Meth, Murder & One Transplant’s Dashed Utopia: The Way It Would End
by Jane Futcher, November 30, 2010
Close to sunset in early November 2005, two young Ukiah men buzzed on crystal meth drove a white Toyota pickup to a scenic overlook on the south side of Lake Mendocino, a few miles east of town. There they would meet a man nearly twice their age whom they would stab and beat to death - but apparently not before he snorted meth with them, tried to return a wallet one had left in his car and met up with them again later that night.
The killers might never have been caught if one of them had not used an ATM card stolen from the victim. A bank video and a tip from an informant led to the arrest of Nathan McWilliams, 22, and Trevor Conley, 23, two weeks after they murdered 39-year-old Kevin Henry of Albion.
I hadn't heard about the homicide when I wandered into the Mendocino County Courthouse in Ukiah with time to kill one afternoon in February 2006. I'd recently moved from Marin County with my partner to a ranch north of Willits so we could grow a garden and give country life a try. I'd never been in the courthouse and was eager to have a look around.
"Any interesting cases today?" I asked the security guard at the metal detector.
"Murder upstairs," he yawned. "Courtroom E."
As I found a seat in the crowded room, it took me a moment to get my bearings. In the witness box, a sheriff's detective was describing the night that he'd brought in Nathan McWilliams, one of two prisoners now sitting at the front of the courtroom. The detective said that McWilliams had first denied involvement in the crime but later admitted encountering Henry at the lake and doing drugs with him and Conley in Henry's car.
"He felt that Mr. Henry was making advances toward him," sheriff's Detective Jason Caudillo told the court. "McWilliams stated that he felt uncomfortable because he was heterosexual and had a girlfriend."
The victim was gay? Had he really made a pass at the scared young man sitting a few feet away in a red jail jumpsuit? The courtroom was dead quiet save for the weeping of several women in the first 3 rows. They were part of a group of more than 12 people, many wearing purple and all wearing buttons with a photograph of the victim and the words "Forever in Our Hearts." In the seat next to me, a tall, gray-haired woman wearing a handwoven scarf, loose woolen sweater and blue jeans was taking detailed notes on a yellow legal pad.
"That's the family," she whispered to me at the break. She told me the family never approved of Kevin being gay when he was alive. She suggested the family was trying to appear more accepting than they had been.
I looked at her, surprised. "You're not a reporter?"
"Kev was my best friend."
"Wow," I said. "I'm sorry."
When the hearing resumed, I glanced at the second suspect, Trevor Conley, in an orange jail jumpsuit, with buzz-cut brown hair, long sideburns and small goatee. He was gazing coolly at the detective, whose words could condemn him to life in prison, or death.
The detective continued with McWilliams' account of the murder. After doing drugs together at the lake in Henry's Honda Accord, the three men met again later that night in Ukiah, when Henry returned a wallet McWilliams had left in his car. Afterward, he said, all three drove to a dark country road on the west side of Ukiah where Conley planned to buy more drugs from Henry. A scuffle ensued and Henry was knocked unconscious. The men stuffed Henry's body into the trunk of his car and then stopped on a remote country road more than a dozen miles away.
Suddenly, the trunk popped open and Henry ran for his life.
"McWilliams stated that Mr. Conley had gone psycho on Mr. Henry," the detective said softly. "That Mr. Conley had cut Mr. Henry's throat and that Mr. Conley had begun to stomp on Mr. Henry's face and head."
Several members of the victim's family broke down; a tall, thin man from the county's victim witness-protection program offered them tissues.
The detective said the two men left Henry's body in a ditch; the next day, with Conley's girlfriend along for the ride, they pushed the victim's car off a cliff near Ukiah.
The night McWilliams told his story to the detective, he directed the sheriff's department to a plastic bag in his apartment that contained their bloody clothes.
That day in court haunted me. A gay brother had been brutally murdered for $400. Family and friends of the victim were devastated. The lives of the perpetrators, initially charged with murder, robbery, carjacking, kidnapping and a hate crime, were ruined.
The image of two tweakers in a senseless fury stabbing and kicking a gay man to death was at odds with my experience of Mendocino County as a laid-back place where radicals who rail against Chemtrails and flag-waving Reagan Republicans co-exist peaceably.
Mendocino, after all, was a county to which peace-loving hippies and back-to-the-landers had flocked for decades. A place to which harried Bay Area residents headed for weekends in upscale resorts with views of the Pacific. A paradise that increasingly drew Bay Area Baby Boomers like me to quit our jobs and launch kinder, gentler lives.
