Late one August night in 2006, the always-lurid New York City tabloids had a story on their hands. Seven young African-American homosexual women had beaten and stabbed a lone man in Manhattan’s gay-friendly Greenwich Village. “GIRLS GONE WILDING” headlines read, “Attack of the Killer Lesbians,” they screamed when the prosecution testified, and later, when the women were convicted: “Lesbian Wolf Pack Guilty.”
The night before the papers made their judgment, the group of friends, between 18 and 31 years old, had been out in the Village, bar hopping, and “going girls shopping.” Coming from Newark, New Jersey, the Big Apple was a place they could be themselves without fear. As they walked by a movie theater, 28-year-old Dwayne Buckle yelled something at the group. According to his testimony it was “Hi” to the “slightly pretty” one. According to the recipient of his greeting, Patreese Johnson, he said, “I want some of that” and motioned to her crotch.
When she told him she was gay, a fight broke out. “[He] started calling us dyke bitches, lesbian bitches, [saying] ‘I'll f*** you straight,’” 24-year-old Renata Hill remembers in a new film about the night. Surveillance footage from the movie theater shows him lunging at Hill and them fighting him off, he rips dreadlocks from one of them, and chokes another. At some point, they walk away, but then turn back and the fight resumes. Hill would later say they saw him reach for his messenger back and worried he had a gun. Johnson pulls a knife from her bag and stabs, slashing Buckle’s bag, and then getting him in the stomach.
"All I really want to do was scare him, not really hurt him, you know?" she would later say. When they walked away, and even after they were arrested, they didn’t realize he was harmed. Neither did Buckle, who testified that he didn’t know he was stabbed until he noticed the blood.
By the time they were processed into Rikers Island jail the next morning, inmates were whispering about them and holding the morning papers. “Y’all are famous,” Hill remembers being surprised to hear. In the press they were “furious lesbians” who targeted Buckle “because he was a straight man.” They would later be dubbed a “bloodthirsty” “lesbian she-wolf pack” and—most famously—“a seething, Sapphic septet.”
But the reality is more complex. In Out in the Night, a documentary that made its New York premiere on Wednesday at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, the young women tell their side of the story for the first time.
The case, they argue, was a gross injustice, a whirlpool of sexism, homophobia, and racism that was blown out of proportion by a rabid press. The film is their outlet to serve justice previously denied, and a way to clear their names despite a permanent mark on their criminal record.
Raised in what they describe as “the hood” of Newark, criminal activity was rampant in the upbringing of the so-called New Jersey 4. Just three years before their ordeal, a 15-year-old girl named Sakia Gunn was stabbed to death in the neighborhood after she told a car of hecklers not to bother her because she was gay.
“That night it popped up in my head, like, ‘Oh my god are we repeating history?” Johnson remembers in the film. For Johnson, who had one brother shot and killed by police and another killed in a drive-by shooting, pervasive distrust of authority and encouraged self-protection was reason enough to carry the knife in her purse when she went out. In the press, she was called the “pint-sized ring leader of a gang of seven rampaging lesbians.”
Three of the seven women pled guilty immediately and served six months, but four fought the charges, taking the case to court. With security footage from the theater, they believed all the evidence was on their side. “Yes, we’re going to be saved,” Hill now says she thought. “We know how we felt that night—we were afraid for ourselves and one another.” As the case unfolded, their charges were so sensationalized that a member of the jury sent his wife out of state for her protection while he served. The assault, their attorneys argued, was solely self-defense against an attacker’s sexual advances, and, if anything, nothing more than misdemeanor behavior.
Instead, all four were doled out felony gang assault charges and sentences between three-and-a-half to eight years behind bars. The judge suggested they mind their nursery rhymes—Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
Out in the Night paints a picture of the bizarre chain of events that turned a night on the town into years behind bars. For seven years, director Blair Dorosh-Walther filmed the women during their incarceration and after their release (Johnson was the last to go free, getting out in 2013 after seven-and-a-half years). She sprinkles the film with interviews with the arresting NYPD officer, a New York Post reporter who coined some of the unsavory terms, and extensive testimony from the women, their lawyers, and their families.
When emotion is set aside and evidence placed at the forefront, the most revealing parts of the case are unveiled toward the end of the film. A much-publicized photo of Buckle’s stitched up stomach was actually from the hernia operation the hospital did at the same time they stitched up a small, one quarter-inch incision from the knife.
And a recording of the police dispatch seems to blow the case to bits. “Not gang activity,” a reporting officer tells the dispatcher. It was a “tiny little pen knife he got cut with...not even blood on the scene.”
“I want the documentary to show people that there are always two if not three sides to every story,” Hill says now. Wednesday’s sold-out premiere was the first time she had returned to IFC Center, the theater at the epicenter of their ordeal. The women started wondering, ‘What if Buckle shows up?’ “I was standing in front of it and my stomach started doing butterflies,” Hill says.
The women first saw the finished product together in of their living rooms, laughing hysterically as they watched “the rebuilding of our lives,” says Hill. “That was our defense mechanism instead of crying.” Finally all free, the women are readjusting to life outside bars and though they’ve taken different paths, they remain closer than ever. “We just freaking love each other so much,” Hill says.
But it was a grueling road to freedom, and one that continues to haunt them. For Hill, who spent 3.5 years behind bars, it’s a record that won’t go away. Released in 2010, she saw the state take custody of her son and her mother die during her tenure in prison. Now she has found herself with a criminal background that has cost her jobs and apartments.
“I’ve had to constantly keep telling our story to people...even know we’re home and free but we still have to defend ourselves. When you go to job interview and [there’s] that one question you have to check yes to: ‘Have you been convicted of a felony?’” Hill says. The fact that it’s gang assault makes it even tougher to explain.
She works part-time in a Laundromat and lives in a homeless shelter in New York with her fiancé and 13-year-old son. She’s “in a struggle right now,” but her voice seems to swell with pride when she reveals she recently completed her first semester of college with a 3.3 GPA.
Now, she says, there’s hope that a criminal record won’t be the sole judgment of that night and the end of their saga. Finally her son can tell his friends, “My mom went to jail and she came home and got a documentary made.’ Something positive came out of it.”
“[We’re] doing it so everyone can hear our stories to override what the papers said—that’s something our kids will have access to in the near future,” Hill says. “They never asked our side of the story and it’s not fair.”