Paul Broussard’s murder taught the nation the phrase ‘gay-bashing.’ But was it really a hate crime?

By Lisa GrayNovember 16, 2015 Updated: November 18, 2015 9:45am – Original Link

Saturday morning, Ray Hill got a call.

Houstonians know Hill as one of the city’s great characters: A gay ex-con who somehow managed to crusade for both gay rights and prisoners’ issues; a profane, charming story-teller; a former teen evangelist; a swaggering former quarterback who, when righteously angry, is terrifying to behold.

“I will index well in gay history,” Hill says — immodestly, maybe, but also correct. For years, Hill was the Montrose guy you called when certain kinds of trouble broke out, or when other kinds of trouble needed to be made. He seemed to be everywhere, at the protests and parades, founding committees and clinics and counseling centers. Sometimes up front, sometimes behind the scene, he played a role in major court cases, such as Lawrence v. Texas, in which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned sodomy laws.

“I had the toughest territory in the country,” he says, “and we’ve done wonderful things.”

These days, at 75, Hill tells people that he’s retired. A post-amputation diabetic, he says, “I’m not as handsome as I used to be.” He’s undergone two heart surgeries in just the last month, and when he drinks coffee, his hand trembles.

But a hellraiser never really retires. And that Saturday-morning call was about unfinished business.

Jon Buice, the caller told Hill, had been approved for parole. Buice (pronounced “Bice”) was the “guy with the knife” who in 1991 killed a gay man, Paul Broussard, in Montrose.

In large part because of Ray Hill, Broussard’s case became a national cause célèbre. On news reports, announcers gravely explained to Americans the new phrase “gay-bashing.” Hill played the media like a virtuoso, demanding that police pay attention, demanding that what could have disappeared into the ether as just another unsolved murder be treated as a hate crime.

But on Saturday, decades later, Ray Hill was relieved to hear that, at long last, Buice might finally get out. To Hill’s way of thinking, the parole wouldn’t just signal that Buice had finally paid his debt to society. It would signal that Hill had, too.

THE STORY begins with a different phone call. In the wee hours of the Fourth of July, 1991, the phone woke Hill up. It was a kind of gay 9-1-1 call: A butcher, who Hill had once helped with an AIDS-related discrimination case, told Hill that a man was beaten and bleeding near Heaven, a Montrose after-hours club. Despite calls, the butcher said, the ambulance hadn’t come, didn’t seem to be coming.

Bleary, Ray guessed what was happening. On a holiday, he figured, the usual Montrose EMTs were probably taking the night off. Subs from the hinterlands were probably covering for them, and subs from the hinterlands tended to be terrified of AIDS. Maybe they were dragging their feet, hoping the case just went away.

That was how things worked then: Montrose was the dirty, sexy gay ghetto, a place where the regular rules didn’t apply. And Hill knew the real rules, the same as he knew the club owners, the leather daddies, the drag queens, the chickenhawks, the sexy bartenders in their cut-off jeans, the closeted guys who, in daylight hours, held important jobs, made big donations to Baptist churches. Hill knew which cops were the good ones, which politicians could be leaned on, what gay business owner could be depended on for a big donation — in short, who to call when he got a call.

He dialed the dispatcher, pulled on his pants, and headed out.

The EMTs at least beat him to the scene. By the time he arrived, the bleeding man had been hauled away. Hill talked to the cop, a good one, who was working the scene. There wasn’t much evidence to work with, the cop said — the two witnesses’ stories conflicted — and anyway, it looked like the stabbed man would live. It’d be just another assault.

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Hill thought it was over. But the man died.

The man was Paul Broussard, a gay, 27-year-old banker, who’d been walking home from a club that night with two friends when a group of men attacked them. Broussard’s two friends escaped. But Broussard was kicked, beaten brutally, apparently whacked with whatever the assailants found lying around — in some versions of the story, a board studded with nails — and stabbed multiple times.

In the papers, the killing was just a police blurb.

But then Hill began doing what he did: being Ray Hill, raising hell. Montrose was hungry for that: The devastation that AIDS wreaked changed the gay world, made it feel dangerous just to be gay or lesbian, given the gay-rights movement a sense of moral urgency. We are dying, was always the subtext, and the rest of the world needs to care.

