Dangerous Liaisons

A Gay Man's Search for Sex Ends in His Murder

Bruce Becker

On the afternoon of July 14, 1996, Bruce Becker wanted two things. He wanted the company of a man and he wanted some fresh white corn that reminded him of summers growing up in Pennsylvania. He knew where he could find both.

He met up with Daniel Carl Greeley, a good-looking young man who was out of work and living on the streets; the men had met once before on the Drag on Guadalupe Street. The two rode together to Central Market where Becker selected several ears of corn from a newly arrived bounty that spread like a great, green field before him. After a quick stop at Albertson's for bread, milk, and ice cream, they headed to Becker's house in a Southeast Austin neighborhood of gentle hills, Doyle Wilson homes, and yards rich with cedars.

The unlikely duo -- Becker friendly and talkative, Greeley quiet and well-mannered -- were getting along nicely as they headed home. Their lives seemed as open as the road that day.

But something, somewhere, went terribly wrong. When it was all over, Becker, a 36-year-old government employee and Penn State graduate who loved fine scotch, Tom Waites, British comedies, and the Republican party, lay dead in a pool of blood in the TV room of his $100,000 home. Greeley, 26, stands accused of killing Becker by slamming a metal bar, or club, against the victim's head and stabbing him in the throat with a kitchen knife.

The murder was, tragically, what Becker's friends feared would someday happen if he continued cruising for sex with strangers. But for Becker, the routine was old hat -- one that he had grown accustomed to as a semi-closeted homosexual living in Austin. Only the year before, Becker had taken the bold step of coming out to his parents and his brother during a family visit. The four were watching a football game on television when Becker broke the news. It was a tremendous relief for Becker, says a close friend, Christopher Bordovsky. "His parents had a hard time with it because it was a relatively new thing for them, but they didn't shut him out. They were dealing with it as well as could be expected," he says.

Indeed, living in fear of one's sexual orientation being discovered can be a scary thing in a society that does little to accept or legally recognize homosexuals. While pick-up encounters exist in both straight and gay worlds, the covertness of sex with strangers can figure more prominently into a gay man's inability, for whatever reason, to fully accept his sexual orientation. In Becker's case, he'd had meaningful relationships with men in the past, but one-time encounters seemed much less complex. It was, for all intents and purposes, a good way to compartmentalize being gay. "Because he was in the closet for as long as he was, it was just easier for him this way," reasons Bordovsky.

Christopher Bordovsky, left, and partner Paliman Habibi were friends with murder victim Bruce Becker
photograph by Jana Birchum

News of Becker's death generated phone calls to the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas (LGRL). There were suggestions that Becker was the victim of a hate crime. And the calls kept coming. In the 28 days that followed in July and August, two other gay men turned up dead in the Austin area [See story on Austin's gay murder victims and proposed legislation against hate crimes].

Hate Crime or Self Defense?

Was Becker's murder motivated by hate? That's a tough call, but the question is not expected to play into the courtroom drama when the case moves to trial sometime before summer. Police and prosecutors are sticking with robbery as a motive because of credit cards and other items stolen from Becker's home. As for Greeley's defense, it's possible he will say he acted in self-defense, that Becker came at him with a club. It is a claim he made to friends after the murder, and the friends in turn told police, according to a source familiar with the case.

To be sure, self-defense claims don't generally wash with gay rights groups because they are made all too often -- and often successfully -- in homosexual murder cases. And Hardy-Garcia points out the deeply ironic fact that female defendants accused of murdering white heterosexual men haven't been as successful in asserting the same self-defense argument.

By the accounts of those who knew him, Becker was a model citizen with an exemplary work record as a computer trainer and network troubleshooter at the Internal Revenue Service, where he had worked for 10 years. His wit and wisdom gained him many friends among the tightly knit group that worked with him. He was the one who held his coworkers together -- the one who organized birthday lunches and office games to break the tedium of working for the IRS. Becker "was the office comedian, the one who kept us all lighthearted," says co-worker Pam Johnson. "We were like a family. Now we're like strangers."

Becker's grief-stricken parents, June and Albert Becker, retired and living in Winter Springs, Florida, declined to discuss their son's death out of concern that they might jeopardize the case before it goes to trial. Becker's father, however, offered these words: "Bruce was a wonderful child. We loved him very much, he loved us, and we will miss him forever."

