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HOLMBERG: Gay homeless man’s decapitation murder 16 years later

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RICHMOND, Va. --It was one of the most bizarre and grim murders in Richmond history. It remains unsolved after nearly 16 years. Also unresolved – was it one of the state’s worst hate crimes ever?

Three young people heading down to the James River Park’s Northbank on March 1, 1999 came across a man’s decapitated head sitting straight up on the concrete floor of the park’s pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks.

Killed was 39-year-old Henry Edward Northington, a Navy veteran and wanderer who was painfully estranged from part of his family because of his sexuality.

His head was on a walkway often frequented by cruising gays heading down to the park, which was what raised concern about it being a hate crime.

murdered man

“It was overkill, it really was,” recalled “Eddie’s” sister, Dianna Sharp. “Something that happened like that is very personal. And where they left him was a message.”

The Richmond Police Department’s top brass initially made sounds about it being a possible hate crime, but quickly backed down as the national media took notice. Their reason: How could they call it a hate crime without a suspect or a motive?

Ed Northington was beaten to death, according to his autopsy report. His body was found near a rough homeless camp known as “the tubes” or “the barrels” that I believe he was staying in at the time. His face was beaten and cut, but the most devastating wound was a huge crush injury to the side of his body – like someone smashed him with a boulder.

Dianna said she’s come to realize that it’s quite possible her brother’s killer or killers might never be found.

It’s absolutely heartbreaking to her, this gruesome murder of her older brother who had risked losing his place in his family “to be himself.”

“I truly believe Eddie led the way because he knew I was coming that way, too,” Dianna said.

She finds herself wishing she could tell her brother about her daughter’s success in high school. About how they lost their mom several years ago.

And about how they laws changed so she could marry her wife.

“I have to realize I can’t physically tell him that,” she said, adding that she wonders if Eddie would be happier in these times of much more widespread acceptance.

Ed Northington had a tough life, fraught with depression and alcohol. His life was perhaps nearly as tortured as his death.

And his killer is still out there. “It could be anybody,” Dianna said. “To think they did that to my brother . . . “

I did a lot of reporting on the case at the time and in the years after. Given the unusual nature of the crime, that it covered such a large area and that Northington had more than a few known associates, it seemed there should be a way to solve it.

Anyone with information about the case or Ed Northington’s path the last months of his life, please contact the Richmond police detective division, or me.

Here’s a detailed report about the case I wrote for The Richmond Times-Dispatch more than a decade ago.

VICTIM'S FAMILY 'SUSPENDED IN AIR' - IT'S FIVE YEARS SINCE A HOMELESS MAN WAS KILLED AND DECAPITATED AT PARK, AND SLAYING IS UNSOLVED

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Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 14, 2004

Author: Mark Holmberg; Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

Five years have passed since Henry Edward Northington's severed head was found carefully placed on a footbridge leading to James River Park on the north side of the river - a spot known at the time for homosexual trysting.

"There's not a day goes by that I don't think of him," said his sister, Dianna Sharp. "I don't want him to be forgotten. Maybe one day somebody will say, 'I did see something or hear something.' "

Until then, she said, she and other family members will feel "like we're suspended in air."

The crime, discovered March 1, 1999, remains unsolved. It particularly stunned those in the gay and homeless communities, and is still felt by those in the danger zone.

"I know why he was killed," Peter Graham said last Sunday as he basked in the sun and sipped discount beer with his homeless friends in Monroe Park. "He was gay."

Graham, his broken-off teeth visible behind his thick, gray beard, said he's gay, too, although he's no longer homeless thanks to a $25-a-month subsidized apartment. He said he has felt the sting of a knife blade and knows of others in the homeless world here who have been killed for their sexuality. Not too long ago, he said, a killer ended the life of a Richmond resident known for picking up homeless men in the park, feeding them and giving them a place to stay so he could have sex with them.

And just last month, the naked body of 43-year-old Robert J. Connelly Jr. was found in an outside stairwell by schoolchildren at Carver Elementary School. Connelly was known in the gay community and frequented the same clubs Northington was often thrown out of for rude behavior. The evening before Connelly was found dead, he had briefly visited Godfrey's on East Grace Street - in a highly inebriated state, said club owner Jeff Willis.

But it was the nature of Northington's demise that was particularly haunting. It was reported across the country, in part because it came so soon after the death of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who died in Wyoming after being beaten and tied to a fence.

According to Northington's autopsy report, the 39-year-old drifter died from an "acute crush injury to chest and abdomen" that shattered numerous ribs, the broken ends lacerating his lungs, diaphragm and spleen.

He apparently had been staying at "the tubes," a hardscrabble homeless site upriver from Hollywood Cemetery anchored by twin drainage tunnels that serve as sleeping shelters. The area is covered with large stones and boulders, one of which could have been thrown on top of Northington to produce his fatal injury.

His killer or killers then cut off his head between the third and fourth cervical vertebrae, leaving "hack marks at the edges consistent with a sharp instrument such as a knife," according to the autopsy report.

