The trio of teenagers who allegedly carried out a deadly robbery attempt against a Washington, D.C., principal used a gay chat line. But despite the suspects’ methods and alleged choice of victim, police tell The Daily Beast they see no anti-gay motive to the crime.
Brian Betts, a rising star in the D.C. public school system after being hired at Shaw Middle School in 2008, was found shot to death on April 15 in his Silver Spring, Maryland, home. On Monday, police arrested three 18-year-old men, Alante Saunders, Sharif Tau Lancaster, and Deontra Gray, and charged them with Betts’ murder. All have long criminal histories; a fourth suspect, Lancaster’s 46-year-old mother, is charged with using Betts’ stolen credit card. Police say more arrests could follow.
The public airing of Betts’ private life in the murder investigation presents a frustrating challenge for friends and family.
• Benjamin Sarlin: The School Murder That Shocked D.C. A spokesman for the Montgomery County Police, Captain Paul Starks, said that at least one of the suspects met Betts through a gay chat service on the night of the murder, gaining access to his home. Police say that none of the suspects were found to have any previous contact with Betts or connection to his students. While police have not yet described how the incident progressed from a robbery to deadly violence, Starks said that investigators believe Betts’ sexual orientation did not play a role in the crime.
“We think the motive was robbery, not a hate crime,” Starks said.
Despite the break in the case, details of Betts’ conversations and interactions with the suspects have yet to be released, and it remains unclear exactly how they ended up in his house. Alex Postpischil, a longtime friend who said he was the first person Betts came out to after college, told The Daily Beast he “always thought Brian to be more careful than to engage in random or anonymous encounters” and noted that information on the case was still limited.
Chat lines have long been a source of danger for gay men in the D.C. area. Earlier this year, Antwan Holcomb, 20, allegedly lured Anthony Perkins, 29, to a solitary location after meeting him through a chat line and then shot him to death in his car. News that gay social networking services were possibly used to plan a second robbery prompted D.C. group Gays and Lesbians Opposing Violence to issue a public warning on its website recommending that users meet in public first and notify friends of their whereabouts beforehand.
D.C. Council Member Jim Graham, whose district includes Shaw Middle School, called the murders “a huge concern, because gay men are being targeted as vulnerable.”
Asked whether Betts’ murder should be investigated as a hate crime, Graham said he was reserving judgment.
“It could very well have been a hate crime,” he said. “But I’ve been very involved in crime in my ward and I have learned the hard way to really appreciate how important it is to get all of the information. Sometimes it appears one way and it just doesn’t turn out that way.”
The public airing of Betts’ private life in the murder investigation presents a frustrating challenge for friends and family. A Facebook user on a tribute page to the slain principal taunted the group’s 1,700 members with vulgar and offensive posts early Sunday morning, prompting a rebuke from Betts’ friends, as well as his cousin Patrick Smith.
“My worst fear would be that people judge Brian by his personal life rather than taking the time to look at his many accomplishments,” Smith said in an email.
April Allen, captain of Betts’ college cheerleading team and a former roommate, said she was extremely upset after seeing a number of derogatory commenters on news sites as well.
“Stuff like that, it really bothers you...it seems like it’s going to get nasty,” Allen said. “You wonder now what the kids are thinking.”
Graham said he didn’t believe Betts’ legacy as one of the top educators in the region would be tarnished.
“I think people are so devoted to him,” he said.
In an email, Postpischil pointed out the cruel irony that Betts, whom many students credit with putting them on a path of achievement, could be a victim of troubled teenagers.
“I can’t help but think that if these men who committed the crimes had met Brian five years ago when they were in middle school they would not be doing the things they are charged with doing,” he said. “When I think about the thousands of young people who have been influenced by Brian, I can’t help but think about the thousands who won’t have that opportunity.”
Friends of Betts have set up a foundation through the D.C. Public Education Fund to help lend support to causes he supported in his lifetime.
Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.