When Curt Blackman, a graduate coordinator for recruitment and minority programs at Duke University, didn't show up for work on May 20, concerned co-workers asked Duke police to check his apartment in Durham's posh Forest Hills neighborhood.
When they opened the door of the second-floor apartment at 107 Hilton Ave. that afternoon, Duke police found the 38-year-old dead--bound, gagged, blindfolded and stabbed nearly two dozen times.
Durham police, who were called, were shocked at the brutality and held the crime scene open for 24 hours until a blood spatter expert from the State Bureau of Investigation could arrive. They also gathered other evidence that included condoms, a knife, and Blackman's computer, in the hopes it would show any Internet activity.
The murder was the talk of Duke, where colleagues and friends wondered who would kill the "funloving, sweet" Trinidad native who had just obtained U.S. citizenship, had a promising future, and was about to leave to work on his doctorate at Northwestern University.
But within five days, news of the death spread to the gay community through chat rooms and listservs after someone anonymously posted Blackman's photo on the gay dating site, Gay.com. An ominous heading read: "GAY MURDERS IN THE TRIANGLE."
The "profile" urged gays dating online to take precautions by keeping a record of who they were meeting, pictures, e-mail addresses and phone numbers. "Total anonymity could cost you your life," it warned.
The posting reawakened fears in the gay community, which had pushed police to scrutinize the murders of two Durham men who were stabbed to death in fall 2001: Robert Michael Neice, 30, of the Summit Hill Apartments, 6205 Farrington Road, and John Cash, 31, of the JFK Towers Apartments, 4900 N. Roxboro Road.
Was there a serial killer of gays in Durham?
With a fourth man, 23-year-old Sean Ethan Owen of Wake County, shot, stomped and beaten in February before being tossed in the Eno River by three men who lured him there from Gay.com, were gays safe meeting dates online?
Last Thursday, police denied any of the killings were linked.
"Nothing in the investigation at this time leads us to believe that the Hilton Avenue homicide and the previous two are related," said Lt. Norman Blake, a police spokesman. "So far, we have found nothing during the course of our investigation that leads us to believe Mr. Blackman's lifestyle contributed to his death." So far, there is no evidence that Blackman ever used Gay.com.
A day later, a tipster alerted police that Thomas Anthony Pitt, 22, of 804B-2 Parkridge Drive in Durham County, was storing some of Blackman's possessions, including his ID and a laptop, in his employee locker at Burger King in the Oxford Commons shopping center on Roxboro Road. Police drove there and arrested Pitt at the adjacent Wal-Mart.
Pitt was charged with murder and two counts of obtaining property by false pretenses--all felonies--and two misdemeanor counts of possessing stolen property, according to warrants that say he obtained cash by pawning off Blackman's DVD player and digital camera at Cash Converters on Roxboro Road, near where Pitt worked. A day later, Pitt was charged with failing to appear in court on a 2002 breaking and entering charge.
Police say Blackman and Pitt knew each other, but would not elaborate.
Over the past few years, the Internet has opened up the social scene, especially for the gay community. But it's also brought dangers, such as the killing of Owen, whose body was found Feb. 21 in the Eno River.
"That was clearly entrapment on Gay.com," says Mark Packard, a gay activist who was involved in the meetings with police and the gay community after the 2001 murders.
An affidavit by one of the suspects, read at a bail hearing, showed the three suspects charged in Owen's murder knew another person who had lured a gay man from Gay.com to steal his car, so they plotted to offer Owen drugs and sex so they could steal his car.
"If you're having to contact these unsavory folks to score what you need, you're setting yourself up as a target," says Packard, a nurse practitioner and former HIV clinic worker.
He wonders whether there are others too embarrassed to come forward after anti-gay attacks, especially those stemming from online hookups. He isn't certain police dropped the ball in the 2001 murders, but many in the gay community are angry police never subpoenaed Gay.com records to see who the men had been online with in the days before their slayings.
Neice was found dead Sept. 24, 2001, in his Summit Hill Apartment, sprawled by his bed, bleeding from several stab wounds to his back and one to his throat, appearing as if he were attacked during sex, a state medical examiner said at the time. Cash was found just inside the door to his federally subsidized apartment at JFK Towers on Oct. 21, 2001, slumped next to his wheelchair, beaten in the head and stabbed in the neck.