Those who knew Becker are baffled by the defendant's claim of self defense, given Becker's small build and his non-violent, non-aggressive countenance. Bordovsky says that Becker had relayed countless pick-up stories to him, and never once did any tale involve physical conflict. "Bruce usually made it clear to the person what he was looking for early on in the discussion. That was his M.O.," says Bordovsky. "If the guy said no, then that was that. He wasn't the type to get all flustered. Bruce was just not a violent person."

Plus, if Greeley was defending himself, why, then, did he not summon the police? Why did he allegedly clean up the murder scene? Why did he allegedly steal credit cards, the car, and other items from the house, and stow the body in a shallow grave in a remote site in the Texas Panhandle?

Clearly, defense attorney Tom Weber -- himself a former prosecutor -- knows Greeley's self-defense stance will be a hard sell, but he refuses to comment on the case. "His guilt or innocence will be decided in the courtroom," Weber says.

Daniel Greeley stands accused of murder in the death of Bruce Becker

What Greeley does have on his side is the fact that he's never been in trouble with the law. From what police can tell, he has pretty much kept his nose clean, save for a minor scrape when he briefly went AWOL while in the U.S. Army. As an enlistee stationed in Germany, he was a trusted driver for a general, according to his parents, Virgil and Carol Greeley of Olympia, Washington. He stayed in shape by running, and had participated in a number of 10K and 5K races during his tour of duty. He was last stationed at Fort Hood, just north of Austin in Killeen. Greeley's life after the army was one hard-luck tale after another. He and his wife had split up, he couldn't find permanent work, and he was living on the streets.

Two days before Becker's death, Greeley, one of four children, had called his parents to tell them he was giving up on Austin and returning home to Olympia to look for a job. "He was always a very hard worker," says Virgil Greeley. "You can't call Danny lazy by any means."

Greeley's parents also vouched for their son's non-aggressive behavior. "He's kind of a shy person who avoids confrontations. He'd rather walk away from trouble," his father says.

"Danny has always been a very quiet and very likable kid," his mother adds. "So we are naturally just flabbergasted by this charge. This ordeal has cast a shadow on our lives, and our hearts certainly go out to [Becker's] family."

The Greeleys say they will be in court when their son goes to trial. "We're hoping and praying that justice will be done. That's our prayer," Virgil Greeley says. Even if it means the murder conviction of his son? "That might be the case," he says, "but we want everything to be fair on both sides, for the defense and the prosecution."

Fear and Dread

On the Sunday when Becker was murdered, Bert and Bennie Carlisle, Becker's next door neighbors on Sunridge Drive, off of East Oltorf, were at home, unaware that the neighbor they could always count on to feed their cat when they were away was in danger. At about 9am the following Monday morning, Bert Carlisle glanced over and noticed Becker's car still parked in the driveway. Strange, he thought. Becker should have already left for work by this time. Twenty minutes later Bennie Carlisle set off on her morning walk around the neighborhood. "I remember seeing somebody, but not Bruce, backing out of the driveway in Bruce's car," she says. "I didn't think anything about it. I figured he was a friend of Bruce's."

On Tuesday, Becker's friend Bordovsky got a frantic phone call from a worried co-worker of Becker's. He decided he needed to check on his friend, and, when he entered through the side door of the house with a spare key, Bordovsky got his first surprise: The alarm had not been set -- very unusual for Becker, who was always so meticulous about his home's security. What's more, the air conditioner had been left on a low setting and the house was freezing. Becker always turned his AC off completely before leaving home.

Those two out-of-the-ordinary facts set Bordovsky's nerves on edge. "I had this overwhelming feeling of fear and dread," he says. Bordovsky grabbed a baseball bat from a collection of sports equipment Becker kept in the garage. He tried to steel his nerves before beginning a very slow walk through the house. "Bruce! Bruce! Are you here?" Bordovsky called over and over. "I was all but singing his name at the top of my lungs," he says. "I walked into the TV room and there was this huge stain on the floor. It didn't look like blood, it looked like somebody had spilled a big pot of tea and had tried to clean it up." The stain carried a foul odor. The sudden ringing of the telephone jarred the eerie silence of the house. It was Becker's parents, hoping to find their son at home for lunch. They were calling to finalize plans for a family reunion. Bordovsky told them Becker had not reported for work for two days and was nowhere to be found.

Later that afternoon, an Austin police officer arrived at the house to take Bordovsky's missing persons report. At the time, Bordovsky had yet to assess whether anything was missing. The officer noted the large stain on the floor, but it neither looked nor smelled like blood. The officer wrote in his report that the stain smelled like a cat box.