Now here was Paul Broussard, dead, and the rest of the world, not caring. Ray Hill seized the moment.

“The police said, ‘We don’t have evidence that’s there’s a hate crime.’ But if I came to the media, and said, ‘A man got killed!’ the media would roll over and go back to sleep. So I said, ‘It’s a hate crime!'”

It wasn’t a huge stretch. Everyone knew the stories, had seen the suburban knuckleheads yelling abuse outside the clubs. Gay-bashing happened. A man had been killed in Montrose. If Ray Hill said it was a hate crime, then it must be a hate crime.

In a way, it was the crime that Montrose had been waiting for, a catalyst for righteous action. Hill urged members of Queer Nation, a rowdy, confrontational group, to protest, and they did it in a big way. Only a few days after Broussard’s killing, an estimated 2,000 people showed up on a Friday night, waving signs and backing up traffic at Westheimer and Montrose. “Queers fight back!” they chanted.

The TV cameras loved it. And just like that, Broussard’s death became a big story.

Hill considered it his job to keep the killing in the news. He shepherded a Nightline crew around town. He raised money to offer a reward. He spoke at press conferences alongside the Houston police.

Finally, a woman came forward. Her tip led to a group of ten students from McCullough High School, in the Woodlands — three in their early 20s, the rest in their teens.

The Woodlands 10, the media called them, the master-planned community’s name dripping with privilege. At a follow-up press conference, with TV cameras rolling, Hill insisted that they be prosecuted vigorously, that they receive “meaningful sentences” for committing a hate crime.

There were more protests. More press conferences. More cameras.

Five of the Woodlands 10 ended up in prison; the others were given probation.

Of that group, it was Buice, the guy with the knife, who took the hardest fall. He was 17 when he stabbed Broussard, 18 when he plead guilty. In his plea deal, he accepted a whopping 45-year sentence.

At a July 12, 1991, press conference, Ray Hill praises Houston police for apprehending “the Woodlands 10.” Photo: D. Fahleson, © Houston Chronicle / Houston Chronicle Photo: D. Fahleson, © Houston Chronicle At a July 12, 1991, press conference, Ray Hill praises Houston police for apprehending “the Woodlands 10.”
RAY HILL knows prison. In the mid-’60s, the social life he liked wasn’t cheap. First he went to prison for writing hot checks. Then he turned to commercial burglary — antiques, art, jewels, “the stuff queers know about.” Once, he says, he and his crew broke into an antique store just to rearrange the merchandise more tastefully. They didn’t steal anything from that store. Instead, they left dried floral arrangements — the dash of color that the shop had so dreadfully needed.

Hill went to prison not for burglary, but tax evasion. A judge sentenced him to 20 consecutive eight-year sentences — 160 years in all. Thinking he was there for life, he threw himself into making a life in the Ramsey Unit. He landed a prison job as a maintenance bookkeeper, a sweet gig. He controlled keys to prison doors. On his walkie-talkie, he called the warden “big boss.” In prison, he had a place.

But then he got out: On appeal, the 20 consecutive sentences were reduced to a single eight-year term. Because Hill had been a model inmate, he got out after only a little more than four years.

He set out to make a place for himself in Montrose, to work that world the way he’d worked prison. His parents had been labor organizers. Hill figured he’d organize the gay community.

In 1975, about a week after he got out of prison, he helped launch a radio show about gay issues at KPFT-FM, the city’s lefty radio station. After a while, he ended up the station’s manager, and realized that he could do any kind of show that he wanted. So in 1980, he added a show about his other passion: prisons.

“The Prison Show” was a two-hour show, about half news, half call-ins, so that inmates, who didn’t have access to phones could hear their families’ voices. It became popular with everyone in the southeast Texas system — not just prisoners and their families, but also the guards and prison staff. There was, and is, nothing like it anywhere else in the country.

After the Woodlands 10 received their sentences, they stayed on Hill’s mind — now, not as the enemy, but as that other set of his people. He knew first-hand the pitch of homophobia in Texas prisons, and he thought a lot about the hate that motivated hate crimes.

