For decades, bartenders, hustlers, and gay clubgoers in Atlanta’s Ponce de Leon corridor — an area where gay sex trade was common — circulated rumors about a mysterious man who mutilated and murdered young gay and bisexual men. There was talk of this urban legend, the Handcuff Man — as locals dubbed him — for years, and many swore that the man would offer men $50 to drink a pint of vodka, sometimes telling them he was studying the effects of alcohol. Often, the next thing the victim would know — assuming he lived — was that he had been dumped in a deserted area, handcuffed, his genitals set on fire. The attacks began in 1968. Many of the victims were afraid to report the crimes to the police, in part because being gay was still forbidden and because they were involved in shadow economies of street work. They were, in fact, easy targets for the Handcuff Man.
Over two decades after the attacks began, in May 1991, 21-year-old Michael Jordan was offered $50 to masturbate in a john’s car, then made to drink drug-laced vodka. Jordan did not regain consciousness until the next day at Grady Memorial Hospital, where he would stay nearly a month to undergo treatment severe burns to his thighs, groin, and buttocks. Jordan had been warned by a local bartender to stay away from a john that night; like many in the area’s gay community, Phoenix bartender Bill Adamson knew exactly who the Handcuff Man was. Jordan’s attack galvanized local lesbian and gay leaders, who then urged police to take the stories of the Handcuff Man seriously, at one point getting police captain Ken Boles to admit that they activists had a point, that the department’s sex crimes unit had been slow to respond (a day later, flacks said Boles was misquoted).
Wealthy local attorney Robert Lee Bennett was identified as the Handcuff Man, but before police made an arrest in the case, editors at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the city’s largest newspaper, agonized over whether to withhold the suspect’s name, as was their tradition, or to print it in the name of public safety. After numerous victims identified Bennett as the attacker, the editors decided to print his name. A day after they did, police in Tampa, Fla., requested Bennett’s information; later they charged him with an attack on Gary Clapp, a Florida man who had been burned so severely that both of his legs had to be amputated.
Prosecutors in Georgia and Florida negotiated a plea bargain for Bennett, in which he would plead guilty to the attempted murder of Gary Clapp as well as two counts of aggravated assault in Georgia, and could serve a concurrent 17-year sentence in Florida for all his crimes. LGBT activists were understandably outraged by the sentence, with Lynn Cothren, c-chair of Queer Nation, telling reporters at the time, “It’s a sad situation when people can get away with torture, intimidation, and hate. There’s obviously a problem with the system.”
Many hypothesized that Bennett’s sexual sadism was a result of his internalized homophobia (he didn’t admit to being gay until he was incarcerated), and he died in prison on April Fools’ Day in 1998.