Police, who confirmed both men had been in the Gay.com chat room, have repeatedly said that despite a few similarities, the wounds, crime scenes, and lifestyles were markedly different. Interviews and police records show Cash, who used a wheelchair, was a greeter at Wal-Mart who also offered massages from his home. Neice, an employee of SAS Institute in Cary, was violently stabbed by someone he knew, according to police. Search warrants show police questioned one suspect and subpoenaed his phone records to discredit his alibi. But they didn't have enough evidence for an arrest.
Packard says the public perception of gay dating services and the lack of a public outcry when gays get killed is upsetting. "What I hate to see is for anybody to cast aspersions on someone who uses a service like that," he says. "You wouldn't say that about a man who has to conduct business in a bad part of town, or say to a woman who was raped, 'You shouldn't have worn a short skirt.' "
Packard, who was incensed to see Blackman's photo posted posthumously without his permission, alerted Gay.com, contacted the person who made the posting, and expressed his privacy concerns on a gay listerv. The poster angrily replied in capital letters that Blackman wasn't ashamed of his sexuality.
"I hardly think Curt would be worried about who knows he was gay and would want his killer to be brought to justice," the anonymous man also wrote. "This is the biggest problem with Gay.com. It fosters secrets and lies by its support of total anonymity. It allows killers to get away with murder."
However, Packard says, a co-worker of Blackman's privately e-mailed him to say Blackman would not have appreciated his sexuality being made public. Within a day after Pitt's arrest, the photo and profile disappeared from the Web site.
Glenn Grossman, a UNC-CH doctoral student who helped organize FAVU, the Family Anti-Violence Union, after the 2001 murders to boost communication between the gay community and police, doesn't agree with posting the photo without permission. But he does believe Blackman's murder should have been publicized more, especially in the Triangle's gay community, where he says there's a lack of openness that devalues gays and makes them easier targets.
They should have rallied around Blackman's murder, just as women do with "Take Back the Night" marches after rapes, says Grossman, an epidemiologist. "We need to stand up for this person and say, 'We won't tolerate this type of violence.' This has an effect on people who are living. If we don't use these incidents to build strong networks of responses, we're not doing anything to prevent these sorts of acts in the future."
A safer way to date, Grossman says, is the gay events listserv, operated by John Short, executive director of N.C. Pride. "To me, the most obvious way to meet people of similar interests is to go to events they're interested in," Grossman says.
Micah Schnorr, a rising sophomore at Duke who's active in the LGBT Center and several campus gay groups, says there would have been an outcry in the Duke community, but classes were over. Schnorr meets many people through Duke's gay groups, but also uses Gay.com. And when he does, he and his female roommate have a list of dating rules.
"I'm not allowed to meet anyone unless they have a reference," he says--someone he knows must know the person, have dated the person, or know someone who dated him. "We also have a call time set up when I go out. My roommate calls me 45 minutes to an hour after I leave to make sure all my organs are intact."
Like many in the gay community, he believes that if a person were killed after meeting someone on Match.com, a straight Web site, there would be more public sympathy and a sense that the person was a victim. "In the case of gays," he says, "it's two bad guys and it's shhhh, shhhh."
Richard Mullinax, the past president of Old North Durham Neighborhood Association who will become next month the co-facilitator for PAC 2, a Partners Against Crime group in Durham, praises police for improving communications, sharing and accepting information from the community, and solving more crimes. "They expect us to be the eyes and ears and we expect them to be the mouthpieces," he says of sharing information. "Does that mean they're where they'd like to be? Probably not. But they don't have enough resources."
Mullinax, who made headlines this spring when he and his partner of six years, Perry Pike, went to the Durham courthouse to seek a marriage license, says he's glad he doesn't have to turn to classifieds, bars and the Internet. "We have just what people call a typical American lifestyle."
He met Pike the old-fashioned way, he says--through two women suggesting a blind date.
Safe Internet dating tips
Gaylife.about.com offers these tips for meeting people online: