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Violent act, lifetime of contrition

BIDDEFORD, MAINE — BIDDEFORD, Maine -- They sit before Jim Baines, more than 100 wiggling, giggling eighth-graders with an innocence he envies.

Their minds are on the social studies test later that day, on nail polish, on Christmas vacation.

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In a moment, though, he will have their rapt attention. They don't meet many killers.

And so he tells his story again.

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When he was 15, he says, he helped throw a man off a bridge to his death in Bangor, 150 miles to the north.

He had never seen the man before, and the man had done absolutely nothing to provoke the attack.

The only reason Charlie Howard died that summer night 10 years ago, Jim Baines tells the children, was that he was gay.

"We thought beating up on homosexuals was OK," Mr. Baines says. "We thought it was OK to hit someone who was different from us."

Then he cries a little, for himself, for Charlie Howard, and for what they both lost on the bridge that night.

The killing of Charlie Howard by Jim Baines and two teen-age friends thrust Bangor, an obscure outpost in central Maine, before the nation as a symbol of small-town bigotry and malevolence.

For gays in the state, the crime was both a shock and the culmination of persistent and largely unrestrained gay-bashing.

The murder brought to the headlines what gays here had known for years and what many insist is still the case -- that the state, pastoraland placid by reputation, can be a deadly place to anyone who is gay.

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In that way, Maine is not different from the rest of the nation. Violence against gays is on the increase in the United States, according to gay organizations.

Not coincidentally, those groups say, gays are facing dangers on other fronts as well.

Next fall, Maine will become one of a new batch of states to hold a referendum to roll back any legal protections based on sexual orientation.

For his crime, Jim Baines was convicted of manslaughter under the juvenile criminal statutes.

His wrists and legs shackled, his eyes red-rimmed from crying, he was carried in a police van down Interstate 95 for 20 months of confinement at the Maine Youth Center, a jail for young criminals in South Portland.

On this mid-December day, Mr. Baines, 26, traveled to the middle school in southern Maine along the same highway, hoping it would lead him to a measure of atonement.

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He made his journey in this season of redemption, this time of Scrooges and Grinches and George Baileys. For him, though, there will be no storybook absolution.

"I can't make up for what I did," he says. "All I can do is try to offset it a little."

Gays as outcasts

To see battered little Bangor today, it is hard to imagine that it was once of economic importance in this country, a raucous Penobscot River lumber port, one of the world's largest in the mid-19th century.

This century has been less kind to the city, population 33,200. Railroads eliminated Bangor's significance as a port, manufacturers were intimidated by its isolation and unforgiving weather, and the Air Force skipped town.

Today, Bangor's handsome downtown, reminiscent of "It's a Wonderful Life's" Bedford Falls, comprises one empty building after another.

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On a cold morning recently, the strains of "A Winter Wonderland" tinkled from a loudspeaker over a Main Street nearly empty of Christmas shoppers.

Had the town's residents been out in force, they would have been almost all white.

Although it was a terminal point for the Underground Railroad before the Civil War, Bangor is virtually without diversity today. It is not used to minorities of any kind.

"If you live in a state that is homogenous, all minority populations are at increased risk," said Karen Geraghty, president of the Maine Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance, a group formed after Charlie Howard's death.

According to the Maine attorney general's office, more than one-third of hate crimes committed in the state are aimed at blacks, who tend to live in southern Maine in the Portland area. Gays are targets about a quarter of the time and Jews 17 percent.

Stephen Wessler, the assistant attorney general in charge of the civil rights division, said incidents against gays have an alarming bent.

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"When a police officer calls to tell me about an incident involving a Jewish victim, I expect to hear about property damage or vandalism," said Mr. Wessler.

"When the officer says it involves a gay, I know I'm going to hear that the victim is in the hospital."

A national study released last week lent statistical evidence to Mr. Wessler's remarks. "Hate crimes against gays and lesbians tend to be violent," he said.

For gays, Bangor was a violent place even before Charlie Howard's death. Gangs of alcohol-emboldened teen-agers would prowl downtown streets and highway rest stops where gays were known to rendezvous. In lightning strikes, they would pull men out of their cars, beat them up and rush off.

In the summer of 1984, Jim Baines, whose father was long gone and whose mother worked too many hours to adequately monitor her son, was 15 and well on his way to alcoholism.

Recently, his hair had grown back from an Iroquois-style cut. School was an uninteresting diversion. He was hanging out with an older crowd, eager for their acceptance. If they beat up gays, he was only too happy to join them if it would prove his worth.

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"The only thing I knew was that we talked about queers as outcasts," he says. " I didn't know what homophobic was; I didn't know what heterosexual was.

'Different from us'

"All I knew was that these guys were different from us and that was a reason to prey on them. It was like an after-school activity to harass gays."

Slighter than the other boys, Jim confined himself to throwing bricks and rocks, but he was present at several bloody assaults of gay men.

He was not afraid of being caught, though, knowing that gays usually did not file complaints and that police were not sympathetic when they did.

That summer, Charlie Howard was 23 but, friends say, he still had one foot planted in childhood. Small and girlishly pretty with long, pale hair, he was considered both obnoxious and endearing to his friends, who felt the need to protect him.

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"He was a real pain in the neck," said Lois Reed, who met Mr. Howard, an occasional dishwasher, through the Bangor Unitarian Church, a haven for gays. "But he was also a warm and caring person."

And flamboyantly gay.

"He was a queen, a baby queen," said Connie Huntley, a seminarian who met Mr. Howard in a 12-step program for drug and alcohol addiction that the Unitarian Church sponsored for gays. "He wore a cape and harem pants, he carried a purse, he had a long dangling earring."

Friends warned Mr. Howard to tone himself down, that he was courting disaster. Even though he found his cat strangled on his porch -- a warning, his friends believed -- he refused to change.

