July 1, 1999: Crimes Are Very Similar: Murder Suspect Convicted of Killing Gay Man Exactly 20 Years Ago

This article is part of a series commemorating the 30th anniversary of Pride Source's print publication, Between The Lines

I had been full time with Between The Lines for no more than a month when I was asked to look into the murder of civil rights activist Harold McCormick in July of 1999. A closeted gay man, McCormick had been strangled to death in his apartment with a phone cord and a double-knotted necktie by a male prostitute he picked up in Palmer Park. It was a sad story all the way around.

And as my research progressed, it would grow even sadder. McCormick’s then alleged murderer Willie Arthur Brown, only 43 at the time, had already spent 15 years in prison for an eerily similar murder he committed exactly 20 years to the day before McCormick’s. I found this out after trekking down to the Herman Keefer building just north of downtown Detroit and digging up the death certificate of Brown’s first victim, GM employee Calvin Edwards. 

I was the first to report this information and bring the details and exact date of the first murder to light. Speaking to McCormick’s nephew, I learned how carefully the man who had marched with the likes of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesse Jackson had concealed his homosexuality. Then, after a most undignified death, all his secrets came tumbling out.

In my nearly quarter century with BTL, the Harold McCormick murder stories stand out to me for a few reasons. First, still so new to the job, the digging I had to do on this story and the details I uncovered made me feel like a real journalist. As gruesome as it sounds, it’s been said in newsrooms around the world since the beginning of the free press that if it bleeds, it leads. McCormick’s death, tragic as it certainly was, was enthralling.

It was also a cautionary tale. Don’t assume your secrets will die with you. Sometimes, no matter how much effort you put into securing them, they will still manage to slip out. If not in life, then in death. 

McCormick was a pillar of his community put down by a homophobic killer. And in an instant, his carefully concealed cover came off. Then, suddenly, a life of good works is marred by one mistake: picking up the wrong piece of trade in the wrong adult bookstore at the wrong time. Just like that, the fickle hand of fate exposed McCormick and exposed all his business in the dangerous, and sometimes deadly, streets of Detroit.