How did Kevin Henry's murder fit that picture?
For the next year and a half, I followed the case, in-terviewing anyone who'd talk to me about the victim or the perpetrators. I sat in court as the medical examiner declared that methamphetamine had been found in the victim's bloodstream, that he had been stabbed 17 times and died of two deep knife wounds to his back and chest and blunt-force trauma to his head. I listened as the first prosecutor on the case dropped the hate crime charges, arguing that there was no evidence for the charge and that statements by Conley that Henry had tried to grab his penis were "probably self-serving and false." I was there when the trial date was postponed because the pro-secutor took a job in another state. I was present when both suspects, first McWilliams who agreed to testify in Conley's trial, and a year later, Conley, pled guilty to 2nd-degree murder and waived their right to a trial.
From the start, Conley, unemployed at the time of the murder and living in a one-bedroom home in Ukiah with his mother and several other adults, declined to be interviewed, but McWilliams talked with me from jail more than half a dozen times. He blamed Conley for murdering Henry, and Conley, through his attorney, blamed McWilliams. Legally it didn't matter; both men were clearly linked to the crime, and under California law, to aid and abet a homicide makes one as culpable as committing the act itself. On Aug. 31, a judge sentenced both men to 15 years to life in prison.
Like many rural counties in Northern California, Mendocino is fighting back from an economic downturn that began in the early 1990s, when well-paying jobs in the timber and fishing industries dried up and minimum-wage jobs were the only employment options for many in the county.
According to Daniel Ripke, director of the Center for Economic Development at Chico State University, many young people with the means and motivation to attend college end up leaving their hometowns in rural counties because there's no meaningful or financially rewarding work.
Increasingly, the residents left are drawn to what Ripke calls the underground economy - drugs.
"The underground economy that's rising right now is methamphetamine," Ripke said. "Meth is everywhere because all you need is a good pharmaceutical supplier."
Marijuana cultivation and processing are also part of that underground economy. Pot trimming jobs, while seasonal, often pay $20 or $25 an hour. Raising and selling marijuana are much more lucrative.
"The attractiveness of those industries for folks for whom education hasn't been a high priority in the family - or even if the kid has been to college, you put enough money out in front of these people and it's very attractive," Ripke said.
Kevin Henry's killers were on the financial edge at the time of the murder. Conley, a regular meth user, was unemployed, and Nathan McWilliams, also drug dependent, had a new job at a hardware store.
Did their financial circumstances, and the county's, play a role in what happened that night? I can't help but think they did.
"The more economic stress you have creates scarcity, not enough jobs to go around, so that anyone who's different - Italians coming in, or the Germans or Hispanics - can create fear," Ripke said. "Of course, now you have gays, too. It just amazes me that that sort of thing continues to go on."
Until the day Henry's killers were sentenced, Aug. 31, 2007, everything I knew about the victim came from his friend Suzan Spangler of Albion, the woman taking notes the first day I walked into the courtroom. On the day of the sentencing, Henry's older sister Rachelle, 45, invited me to talk with her family at her bungalow in Upper Lake, in Lake County, the same house where she and Kevin and their two older brothers grew up. My interviews with the Henrys and others close to the case demonstrated what I came to call the "Rashomon effect," as nearly all connected to the murder offered different but plausible accounts of what happened the night Henry was murdered, and why.
Their conflicting stories suggested not only how elusive the truth can be but also how challenging it is to identify and prove a hate crime, in which the victim is selected because of his or her actual or perceived race, age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability.
Upper Lake, where Kevin Henry grew up, is a working-class town of 989 people tucked in the mountains about half an hour east of Ukiah. Construction is Upper Lake's most common occupation for men; waitressing tops the list for women. The town was a hard place to be gay, according to Spangler.
But he didn't let his secret get in the way of having fun.
"If there was something going on, he was in the middle of it, and everybody would be laughing," said his mother, Dorothy, now 72. "He entertained the whole family at any event. It never stopped. We laughed and laughed and laughed."
Spangler also loved Henry's charismatic personality.
"He was just charming," Spangler said. "He could walk through a town and in 3 days, people were saying, 'Hi, Kev, how you doing?' People would think he'd lived there all his life. I used to always say you could take him to a hobo camp for dinner and he'd fit in, or you could take him to the White House and he'd fit in."
