When I first heard that a gunman had shot a teenage lesbian couple in Portland, Texas, I pictured a small, backward town reminiscent of the one in the movie The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The crime scene, however, did not match the picture I had conjured on the plane ride from Vermont to Texas. I was headed for a vigil that would follow the funeral of 19-year-old Mollie Olgin, who was shot in the head. Her girlfriend of five months, Mary Chapa, 18, was also shot in the head, but survived and is recovering in the hospital.
What made this tragedy more chilling was that it occurred at Violet Andrews Park, which is in an upper-middle-class suburb of Corpus Christi. The exquisitely manicured bayside nature preserve was not secluded, as one would imagine, but surrounded by tony waterfront homes and had a well-maintained trail that passed by a charming children’s playground. As I walked through the park, several families strolled with their children to various scenic overlooks to peer at Corpus Christi Bay.
Violet Andrews Park is the type of serene refuge that people visit to get over the death of a loved one, not the type of place where people are brutally murdered. Surely, a violent encounter was the last thing on the minds of Olgin and Chapa when they went to the park last Friday to waste time before a movie.
What happened next is still a mystery. But we do know that the girls were led into a mud-soaked, grassy trail where both were shot in the head with a high-caliber pistol. Police describe the suspect as a white male in his 20s with dark hair, standing 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighing about 140 pounds.
While in town I visited the Portland Police Department, where I was handed a generic statement that read, “There continues to be no evidence that the attack was motivated by the victims’ sexual orientation.”
Of course, we all know this is absurd. Any time a gay couple are murdered without explanation, their sexual orientation has to be considered a top-tier motive. Even as the daily lives of LGBT people improve, the world is still filled with human ticking time bombs primed by preachers and politicians to hate. The LGBT community has been demonized and dehumanized to the point where our lives aren’t worth more than dirt to some people.
Every LGBT person runs the risk of harassment or death simply by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The Anti-Violence Project released its national report on hate violence for 2011 and found that there were 30 killings of LGBT Americans due to hate, which is the highest yearly total ever recorded. A report published by the Southern Poverty Law Center in November 2010, analyzing FBI data from 1995 to 2008, found that LGBT people are 2.6 times more likely to be attacked than blacks; 4.4 times more likely than Muslims; 13.8 times more likely than Latinos; and 41.5 times more likely than whites.
Given these alarming statistics, I went down to Texas to ensure that the police fully considered hate as a potential motive — on par with other possibilities. To the Portland Police Department’s credit, they appeared fully engaged in finding the assailant, with police cars cruising the surrounding streets and officers walking the park throughout the day.
The vigil began at 6 p.m., as more than 150 people streamed out of Olgin’s memorial at the Limbaugh Funeral Home and into the park where the shootings occurred.
“The community is hurt and scared, but we are pulling together,” Equality Texas field organizer Daniel Williams told me at the vigil.
A common theme by those who knew the young women was that they were first-rate individuals who harmed no one.
“She was the kind of person who would take the shirt off her back – a truly kind hearted person,” said Nellena McCabe, whose daughter went to school with Olgin for two years.
According to reports, Olgin dreamed of one day becoming a psychiatrist and just finished her first semester of college. She was involved in band and the debate club.
“It’s really devastating to lose any child in such a horrific way,” said Dawn Jagger, who was Mary Chapa’s art teacher in fifth grade. “The damage and pain it causes the other kids in a split second of learning of the tragedy. ... It is incomprehensible and there are so many unanswered questions. It’s hard.”
Whether this turns out to be a hate crime or not, it is clear that the LGBT community has lost a beautiful soul and the life of her surviving partner will never be the same. The eyes of the world are now firmly fixed on Texas and will remain so until justice is served.
WAYNE BESEN is the founder of Truth Wins Out.