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Arthur 'J.R.' Warren's murder may change lives of many others

by Vicki Smith

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

GRANT TOWN -- On the porches and narrow streets of this hillside village above Paw Paw Creek, people talk about race and sex. About hatred and tolerance. About the devastation of several families.

They talk about the murder of a gay black man who walked among them for all of his 26 years.

And they shake their heads sadly, wondering how the two 17-year-old suspects could have committed such violence -- allegedly beating Arthur "J.R." Warren to death, then running over him with a Camaro in a staged hit-and-run.

For Grant Town and the larger community, Marion County, life may never be the same.

Warren was a slender, 5-foot-9 fixture in this tight-knit town of about 700. He had a learning disability and a malformed hand that, coupled with mild, undiagnosed seizures, kept him unemployed and living at home.

But by all accounts, he was seldom idle. He carried groceries for pregnant women and visited his elderly neighbors when they were sick. He volunteered as audio technician at Mount Beulah Baptist Church and walked down his street asking women what was cooking in their kitchens.

"He was a rare creature," says his mother, Brenda Warren. "And a gentle one at that."

He loved to eat and listen to music. But more than anything, his mother says, he loved to talk.

That is apparently what got him in trouble with David Parker and Jared Wilson, the boys now charged with first-degree murder. The teens, who are cousins, are expected to stand trial as adults.

Family members say Parker is an "ordinary" boy who loves fishing, hunting and cars, but they readily acknowledge a temper that sometimes lands him in trouble.

A teacher who knows Wilson says she, too, saw "red flags" indicating the boy was emotionally troubled, including violent drawings and a defensive, quietly angry demeanor.

Initially, authorities thought Warren was the victim of a hit-and-run. A newspaper carrier found his battered body on a foggy Fourth of July morning in a gravel pullout along state Route 17.

But evidence typically found at accident scenes -- shards of plastic or glass and paint on the victim's clothing -- was nonexistent.

Within hours, the focus shifted: Jason Shoemaker, a 15-year-old who witnessed the beating, told his mother he had helped Wilson and Parker clean up the murder scene, a vacant house the boys had been painting. She immediately went to police with the information.

Parker and Wilson were arrested the same night at a fireworks show in neighboring Fairview, where the Wilson family lives. Shoemaker has not been charged with a crime.

Secrecy shrouded the case for 10 days as the investigators, prosecutor, defense lawyers and judge deflected questions about the motive. Over and over, they cited a state law that protects the identities of juvenile crime suspects.

But in the absence of information, suspicion grew that the murder was motivated by hatred.

National gay- and civil-rights organizations descended on North Central West Virginia, demanding that investigators say whether the murder was linked to Warren's race or sexual orientation.

Although Sheriff Ron Watkins repeatedly said there was no evidence of a hate crime, he offered no other motive. The public outrage culminated in a candlelight vigil that drew more than 500 people from across the state.

There, Scott Britton of the state's Gay and Lesbian Coalition reminded everyone what is common knowledge: West Virginia is home to several active hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazi National Alliance.

"The truth is, it wasn't a matter of if, but when," Britton said.

Marion County, with its 57,000 residents, is fairly typical of West Virginia. It's largely rural, with just one major city, the county seat of Fairmont. Two-thirds of the populace are scattered in small towns that are sometimes little more than a handful of houses along either side of a two-lane road.

Race has always been an issue in the county, where blacks represent only 3.2 percent of the population, some blacks say. Neither is it a secret that homosexuals aren't widely accepted.

"Groups either get separated out or they separate themselves. There's not a lot of go-between," says Angela Dunlap, a friend of Warren and the leader of a gay and lesbian support group at Fairmont State College.

"It happens everywhere; maybe it's just because of the size that you notice it more. But there are definite distinctions."

Dunlap, who helped organize the vigil, hopes the unity she saw that night will last. For a while, whites and blacks, gays and straights, young and old all sang and swayed together, demanding justice and denouncing hatred.

"Even if only one-fourth of the people there ... can look at someone different and say, 'I understand and I can respect that,' then we did a good thing," Dunlap says.

The sheriff says racial tensions seem to have eased since Warren's death.

"People are showing a lot of love," he said. "I have seen whites hugging blacks and I know that person is prejudiced, but somehow this has eliminated all that. Something good is coming out of this."

Gay-rights groups, however, say there is still work to be done.

"We believe as the facts continue to unfold, a portrait will emerge showing how underlying homophobia and racial bias led to this tragedy," said David Smith of the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign on Friday.

Many have urged the prosecutor to declare the murder a hate crime. But state and federal law have no provisions for victims who were targeted because of their sexual preference.

Prosecutor Richard Bunner has said he is seeking a murder conviction because it carries a stiffer penalty -- life in prison. The maximum possible sentence for a hate crime is 10 years in prison.

Britton, of the Gay and Lesbian Coalition, says now is the time for Marion County to become what he saw at the vigil, "a community united in its determination not to sit on the sidelines," a place where children are taught understanding and respect, not hatred and fear.

"Whether we want to admit it or not, these boys," he said, "these alleged killers, were products of this community."

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