About a month before his death, Henry moved from Seattle back to the coastal town of Albion, just south of the village of Mendocino, with his longtime companion, Nancy Farris, a travel agent 10 years his senior, who, like Henry, was an amateur actor. The two were "nomads," Spangler said. They'd backpacked several times in Europe and once in Asia and had lived in Santa Barbara, Seattle, Santa Fe, San Diego and San Francisco. Undone by Henry's death, Farris moved to San Diego shortly after police found his body and declined to be interviewed for this story.
Spangler cleaned houses and worked in the bakery of the Albion Grocery when we met. She had known Henry and Farris for about five years and was delighted when they moved back to Albion, helping Henry get a job at the grocery and starting a firewood delivery business with him. Now 62, Spangler looked forward to the day when she and Henry and Farris could fix up the cottage on her property so the couple could move in. If all went well, she dreamed of selling her place and moving to Santa Fe with them.
The couple's relationship was platonic; both were free to pursue other love interests, according to Spangler and the Henrys. But, in many respects, they lived like a married couple, sharing their income and personal resources, looking out for each other, planning their lives together, the family also said.
Henry's relations with his family had long been troubled, according to Spangler, who admits that her grief at his death often takes the form of anger - at the perpetrators, the criminal justice system, the press and sometimes Henry's family.
"Since he was a child he'd had a bad time," Spangler said. "There was a lot of family baggage he had."
The Henry family told a very different story about their relationship with Kevin. All agreed that he was extremely close to his mother, who helped him financially when she could and talked with him by phone every couple of weeks, even when he and Farris were on the road.
Handsome, blond and tall for his age, Henry played football in high school and performed in school productions, including one that he wrote for English class called "Norman Noun and Vicky Verb."
Nicknamed Duber by his family, Henry asked "little old ladies and school teachers" to dance at community events, eager to ensure that no one felt left out.
Dorothy Henry said she'd long suspected her youngest son was gay, but they never talked about it.
"I think I just always knew, but there was a point when I asked him and he said, 'No,' he had friends that were."
"He fought it really hard," said his aunt, Laura Denman, 66, of Los Osos. "He didn't want to be gay. He was afraid we wouldn't love him anymore, and he should have known we would. He just didn't want to make anybody unhappy about it."
The Henrys weren't surprised when Kevin left Lake County after high school and moved to Santa Barbara, where he attended Santa Barbara City College and took a job as a waiter at the Harbor restaurant.
On a visit to Santa Barbara, his mother recalled her star-struck son's insistence that she sit in a "special chair" that singer Anne Murray had dined in the night before.
"I have a stack of autographs that he got from different stars," she said. "He liked glamour."
Henry's warmth and good looks served him well when he landed a job as a disc jockey on a cruise ship in his mid-20s. His brother Bill, 53, said Kevin never invited any of his male friends home with him but occasionally showed up with "gorgeous" women, colleagues from the cruise line.
"There would be a time when you'd think, maybe I'm not thinking right, I'm not seeing what I'm seeing," said his aunt. "He was very ashamed of being gay, and it's so sad."
Henry met Farris at a theater in Santa Barbara where both performed.
"They both loved the theater and they both loved to travel," his mother said. "When he was sick, when he first found out he had AIDS, there were so many meds, and she kept track of them. She made him eat right."
But the family said Farris seemed jealous of Henry's close relationship with his mother and made it clear to the Henrys that she, not Dorothy, was the No. 1 woman in Henry's life.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Nancy worshiped him," Rachelle said. "But we loved him, too. She should have appreciated more that Kevin was as loved as he was. None of us was a threat to their relationship."
Responding to Conley's claim that Henry tried to grab his penis, Rachelle said Henry might have "flirted" but would never have been physically or sexually aggressive.
"Kevin believed that everyone was as good and trusting as he was," Rachelle said.
During my visit, his mother played a CD for me, a karaoke recording of Henry crooning an eerily prophetic tune by Garth Brooks:
"I'm glad I didn't know the way it all would end, the way it all would go. Our lives are better left to chance, I could have missed the pain, But I'd have had to miss the dance."
Former Mendocino County District Attorney Norman Vroman was DA at the time of Henry's murder but died of a heart attack 10 months later, in the middle of a fiercely competitive re-election campaign. Vroman had spent nine months in federal prison in the 1990s for income tax evasion and was a burly guy with a fondness for guns and his pet wolf. He would not discuss any specifics of the Henry case, but had plenty to say about California's hate crime legislation, which has included sexual orientation as a protected category since 1990.