Northington's clothed body was thrown into the James River. And then someone carried the head several hundred yards through the woods and up the 70-odd steps to the pedestrian bridge. The head, perched upright, was found by three people out walking early the next morning.

"It was a very beautiful morning," recalled Natalya, a native of Russia who asked that her last name not be published. When they saw the head sitting there, "I thought it was somebody joking. It didn't look real at all.

"We walked to Maymont Park, talked to security. They walked back with us . . . confirmed it was a human head. That's when I started shaking.

"I think about it sometimes," she said when reached by phone last weekend. She has kept news articles about it because when she tells friends about it, "they don't believe me."

Northington was HIV-positive, according to the autopsy report and his family. He also had hepatitis, the report states. He suffered from alcoholism and depression and was prescribed Librium, along with medications to combat the AIDS virus.

His autopsy report tells part of the misery that had accompanied his walk through life.

But there were two Eddie Northingtons, say those who knew him. Sober, he was an introspective and highly intelligent loner, a natural scholar and avid reader of science fiction who played the saxophone and piano beautifully. Workers at homeless shelters remember his deft piano playing and genteel spirit.

"He was my hero, he really was," Sharp said. "A lot of the problems I had, if I didn't feel like I could talk to anyone [about them], I could talk to Eddie."

She was 10 years younger than her brother and enjoyed his humorous, and sometimes silly, spirit.

"He'd go around saying, 'It ain't easy being cheesy,' " she said. She recalled him building a campfire at Lake Gaston out of sticks covered with poison ivy. "Everybody got poison oak or poison ivy."

Her brother seemed so wise, she said. "I really valued his opinions on things. He never had to study for anything. Knowledge came to Eddie. He could have been anything."

Then again, Sharp said, "he could be a tailhole when he was drinking."

In Richmond, Northington alienated a lot of people because of his drunken behavior. He would act irrationally, bursting into tears or interrupting the conversation of strangers, said those who encountered him. He could be pushy sexually in the gay clubs he visited and was thrown out frequently. He was barred from at least two establishments, club owners have said.

"Unfortunately, he wasn't a well-liked person" in the gay community, said Willis, who previously served as bartender and manager at Christopher's.

Sharp said even though she and other family members loved him, "Eddie was always looking for acceptance. I don't think he really got it up until the day he got murdered."

When Northington returned home from a stint in the Navy, he told his family he was gay.

"I'll never forget when he told me," Sharp said. "I was in the eighth grade. We were sitting up one night talking."

She said she didn't have any problem with it, but "I think that was a real blow for my dad, a real disappointment. It's a guy thing. That may sound sexist, but it really was."

At the time, "nobody understood it, everyone tried to hide it.

"He was always sort of like a loner, you know," Sharp added. Faced with what he felt was rejection, she said, he drifted more deeply into depression and alcoholism, and then homelessness.

Sharp said she thinks her brother came to operate on the premise that "if nobody wants to love me for who I am, I'll just be myself."

 

"When he found out he was HIV-positive, Eddie was more self-conscious about that than anybody else."

She remembers when he injured his arm at Lake Gaston, near where he lived at times, and she had to change his bandages.

"He'd say, 'Diana, make sure you put some gloves on.' He really walked on eggshells so no one else would suffer what he might wind up suffering."

The past five years have been hard for the family. Dianna and Eddie's grandmother died, among other relatives. And their father suffered a stroke in his brain stem last year.

And the murder remains a fresh wound.

"Five years is a long time," Sharp said, "but it still feels like it just happened.

"I've gotten over the mad part of it. I feel sorry for" whoever did it.

But not her mother.

"I'm at the point where I get real mad about it," Dorothy Webb said last weekend of the lack of a resolution. "It's definitely a hate crime. They don't want to admit that - Richmond doesn't have that kind of thing." She believes the U.S. Justice Department should be involved.

Richmond police investigators have said from the start that they don't have enough information to classify the homicide as a hate crime, or to rule bias out as a motive. It remains unclear whether Northington's sexuality or his homeless state played any role in his demise.

There have been no new developments in the case, Richmond police reported Friday. A suspect who may know something about the slaying is in a New York prison for an unrelated crime, but he won't cooperate with investigators. "We can't do enough with it right now to make a case," said Richmond cold-case Detective Thomas Leonard.

"I have tried everything I know to do," Webb said. "There's not enough to put together for [airing on 'America's] Most Wanted.' I tried to get a hold of Matthew Shepard's mother" but couldn't.

"Someday, sometime, somebody will pay for it," Webb said.

She said she misses her son, and it hurts knowing that he'll never come back. But there's some small consolation that he didn't have to suffer and die from AIDS, and that his other struggles are over.

"Whatever problems he had," Webb said, "he doesn't have to deal with them any more."

"You have regrets," Sharp said. "If you knew a person wasn't going to be here tomorrow, you'd want to tell them everything you wanted to say to them today.

"A lot of things were left unsaid," she added. "If I could just see him for five minutes, I'd tell him I love him and hug him."