“Who’s doing anything about the hate part?” he says he asked himself. “Nothing in the Texas prison system does anything about hate. Then I thought, ‘I have the ‘Prison Show.’ So isn’t that my job?”

On “The Prison Show,” he asked Buice to get in touch with him.

Buice did, and in April 1999, Hill read Buice’s letter on the show. “The gay and lesbian community of Houston I owe a momentous apology,” Buice wrote. “A repentance for an act of atrocity. The night of July 4th, 1991, haunts me every day. It has hurt me deep inside. I was involved in taking a man’s life.”

Through the media, Buice wrote, he sometimes learned of “some hateful action taken against the minority of or of a differing sexual orientation. This wounds my heart and I’m appalled to know that I, too, was involved in this type of action.”

After that letter, Hill went to visit Buice. He kept going back. He gave Buice advice — tips on how to survive prison, how to be a model inmate, how to make parole fast. They’re both prison people, Hill says. They bonded over that. They laughed a lot.

Jon Buice. Photo: John Everett, HC Staff / Houston Chronicle Photo: John Everett, HC Staff Jon Buice.
Buice wasn’t what Hill had imagined. He’d begun hoping to heal Buice’s hate; but he hadn’t found hate there at all.”I didn’t see any evidence that indicates hate,” he says. “I’m an actor, so I can tell when people are acting. He wasn’t acting. And believe me, I can smell homophobia.”

He says that the Woodlands 10 were drunk and high, there in the parking lot — angry that they’d been kicked out of the late-night club Numbers, spoiling for a fight. Poisoned with testosterone and male bravado, he’d committed a horrifying, senseless crime, but not, Hill thought, an ideological one. He wasn’t motivated by homophobia, Hill insists. Not by hate.

And if there wasn’t hate, what did that mean about the stiff hate-crime sentence Buice was serving? The sentence that Hill himself had pushed for?

Buice, he thought, didn’t deserve those 45 years.

“I realized that I’d made a major ethical error,” Hill says. “And I realized I had a moral obligation to clean my s—. This is about Ray Hill being wrong. This is about making up for it.”

He campaigned to get Buice paroled. He talked to the local media about his change of heart. He mailed the parole board. And in 2006, he began working with an independent Canadian journalist, Alison Armstrong. Her documentary film, The Guy with the Knife, has been making the rounds of GLBT film festivals. It screened earlier this year at the University of Houston and at Texas Southern University.

And, maybe most critically, it was screened for Buice’s parole board.

HILL’S SUPPORT of Buice, and other members of the Woodlands 10, hasn’t gone over well with his old allies, the ones who once sought justice for Paul Broussard alongside him. Hill feels bad about that. Many people in the GLBT community feel violated, he says. “They trusted me. And I lied to them. I said it was a hate crime. Then six or seven years later, I say, Wait a minute! There’s an ethical issue I must resolve!”

Nancy Rodriguez, Broussard’s mother, has opposed her son’s killers’ parole every step of the way — as has Andy Kahan, the crime-victim advocate for the mayor’s office. On Monday, after Kahan found out that Buice’s parole had been approved, he told the media that he was submitting a formal request that the board reconsider its decision.

In the meantime, Buice is still in prison at Rosharon, about 30 miles south of Houston, waiting for his parole plan to be approved.

Hill frets that something could still go wrong, that Kahan and his allies could still somehow stop the parole. So on Monday morning, at Hill’s favorite Starbucks, he was telling a Chronicle reporter about Buice.

On the table, next to his coffee, his cell phone buzzed. Another reporter — Doug Miller, from KHOU, a guy Hill has known for decades — was calling about Buice’s parole.

Miller wanted to interview Hill somewhere in Montrose. Hill was happy to do the interview, of course, but he pushed back at Miller’s request, saying that he’d rather drop by KHOU’s studio.

“You know how I operate,” he told Miller, laughing. “I’m not a virgin at this business.”

Hill was, in short, in full Ray Hill mode: Charming the media, telling his vivid, polished stories, shaping the messy real world into a narrative that people can get their heads around. (Ray Hill was wrong! Ray Hill seeks redemption!)

As he saw it, being Ray Hill was what had led him astray with Buice to begin with. And maybe, if he did it right, being Ray Hill could make him feel clean again.