When Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill were found murdered in the back of their own pickup truck in southern Oregon, the media, their friends, and LGBT activists were quick to call the murder a hate crime. After all, the political climate in Oregon had been volatile for years, and the women — whom friends described as the ideal lesbian couple — had been active in the state’s bitter fights over two Oregon state ballot initiatives: Measure 9, a constitutional amendment that would have declared homosexuality "abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse," and Measure 19, which would have banned libraries from carrying material about homosexuality. The atmosphere in the Medford area was rife with tension as gay groups battled with religious groups fiercely through much of the ’90s.
But the women, both in their 50s and together 12 years, were in many respects, ordinary: respected local businesswomen who ran a property management company and spent their spare time restoring their Craftsman-style house, staying busy with their local church, and spoiling Ellis’s young granddaughter. That all changed on December 4, 1997, when Ellis went to an appointment with Robert Acremant, a 20-something young man, reportedly to show him an apartment for rent.
Ellis and Abdill were found four days later in the back of their pickup, both gagged and bound, shot in the head execution-style, covered with cardboard boxes. The news shocked the town, and as police searched for the killer, numerous organizations issued cautious press releases about the slayings, including the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which said that “the women's outspoken stance on gay rights has inspired speculation that they might have fallen victim to a hate crime. Police have at least one report that they had been threatened.” Donna Red Wing, who at the time was a Portland-based GLAAD field director, said, "We don't know why Roxanne and Michelle were targeted. Was it because they were lesbian activists or because they were women? Was it a random act of violence? We don't have the answers yet.” The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force asked then-attorney general Janet Reno to have the Department of Justice work with Medford police because the killings should be considered hate crimes.
And yet many in the gay community and on the police force said activists were too quick to call these murders hate crimes. Acremant’s mother called the police saying she believed her son was responsible for the crimes, later telling The Oregonian that she called authorities “because I have to look God in the face. I will do anything in my power to make sure other people aren't hurt.”
After Acremant’s arrest, debate still raged over whether these murders were hate crimes; even The Advocate’s Inga Sorensen wrote about the aftermath of the murders, with a headline that read, “Rush to Judgment.” The killer reiterated repeatedly that the shootings had nothing to do with their sexual orientation, that he was simply robbing the women. But he also said he didn’t “care for lesbians” and believed the women’s lesbianism was sick.
“Bisexual women don't bother me a bit,” said Acremant in a later interview. “I couldn't help but think that [Ellis] is 54 years old and had been dating a woman for 12 years. Isn't that sick? That's someone's grandma, for God's sake. Could you imagine my grandma a lesbian with another woman? I couldn't believe that. It crossed my mind a couple of times — lesbo grandma. What a thing, huh?”
Lt. Tom Lavine of the Medford Police Department told Sorensen that local police considered the possibility that the killings were a hate crime right from the start and regretted telling NPR that antigay bias had nothing to do with them. “I sat up in bed that night and thought to myself, ‘What the heck did I say that for?’ I regret it now because Acremant's story was the weakest I have ever heard. It just didn't hold water. What ultimately motivated him to pull the trigger? We may never know.”
Acremant pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, and on October 27, 1997, he received the death sentence. In 2011, however, a judge reduced the sentence to life without parole after Acremant, who insists he hears voices in his head, was deemed too delusional to aid in his own appeals.