April 19, 2015 – Allan Turner
Long before Houston banker Paul Broussard brutally was murdered in a Montrose gang attack on July 4, 1991, Ray Hill, a blustering ex-con and gay activist, was a master of media manipulation. But with Broussard’s death – and the crime investigation that followed – Hill faced the biggest challenge of his career. A one-time Baptist child evangelist, Hill used every tool at hand to keep the story hot. He goaded police to action with mass demonstrations, and his face was a fixture on the nightly television news. In the end, 10 teens and young men from The Woodlands faced charges in the deadly knifing. Five went to prison.
When the sentences were announced, though, Hill recognized he had succeeded all too well, he said. Jon Buice, the knife man in the attack, was handed 45 years. “A 45-year sentence for a 17-year-old kid is excessive,” Hill said. “I don’t care if he killed his mama. I don’t care if he killed my mama.” Thus began Hill’s unlikely decades-long battle to undo what he had fought so hard to do. Hill’s fight to free Buice from prison and the growing belief among some observers that the killer was punished excessively will be examined in “The Guy With the Knife,” a documentary by Canadian filmmaker Alison Armstrong to be screened Tuesday at two Houston universities.
Set against the backdrop of the grisly purported “gay-bashing,” the film – begun in 2006 – probes the unsettling moral ambiguities of crime and punishment: When has a killer been punished enough? Should he ever be forgiven? Can he ever be sufficiently remorseful? Can he even be believed? “This film raises more questions than it answers,” said Armstrong, whose earlier work appeared in Toronto newspapers and on Canadian Broadcasting Corp. outlets. “It doesn’t make it easy for the audience.” Buice, the last of the so-called “Woodlands 10” to remain behind bars, has been rejected for parole on nine occasions. His next parole hearing is scheduled for October. Unless he is paroled, he will remain in prison until 2037.
Remorse and Growth
During his years in prison, Buice has obtained two associate college degrees and a bachelor’s degree. He’s professed remorse for the killing, and claimed to have grown “physically, mentally, and emotionally.” “ I never meant to hurt anyone,” he asserts in Armstrong’s documentary.
Broussard’s mother, Nancy Rodriguez, who has fought to keep Buice locked up, is not convinced. “I hope the film shows who the true victim is – my son and not the one who murdered him,” she said.
The events that sent Buice to prison began early on Independence Day as two groups, Broussard and two friends, and The Woodlands 10, met on a darkened street in Montrose’s gay club district. Abusive
words were exchanged. A fight broke out. Surrounded on a dead-end street, 27-year-old Broussard was stabbed in the chest. The killing galvanized the gay community, said Maria Gonzalez, a University of Houston English professor who is active in the Houston GLBT Political Caucus.
“Previously, much of our system didn’t protect people who were vulnerable in our society, Hill, now best known for his KPFT-FM prison talk show, stepped in to steer the protests. A former inmate who had served time for burglary, Hill was an adept propagandist. When gay-baiting vocalist Anita Bryant came to town, Hill lead a march that – amplified by national media murder … people said, ‘Enough is enough.’ … A whole new relationship developed between the gay community and the police department.”
Hill, now best known for his KPFT-FM prison talk show, stepped in to steer the protests. A former inmate who had served time for burglary, Hill was an adept propagandist. When gay-baiting vocalist Anita Bryant came to town, Hill lead a march that – amplified by national media – was a milestone in Houston GLBT history. He later headed the nascent GLBT Caucus. Convinced that police were dragging their feet in Broussard’s murder, he led thousands of angry demonstrators to protest at then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire’s doorstep. “I’m responsible for those guys going to prison,” Hill said.
But he acknowledged that, in his zeal, he “crossed a line” in making accusations that later proved false. In “The Guy With the Knife,” Hill is seen asserting that Broussard was pummeled with nail-studded boards.
“The autopsy later revealed that was not the case,” Hill admitted. “I had some questions about some of the things I was saying, but you get caught up in perpetuating the media attention. In my heart of hearts, I knew that if I dropped the ball, the story would not appear in the next edition.” Arguably as a result of Hill-led protests, prosecutors crafted tough plea agreements for the five attackers sent to prison.
In the film, the late Harris County District Attorney Mike Anderson says the 45-year sentence was suggested by Buice’s defense attorney. Another defendant was assessed 20 years; three others, 15. Unsettled by the severity of the punishments, Hill extended an invitation to Buice to write him through his radio program. Through a series of subsequent letters, prison visits and parole hearings, Hill became convinced that Buice and his companions came to Montrose only to party, not to assault gays.
“Jon Buice is my friend,” Hill said. At one point, Hill proposed that the inmate, if paroled, might make a suitable host for his radio show.
Hill’s about-face enraged some members of the gay community. Armstrong, in Houston to work on other stories, became intrigued by Hill’s change of heart. “I was astonished that someone would spendso much time and effort to put someone in jail, and then spend the last 20 years trying to get him out,” she said. “My movie really is a story about relationships and about forgiveness. How does society forgive a teenager murderer?
University professor Gonzalez agreed that what at first was thought a hate crime might have really been spur-of-the-moment violence committed by young men fuddled on drugs and drink. “What looked like a black and white hate crime 24 years ago isn’t so black and white anymore,” she said.
‘Just or Just Vengeful?’
Gonzalez appears in Armstrong’s film, as does the late Houston newspaper crime reporter Susan Bardwell. Bardwell, like Hill, grew to believe the severity of Buice’s punishment was unwarranted.
City of Houston crime victim’ advocate Andy Kahan sharply disagreed. “This is one of those crimes that resonates with the citizens of Houston,” he said. “It is horrible, brutal and diabolical.” Kahan, who also appears in the documentary, notes in the film that Buice is lucky that he wasn’t tried and sentenced to death.
“Evidence clearly indicated that group members stated they had been on gay-bashing trips before,” Kahan said. “Mr. Buice – taking this from the transcripts – showed his knife to others and said, “This is to cut the queer.’” Members of Buice’s group cheered as the attack progressed, he said, and celebrated their violence by “giving high fives.”
Broussard’s mother, who now lives in Georgia, responded to questions by email. “I remember Buice testifying in court that the group made a unanimous decision to drive to Montrose and go beat up some queers and even put what they called ‘queer rocks’ in their pockets,” she said.
Kahan charged that Armstrong’s film “just adds more wounds” to the sorrow Rodriguez has suffered.
The filmmaker expressed sympathy for the dead man’s mother, but asserted that “I did not become Jon Buice’s friend. When you look at who Jon was when he was 17 and who he is now,” she said, “you have to ask was this sentence just or just vengeful?”
“The Guy With the Knife” will be shown at 2 p.m. Tuesday in Room 104 of Texas Southern University’s MLK Humanities Building and at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Room 212 of the main UH campus’ student center.