Billy Jack Gaither, a thirty-nine-year-old gay man, was murdered on February 19, 1999, near Sylacauga, Alabama. Gaither, remembered by family and friends as a quiet and easygoing person, lived in Sylacauga with his parents, caring for them, and worked as a computer operator at the Russell Athletics apparel company near the small town.
The night of his murder, he visited a local bar called The Tavern. He left in his car with two men—Steven Mullins and Charles Monroe Butler. The men beat him with an axe handle, cut his throat, and burned his body on a pile of tires soaked with kerosene. Mullins and Butler confirmed that Gaither’s sexual orientation motivated the crime. Both were sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1999.
A memorial service after Gaither’s death in 1999 at Covenant Metropolitan Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama, drew over five hundred people from numerous religious congregations and local community organizations, according to the church’s pastor, Reverend Marge Ragona. His murder was widely covered in the state and national press, and his story was featured on the PBS news program Frontline in an episode called “Assault on Gay America: The Life and Death of Billy Jack Gaither,” aired near the anniversary of his death in February 2000.
The media coverage of Billy Jack Gaither’s death led many to call for changes to Alabama’s 1994 hate crimes law, which did not mention sexual orientation or gender identity. (These categories are covered by a federal hate crimes law enacted in 2015.) A vigil is held in Billy Jack Gaither’s memory on the Alabama Capitol steps in Montgomery each year.