"I am what I am," he would say. "I refuse to participate in my own oppression."

A fatal stroll

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Late on the night of July 7, 1984, Mr. Howard was walking arm in arm with a friend through a nearly deserted downtown. Jim Baines had spent the previous hours getting liquored up with two friends. Now they were driving through town when they glimpsed Mr. Howard and his friend.

"Pull over," Mr. Baines yelled, and the teen-agers piled out.

The two groups stood on the small bridge over the Kenduskeag Stream. The teen-agers began pushing the two men, taunting them with homophobic insults. Mr. Howard told the boys to leave them alone.

Suddenly, Mr. Howard's friend bolted and Mr. Howard tried to follow.

Once across the street, though, he stumbled and Jim and his friends were on him in an instant, punching and kicking him while ignoring his screams.

They were the first blows Jim Baines ever struck.

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"Let's throw him over the bridge," one of them yelled. They wrenched Mr. Howard's hands from the bridge railing and flung him into the rushing water 12 feet below. When he came sputtering to the surface, wide-eyed with terror, they laughed and ran off.

They did not know that Charlie Howard had asthma and could not swim. They did not stay to see his fingers fail to grip the rocky wallsalong the stream. They were not there when he slipped under the current.

While Charlie Howard was dying, only one thought was on Jim Baines' mind.

"I couldn't wait to tell my friends what we had done."

Jim Baines does not look so different today, with soft skin, his upturned nose and his pale, damp eyes that suggest vulnerability.

His companions in the crime were teen-agers too, but it was Jim's childlike looks that chilled so many in his hometown and beyond. How could one so young accumulate so much hatred?

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But that was not a universally asked question. Some in Bangor were not chastened by their town's sudden infamy.

They jeered at participants in a memorial service for Charlie Howard held on the bridge.

"Who's the next fag to go over?" they yelled from their cars. The words "Chuck-a-Homo Bridge" soon were spray-painted along the wall Charlie Howard could not grasp.

The boys were sentenced to 3 1/2 years at the youth center, a term gays believed was light because the victim was homosexual.

"You could have gotten almost as much for killing a moose," said David, a gay middle school principal fearful of losing his job near Bangor should his homosexuality be revealed.

Remorse from the first

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Mr. Baines does not disagree that his sentence was lenient. But he says he felt remorse from the moment he learned of Charlie Howard's death, a feeling he says intensified during the misery of his incarceration.

He considered killing himself but resolved instead to better himself. He became a model inmate and before long was making speeches at churches decrying his crime and mourning Charlie Howard.

In June 1986, Jim Baines was released.

He returned to Bangor, finished high school and joined an electrical supply company. Today he sells those products. He would like to marry one day and start a family.

A few years ago, a Maine State Police officer, Michael Harriman, met Mr. Baines at a conference and asked the young man to speak to students.

Mr. Baines now gives several talks a year.

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He says he works to avoid "negative thinking."

In his address book he copies platitudes that help govern his life: "A smile is the crooked line that makes everything straight" and "I once complained that I had no shoes until I saw a man with no feet."

At Biddeford Middle School, he stands in tie and shirtsleeves before a hundred 12- and 13-year-olds. They listen to his description of his crime and his time at the youth center, and then for nearly an hour shoot questions at him.

"Do you like gay people now?"

L "I find myself not prejudiced at all. I don't judge anyone."

"Do people call you names?"

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"Not so much anymore. I've been lucky. People have accepted that I've changed."

"How do you live with it?"

"When you're 15 years old, you don't know that something you do will affect you for the rest of your life. It's hard."

Nearby, Lieutenant Harriman says he is convinced Mr. Baines is reformed.

"I have asked myself, 'Is he truly remorseful? Is he sorry? Has he suffered for what he did?' " said Lieutenant Harriman. "My answer is always yes. If there's ever been anyone fully rehabilitated, it's Jim Baines."

If Mr. Baines has reformed, many believe that his hometown has not.

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"I think there are a few more supports and pockets where gays feel safe," said the Rev. Sue Jamieson, pastor of the Bangor Unitarian Church, which sponsors a gay organization.

"But no, I don't think it's safe to be gay in Bangor, Maine."

Brian Cox, who monitors hate crimes in Bangor for the police department, agreed that gay men are still assaulted there.

Some signs of change

Still, there have been changes. A gay bar opened a few years ago. There are more support groups for gays.

David, the middle school principal, believes youngsters are more tolerant, thanks in part to messages in their music and on television, especially from MTV.

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"You know, today some kids wear their hair shaved off on one side," said David. "They're figuring out that it's all right to be different."

Next year's referendum, though, is a new cause for worry.

Since 1992, such initiatives have popped up around the country, in Colorado and Oregon and Idaho, and many more are likely in 1995.

The campaigns have been accompanied by increased violence against gays, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which says such assaults are on the rise anyway.

Mr. Baines says he worries about the referendum. A couple of years ago, when the Maine Legislature was considering gay rights legislation (it passed but was vetoed by the governor), he wrote to all legislators, urging passage.

Gays have appreciated his efforts, but few gays in Bangor want any contact with him.

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"I think he's sincere," said Kathleen, a friend of Charlie Howard's and a teacher who believes she would be fired if it were known she were gay. "But I don't have any interest in meeting him or congratulating him or saying, 'Good boy.'

"He should be doing what he's doing. He owes it to the world. But he doesn't need our congratulations or approval."

When he heard Kathleen's comments, Mr. Baines nodded. "It's not a priority in my life to be totally accepted by gays because I know it never will happen," he says, "but the work I'm doing still may in some way help them.

"As for forgiveness," he adds, "I don't know that I deserve it. I don't think that I do."



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