“This is how I’m going to die.”
That was all I could think as I lay face down, my hands cuffed behind my back while the two men rained blows down on the back and side of my head. While one of them kept me face down on the corner of my bed, the other ransacked my apartment, stealing laptops, my digital audio recorder, a television and cameras. If it was electronic, it was taken. Also stolen, thousands of dollars worth of HIV medications.
When the ransacking ended, I was pushed into the kitchen, ordered to kneel. I don’t know why, but my “guard” stepped outside to talk to his conspirator. As they did — my hands still secured behind my back by police-issue handcuffs — I dashed to the door, slamming it shut. Then I turned my back to the door and fumbled with the deadbolt until it was locked.
I looked out a window into the parking lot. I could see the two assailants. They look confused, then they jumped into their getaway van and left.
Like millions of Americans, I arranged a hookup online. Like thousands of gay Americans, I became a hookup victim.
In late November, a week after the attack, both men were arrested. In late June, they were sentenced to 17 to 55 years in prison after accepting a plea deal involving multiple criminal actions. In my case, they were charged with unarmed robbery, unlawful imprisonment and conspiracy to commit unarmed robbery and unlawful imprisonment. For these alone they could have faced as much as 60 years in prison.
But I was not the only victim. A Lansing Township man was bound, beaten, threatened with a knife and his belongings stolen from his home on Nov. 28, five days after my assault. The two men faced armed robbery and conspiracy to commit armed robbery charges in that case, both life offenses.
According to the Lansing Police Department report on my attack, Adrian James Tupper and Aaron Christopher Spyker would tell Lansing Police Detective Joel Johnson that they targeted gay men because such men were “sick” and “they would not report it to police.”
I knew as it happened that I was a hate-crime victim. Police labeled it as such six months later, after the two were sentenced.
To some, meeting complete strangers from the Internet may seem reckless, but this is part of gay and straight dating in 2016. There are digital platforms for those seeking relationships — whether one-time hookups or marriage — targeting every imaginable demographic in America. The Internet has become a communal meeting space — a giant bar, if you will.
As a reporter I have covered antigay crimes for nearly three decades. They included the hookup murder in 1996 of Lansing State Journal sportswriter Bob Gross, who had met a man at a Michigan Avenue bar and was subsequently stabbed to death and his body set on fire, or the execution style murder of Alden Judge in Lansing in 1999.
As a result, I am particularly aware of the risk in meeting strangers. That’s why I got pictures of my assailants’ faces and a cell phone number. That’s why I talked to them on the phone. That’s why there was an email trail.
And it’s the reason that within three days of my attack I had identified both assailants through a photo lineup. My photos were key in the police work that went into identifying them. The cell-phone number? It was used to tie my attack to the one in Lansing Township.
Violent predators are stalking Internet sites, using a variety of ploys to connect with — and harm — their victims. Just as in real life. Sometimes the attacker pretends to be gay, to lure a victim in order rob him, as happened with me. Sometimes the criminal pretends to have something for sale or an interest in purchasing something from the victim.
How extensive are Internet-related crimes like these in America is unclear. No law enforcement agency, local, state or federal, tracks them. Law Street Media, a news website aimed at millennials, reported that 58 prosecuted murders from 2009 to 2014 involved victims contacted through Craigslist.
Sue Yacka, the communications director for the New York City Anti-Violence Project, told me it documented 27 “pick-up” crimes last year involving the Internet in NYC alone. That was nearly double what the agency documented in 2014, which was 15 incidents.
“I think the low number reflects a reluctance to report,” she told me by email. “Or when reporting hate violence, folks don’t always divulge how they met their attacker(s).”
Yacka’s agency coordinates bias and hate crime incidents against the LGBTQ and HIV-affected communities for 11 states, including Michigan. In 2015, the combined agencies reported 1,253 incidents nationwide, including 24 hate-motivated murders.
Lisa McCormick, Ingham County’s chief assistant prosecutor, told me that shame, guilt and fear of being judged by the police or the Prosecutor’s Office are reasons they don’t get reported.
“That’s not the case here in Ingham County,” she told me in June in a conference room at the Grady Porter Building in downtown Lansing. “We’re not going to be judging. The only judging will be on the perpetrators, who deserve to be judged, by a judge.”
Spyker and Tupper told Lansing Police Detective Joel Johnson that reluctance to report was a motivating factor in their crime spree. They admitted to pretending to be gay in order to rob victims they met through Craigslist. While they admitted to three specific instances, they related to Johnson that there were other communications. It remains unclear how many victims there were in this case.
Tupper’s interview began Nov. 30 with a confession of sorts. He and Spyker had been arrested by the city’s fugitive team hours earlier. Johnson arrived and set up video recording equipment to talk to both men.
McCormick, who was unable to release the confession video because the prosecutor’s office did not have the technical capacity to edit it to protect the privacy of the victims, reviewed the confessions. She said Tupper started his interview by asking if he were there about the “fucking faggots Craigslist.”