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DETROIT – Pat and Wally Kutteles are not on a mission to canonize their late son. “He had his moments like any kid,” said Pat, who with her husband spoke to Between The Lines before speaking at a dinner sponsored by That All May Freely Serve at the Fort Street Presbyterian Church in Detroit Oct. 21.
“He played in a rock band for a little while … had the long hair, the tattoo of the eyeball over the chest.” But on the whole both agree that their son was caring, compassionate, outgoing and, most of all, that he did not deserve to be murdered.
By all accounts Pfc. Barry Winchell had a bright future ahead of him. The military was in his blood, Winchell’s grandfather had served in the Navy during World War II. Two uncles were Marines, and his father and brother were both in the Army. Winchell joined the Army after high school. His goal at the time was to become an underwater welder, but after boot camp that ambition took a backseat to his desire to become a helicopter pilot. He likely would have made it, too. Less than two years after he enlisted and Winchell, 21, had already received two Army accommodation medals and one Army achievement medal for his shooting of a 50-caliber machine gun.
Sadly, Winchell would never live to see his dream fulfilled. His tour of duty abruptly came to an end on July 6, 1999. But it wasn’t on the battlefield that he died. Instead, Winchell was beaten with a baseball bat until he was brain dead while sleeping on base at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. His comrades killed him for being gay, though whether he really was is anything but a certainty.
Winchell had only ever dated biological women before his roommate, Spec. Justin Fisher, took him to a gay bar in Nashville. It was there that Winchell met Calpernia Adams, a pre-operative transsexual who performed as a female impersonator in the bar. Soon, the two had begun a tentative relationship. But like Winchell’s life, it, too, was cut short.
Back on base, Fisher began spreading the rumor that Winchell was gay, even though it was he who had taken him to the gay bar for the first time.
“It was Fisher, himself, who took him there and Fisher who came back and started the rumor that Barry was gay,” said Pat. “Then when that spread, they harassed Barry every day for four months until the murder.”
Fisher even reported the allegation to his sergeant, who confronted Winchell in direct violation of the military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. Yet for all Fisher did do, he wasn’t the one welding the baseball bat. Instead, Fisher, 26, enlisted the assistance of a young, impressionable 18-year-old recruit named Calvin Glover. Fisher, said Winchell’s parents, put the plan in motion and egged on his young apprentice. Yet when charges were brought against the two, Fisher struck a plea bargain that will see him released in 2007 while Glover was sentenced to life.
“I’d say 90 percent of the responsibility is his,” said Pat. “It was Fisher who orchestrated the whole thing. It was Fisher who led the harassment. It was Fisher’s bat.”
Wally agrees, continuing where Pat left off.
“It was Fisher who looked for the keys to Barry’s car to throw the body in the trunk,” he said.
The greatest irony of this tragic case is that while Winchell may not have been gay, it was revealed after the murder that Fisher likely was. In fact, he had actually made a pass at Winchell some weeks prior to the murder.
“I think it was jealousy because he liked Calpernia first,” said Pat. “You really don’t know what was going on in his mind but I’d say most of it was probably a jealousy thing.”
It was also convincing proof that one doesn’t actually have to be gay to be the victim of a hate crime, only perceived to be. It’s a message Pat and Wally Kutteles have been preaching for six years now. They’ve traveled the country with it, lobbied Washington and even spoken at the Pentagon no less than three times.
“A lot of the military does not like ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,'” said Wally. “It’s just they can’t speak out against it because the military is a higher echelon kind of thing. The colonel’s not going to talk against the general, even though he wants to. So we’ve got to get to the top brass.”
And convincing them to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is not likely to happen anytime soon.
“Not in this political climate,” said Pat, “there’s going to have to be quite a few changes in politics. But that doesn’t mean that every person out there can’t keep fighting, can’t keep writing to their congressperson … they may change the mind of one person who changes another mind, who changes another.”