"I understand the hoopla surrounding the enactment of that law," he said in his Ukiah office. "But it was just that, hoopla. My main goal is to prosecute people for the crimes they committed and get them the maximum sentence I can get, and when you get a life or a 25-to-life or 15-year-to-life sentence on somebody that's killed somebody, it seems superfluous to me to try to add two more years to that thing because of a hate crime."
Vroman reiterated the prosecuting attorney's claim that there was not enough evidence in the Henry case to argue that the victim was killed because he was gay.
"A lot of times we know it was a hate crime, but we don't have the evidence to show that," he said. "Everybody assumes that when somebody kills somebody like that it's because they're gay, and I think that's a false assumption. It just happened to be they were handy and they died."
Vroman vehemently rejected the suggestion that the state's hate crime law, well enforced, might deter would-be perpetrators.
"You think somebody's going to pick up a law book and say, 'Oh, my goodness, if I murder somebody I'll get 25-to-life, but if I sexually violate them, or I do it because they're a queer, I'm going to get two more years — oh, I better not do that?' That's nonsense. Besides, no crook ever looks at a law book before they commit a crime because none of them ever think they're going to get caught."
I wanted another perspective on hate crimes, so I met in San Francisco with Shannon Minter, an attorney and legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Chris Daley, a founder of the Transgender Law Center and its executive director at the time. Daley had worked with Alameda County attorneys on the 2005 prosecution of three East Bay men who claimed that transgender teenager Gwen Araujo provoked her own murder by living as female and throwing their sexualities into crisis.
"Calling it 'hoopla' is inappropriate, dismissive and very ill informed," Minter said. "If there is evidence of a hate crime, let the jury decide. Hate crimes have a very negative effect on other gay and transgender people and ultimately on the whole society."
Minter explained that even if the perpetrators had no intention of murdering anyone when they went to the lake, the homicide would qualify as a hate crime if the DA could show that, based on Henry's sexual orientation, the two men formulated their intention to murder Henry at some point before they attacked him.
There's been an evolution in what's considered a hate crime since California adopted the legislation, according to Daley. Traditionally, a prosecutor arguing a hate crime charge in a case such as Henry's would hope to present evidence proving that the perpetrators drove to the overlook by the lake knowing that it was a gay cruising spot - which it was - and decided to attack Henry because they thought he was gay. If the victim subsequently came on to the perpetrators or sexually assaulted them, some prosecutors, Daley said, might wrongly assume that the suspects were motivated, even justified in their act of violence and that the victim was no longer protected by the state's hate crime law.
But when the danger is over, the right of self-defense ends, according to Daley.
"The whole thing that underlies the gay-panic defense," Daley said, "which is, 'Oh, in the heat of the moment, this is when I did this.' Well, it sounds like they stuffed (Henry) in the car and drove for some period of time, and the idea that the heat of the moment continues during that drive and beyond is pretty impractical."
I had never interviewed a murder defendant when I met with Nathan McWilliams in the Mendocino County Jail. I liked the guy. He was soft-spoken and polite, often self-deprecating when we talked. He had no happy memories from his childhood, when he had been prescribed Ritalin for attention deficit disorder. For many years, he said, he'd used low levels of methamphetamine to help him function and focus. At the time of the murder, he said he and his girlfriend dreamed of getting married and starting a business buying and fixing up old houses. He regretted ever speaking to Trevor Conley, whom he said he met for the first time the day of the murder, when he and Trevor hit it off, and did meth together. Nathan got higher than he'd ever been in his life, he said, and when they drove out to the lake, they were just having fun, not looking to rob or hurt anyone.
He said that while the murder wasn't a hate crime and that he had nothing against gay people, the victim's repeated offers of oral sex made him angry.
"He goes crazy with propositioning me," McWilliams said. "I declined as respectfully as possible. I'm starting to get mad. I was already high on meth. In retaliation, I pulled out his money. It wouldn't have happened if the guy hadn't kept trying to get sex out of us. We went back and Trevor was boasting, 'We could beat that fag up,' something along those lines, because he was really persistent."
McWilliams and Conley made up the sexual overtures by Henry in order to justify the murder, according to investigator Kevin Bailey, who works in the DA's office. Bailey cautioned against believing anything McWilliams said because he'd already told many conflicting versions of what happened the night of the murder, and like many people who have committed crimes, he would rather blame others than admit guilt.
"Probably the dumbest thing they did was leave their wallet behind," Bailey said. "And I think had they not done that, we would have been dealing with a theft instead of a homicide.