In the days following Becker's disappearance, Bordovsky began to notice things missing from the house. There was the black footlocker missing from the room where the stain was located. Becker had used it as a coffee table. There was the kitchen trash can -- gone; the guitar -- gone; a keyboard to a computer, a priceless collection of baseball cards, an autographed photo of Oliver North -- gone, gone, gone. Nothing made sense.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about missing person cases is that it's not a crime for an adult to just take off and disappear voluntarily. It happens all too frequently, says Lt. Charles Johnson, who oversees the Austin Police Department's missing persons division. More often than not, the person turns up unharmed. Of the 603 missing adult reports filed in 1996 with the Austin Police Department, only 16 remain open. "We get tons of reports on missing adults all the time," Johnson says. "We have to assess whether they chose to leave on their own, even though family members always insist that their disappearance is out of the ordinary."

The happy endings to most missing persons' cases was of little comfort to Becker's family. Becker's frantic father and brother had hopped on a plane to Austin on July 18 to await news of their son. They met with detectives the following day. Finally, on July 22, a team of forensic investigators arrived at Becker's house.

"They took one look at the stain on the floor and closed the place down," Bordovsky recalls of investigators' determination that the stain was blood. "They impounded my truck. They were all over the place with dye, fingerprint dust; post-it notes and circles on the floor where footsteps had been. They cataloged it, booked it and took it away." Police also questioned Bordovsky and his boyfriend Paliman Habibi for several hours, finally eliminating the pair as suspects.

Picking Up the Pieces

This is the scenario police have laid out: After Becker's killing, Greeley drove Becker's car to fetch a friend, Johnny Ooten, and the two returned to the murder scene to clean up the mess. Police say they placed the victim's body in a footlocker, drove 360 miles northwest to Armstrong County and buried the trunk, with Becker's body inside, at a roadside park overlooking the Palo Duro Canyon. The pair returned to Austin and came upon two other young Drag transients, Alan Johnston and Melissa "Fix" Manilio, who, along with Ooten, now stand charged with illegal use of Becker's credit cards.

Police landed their first solid lead in the case on July 27 when an Oregon police officer found Johnston behind the wheel of Becker's car in Arlington, Oregon, about 130 miles outside of Portland. Johnston had run out of gas. Arlington police confronted Johnston about the stolen vehicle and at that point, Johnston spilled what he knew. The pieces began falling together. Police picked up Manilio the next day in Austin, and Ooten the day after that. Ooten gave police the location of Becker's body and on July 31, Austin detectives and a cross-section of West Texas law enforcement officers fanned out to search for the body on the south rim of a canyon off of Texas State Highway 207. They found the footlocker, with Becker's decomposing body inside, buried in what had been a coyote den. The shallow grave measured about three-and-a-half feet wide and four feet deep.

Police tracked Greeley down in Salt Lake City, Utah where he had been laying low at a friend's house. He was arrested on August 5 without incident, and has since been transferred to the Travis County Jail.

In late August, after the last arrest had been made, and after a small reception in Bruce Becker's honor, Bordovsky and Habibi, along with Bordovsky's mother, took a long road trip west. One of their stops along the way was the roadside park where Becker's body was found. Bordovsky hiked around the park with his video camera in search of the make-shift gravesite where his friend had been hidden. There, about 100 yards uphill, just beyond a clump of cedars, was a small wooden stake that marks the spot. The site offers a spectacular view of Palo Duro Canyon. "It was a beautiful spot that they picked," says Bordovsky. "They at least had the decency to pick a nice place to bury him."

As a gift to Becker's family, his co-workers put together a 17-page book of memories. Jackie Antweiler wrote that her fondest memories were "all tied to laughing until we would practically cry. You know the kind -- when you get tickled and can't stop just like a little kid in church. You know that nothing in the world is that funny, but you just can't stop laughing. Bruce laughed from the bottom of his feet; his whole body shook as he tried to get himself back in control. Sometimes we couldn't even make eye contact, or it would set us off again. God, it felt so good to do it."

Last October, Becker's family chartered a boat off of New Smyrna Beach on Florida's northwestern coastline, a favorite vacation spot for Bruce. Three miles from shore, the boat slowed and Becker's family members scattered his ashes to the wind. The ashes glistened briefly in the sunlight before settling gently over the waters of the Atlantic.

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