been beaten for initially resisting the robbery. But none of the men filed official reports.

"Out of the five, four of them would not give me their names," Rios said. The men simply wanted to make Rios aware they had been targeted.

"If there's no [official] report, technically, it didn't happen," Rios said. "The problem is: There's not much we can do unless there's a report … . If you make a report to me, then that report gets assigned to a detective. That detective is going to investigate it."

'The last people who should be victimized'

Those least likely to report pickup crimes are those most likely to be targeted, activists said. This includes older men, African-American and Latino men, transgender people, closeted men, undocumented immigrants and people from lower-ranked socioeconomic groups.

"Definitely, the people who are victimized are the last people who should be victimized," Nelson said. "They already don't have anything. They don't have the resources, or they don't have the knowledge of the resources."

In African-American and Latino communities, where homophobia is often pervasive and many men are still in the closet, pickup crime is a major problem, activists said.

"On the South Side of Chicago, most gay men can't just walk into any venue, see another gay man, and be comfortable to socialize with him without fear of someone identifying them as gay," Nelson said. "It's hard for Black men to meet someone—period—because of the social stigma. You may not have as many social outlets."

As a result, many men turn to phone lines or online services such as Craigslist, Adam4Adam, Grindr, Black Gay Chat or even Facebook. While many of the users on these sites are legitimate, predators find it just as easy to create a profile.

Some of the predators are gay themselves and committing crimes of opportunity. Others are straight and actively targeting gay men—either out of homophobia or because it's easy.

"It's like you're in a store, and you know you want to steal something, but you don't know what," said Julio Rodriguez, board president of the Association of Latino Men for Action, or ALMA. "And all of a sudden something falls off a shelf and hits you in the head. That's sort of what the gay community has done for [predators]."

Because being closeted, fearful or ashamed is so pervasive in racial minority communities, Rodriguez said, attackers bank on the fact their crimes won't be reported.

"[The victims] think, 'OK, if I make an official report, then it's out there in the world [that I'm gay],'" Rios said. "This is something that happened to you, not because of you. But a lot of them are ashamed."

Undocumented immigrants face a particularly high risk, Rodriguez said. Many fled their native countries because of homophobic violence. In several Latin American nations, it's common for LGBT citizens to be murdered.

"The police department is probably more threatening to you [if you're undocumented] than it is to the perpetrator of the crime," Rodriguez said. "That person might get some time in jail—or a slap on the wrist or a court date. But for someone who is undocumented, it might actually mean you could start deportation proceedings."

Rodriguez estimates one-third of the city's Latino male population is in the U.S. illegally.

"If they call the police, the first thing they're going to say is, 'Where are you from? Where are your papers?'" Rodriguez said. "You're going to be victimized multiple times for something that wasn't even your fault."

Ageism also comes into play, and the image-conscious nature of many in the gay male community could hurt men who aren't stereotypically attractive.

"In the gay community, as men age, they're no longer seen as worthy," Nelson said. "They learn: [These anonymous hookups] are the only way I can find intimacy."

Rios said most of the men who talk to him about pickup crime are "older gentlemen" who have been targeted by men in their 20s. The perpetrators span every race and come from the North, South and West sides. Many of the meet-ups are arranged online.

"We have an aging population that feels like, 'I'm too old to go to the bars,'" Nelson said. "They don't have many outlets to socialize. They've probably lost friends due to multiple reasons. They feel this is the only way they can socialize too."

'You knew he brought the wrong trade home'

Though the Internet has created novel opportunities for predators, pickup crime is far from new.

"This is something that's been going on as long as gay men and women have been in the city of Chicago," Nelson said.

A longtime Chicagoan, Nelson recalled numerous Hubbard Street beatings and Bronzeville attacks ("Before there was Boystown, there was Bronzeville") in the 1950s and 1960s. Men would cruise near the city's few gay bars, looking for people to target. And male sex workers often worried whether clients were legitimate.

"There was a time before HIV and AIDS that whenever you heard about any gay man dying, you knew he brought the wrong 'trade' home," Nelson said.

In the 1970s and 1980s or later, ads in gay publications such as GayLife offered "full body massage" or the chance to "stroke together." Though some ads led to safe encounters, others were ploys to isolate and attack gay men.

Phone lines were also targeted.

"They were very dangerous," Nelson said. "Men of all ages would go on, and they would get stuck up [robbed]—or sometimes worse. We know a lot of men who have met men off the phone lines and died. And you just don't hear about it."

The Internet created countless opportunities for gay men to connect, but it has also given criminals unprecedented access to victims. Predators often create fake profiles on gay dating sites. References to "poppers" or other party drugs all but ensure victims won't report the crime, since calling the cops would be tantamount to admitting drug use.

"It's such an easy way to troll for people," Rodriguez said, shaking his head. "It doesn't take a lot of effort. You just have to sit and wait."

Gangs have noticed, the Center on Halsted's Gilmore added.

"They figure out what will make someone vulnerable," she said. Social networking sites and "down-low" hookup spots such as parks or nondescript bars are popular.

Rodriguez has heard reports of gang-related pickup crime in the neighborhoods of Humboldt Park, Little Village, Pilsen and South Chicago. Small Latino bars are hit hard because "the last thing anyone wants in a 'down-low' bar is the cops," he said.

"Gangs are sophisticated. They can push their homophobia aside because they're opportunistic by nature. Why try to break in, if one of 10 doors will be open?" Rodriguez said. "[These guys] know they're attractive … . They're like wolves. They know to pull somebody out of the [another] pack."

Nelson, who works as the MSM (men who have sex with men) project director for the South Side Help Center, has heard about similar incidents in parks across the South Side.

"For some of the initiations for certain gang members—why, I don't understand—they say, 'Go over there and rob or victimize these gay men,'" Nelson said. "They feel they own the area, and they don't want you there."

'Very little recourse'

When pickup crime happens, resources are limited.

Gilmore, who oversees the Center on Halsted's anti-violence project, recommends calling the center's 24-hour crisis hotline at 773-871-CARE. When asked about other resources, those interviewed drew a blank.

"[These victims] actually have, unfortunately, very little recourse," Rodriguez said. Many feel that calling the police will be futile, and the fear of law enforcement is widespread in the LGBT community.

"I think a lot of that is passed down culturally," Rios said. "You know: 'I had a bad experience with the police 10 years ago, so now every police experience is bad.' But the Police Department from 20, 15 or 10 years ago is not the Police Department that's here now."

Rios, an out gay man, said he trains new cadets to leave their prejudices at home. Victims may also call him personally at 312-744-0615, even if they don't want to make an official report.

How police treat LGBT victims "depends on what district you're in," Nelson said. "In districts where there isn't a big gay presence, [the officers] have their own internalized homophobia. They use their badge as a form of dealing with that they think is wrong."

Ultimately, Gilmore said, it all comes back to shame.

"There can be a lot of stigma related to hooking up for some people," she said. "They're ashamed of having sexual relationships or sexual activity with people they're not in a relationship with for some length of time."

More cultural competency among police and first responders would help, Gilmore said.

"But I wonder how much we might not want to talk about [pickup crime] because of how related it is to our LGBT identities," she said. "Particularly with online formats—[this type of crime] is directly related to how people are exploring or expressing their sexuality."

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