Bailey theorized that Henry was eager to get his own wallet back when he roamed Ukiah that night looking for Conley and McWilliams and that when he finally reached Conley by phone, the perpetrators, fearing that Henry might turn them in for stealing his wallet, were worried.
Nathan's father, Keith, who's 47, lives in Willits, 20 miles north of Ukiah. A self-employed carpenter who provides home repair and maintenance services to elderly people, Keith attended all of Nathan's court dates, said he deeply loves his son and worries constantly about him. He said that what Nathan did was wrong but that Henry also bears some responsibility for what happened that night.
"Henry's from Albion, and he came over to Ukiah, basically, to do his dirty deed," Keith McWilliams said. "He has AIDS, had AIDS, and he didn't tell the boys that he had it or anything. He was just trying to solicit them, and that's how this whole thing started. And then Conley hit him with his fist."
According to Keith McWilliams, the press coverage of the case was biased against his son.
"They made Henry look like this saint, and they made the boys look like trash, like murderers, which they are, but, well Conley is," the elder McWilliams said. "But it just wasn't fair to say that they were doing all this when Henry was actually the one that caused all these problems. What if he would have infected the boys? There was blood all over the place. Had they sliced their own skin with all that blood there, they would have been dead. I would much rather them be in jail for life than have AIDS."
Spangler was furious at the suggestion that Henry, who had driven to Ukiah for two medical appointments, was there to party or pick up guys. She said he planned to be back before dark to help her haul a trailer she'd bought for their wood delivery business.
Furthermore, she said, he would not have spent money on meth or other stimulant drugs because he needed his paycheck, cashed earlier that day, to pay the rent. Certainly, Spangler said, Kevin would never have found Conley and McWilliams sexually appealing.
"If [Kevin] took me into a roomful of people, I could pick out the one that might make his head turn," Spangler said. "And believe me, once I saw them I knew neither one of them would have made his head turn."
Not surprisingly, both lawyers for the defendants blamed Henry's alleged come-ons and their clients' meth addiction for the violent acts that occurred on Nov. 3, 2005. "They were young drug addicts stoned out of their mind," said Mendocino County Alternate Defender Berry Robinson, McWilliams' lawyer. "Meth just exaggerates everything. Violence sometimes becomes uncontrollable. You're not the same person."
Indeed, methamphetamine use is widespread among criminal offenders in all California counties, according to the California Department of Alcohol and Other Drugs Programs. Meth use nearly tripled between 1991 and 2001, with meth-addicted inmates at higher risk than most for reoffending and returning to prison.
Was methamphetamine the culprit on the night of Nov. 2, 2005?
"It does play a huge part in it," Nathan McWilliams said. "It's a good and enjoyable thing for a while. Coming down is bad."
After the murder, McWilliams kept on tweaking.
"It was because I didn't want to face what happened," he said. "I wanted to get lost in Stupidville."
* * *
Nearly two years later, I often replay the terrible night of Henry's death with a happier outcome. In my version, Conley and McWilliams never meet, never drive to the lake and never speak to Kevin Henry, who returns safely to the rental cottage by the ocean that he shared with Farris.
Since walking into Courtroom E in February 2005, I have changed.
I have greater compassion for single or closeted gay men and lesbians in rural communities where there is little support and no place to socialize safely.
I no longer feel as safe in Mendocino County as I once did. When I'm alone at night by the road, unlocking the gate to the community where I live, I scan the bushes and the nearby stream bed for crazed tweakers out for a joy ride, looking for money or drugs or sex.
Henry's killers are in prison, but is the county any more secure? Certainly meth use and abuse continues. And violence has not stopped.
Nor has the dichotomy between rich and poor, well-heeled tourists and Wal-Mart clerks, affluent Bay Area arrivals and struggling high school grads.
I never met Kevin Henry, but I miss him.
"I'm still angry about it," Spangler said. "Because some little do-nothing trash punks — they weren't going to school, they weren't contributing anything to society that I could see, except doing drugs and hanging out, mugging people for money - they're still here and somebody like Kevin isn't. I just can't get over that, the injustice of that."
For the Henry family, the flashbacks, even the unexpected recent discovery of a food stain left in the oven by Kevin during one of his cooking frenzies, can bring tears, and sometimes fear.
"It's the worst possible ride you can be taken on," said Rachelle. "There is no closure. We walk away and nothing's changed. There's no making this right."