Bell’s story is now a familiar one to many Utahns, inside and outside of the gay community. In the early hours of July 4, 2008 at least six neighbors beat Bell and his partner Dan Fair shortly after one neighbor, Lulu Latu, found two children (one hers, and one a relative’s) on Bell’s property and returned them to her house.
In the days after Bell and Fair’s beating and arrest, several stories about what happened that night circulated throughout Utah’s gay community and even through various news outlets. These included reports that the children had wandered next door in search of their mother, and that Bell had agreed to let them sleep on his couch to escape the noisy late night party.
Bell’s attorneys, Roger Kraft and Susanne Gustin, dismissed these as “rumors.”
“We saw many of the blogs and posts [at the time], and they’re laughable,” said Kraft.
Rather, Bell sketched out the following timeline. On the night of the beatings, he said he went to the party looking for his cat. After spending some time at the party, and even singing with his neighbors, he said he returned home intending to have one more drink before going to bed. On the way home, he said he spotted the two children, one of whom asked if he was drinking Kool-Aid, and if they could have some.
“I said, ‘You can’t have this one. This is a grown-up drink, but I can get you some,” said Bell. He said that he went home and filled two glasses for the children, who followed him and stood outside the door. They stood outside the entire time they drank their Kool-Aid, Bell noted.
When Bell took their empty glasses to the sink, he said he turned around and found Lulu Latu in his house “demanding to know what I was doing with her kids.”
“And before I even had a chance to even say one word, I was attacked,” said Bell. “She swung at me several times, hit me around the head and neck, smacked me into my refrigerator where I started to fall down and see stars.”
Bell said that Latu took the children home after calling him and others in the house “faggot pedophiles” and warning them to lock their doors and windows “because once my family finds out that my kids were here, they’re going to fucking flip out.”
Bell said he and others in the house locked the doors immediately, and shortly after people from next door began smashing their windows. Bell recounted that they pulled him out of the house, threw him down on the carport, and began smashing his face into the cement while stepping on his back and pulling his right leg up. As he began to get dizzy, he said he felt someone cutting into his foot with what later turned out to be a piece of broken glass from the window.
Bell and his attorneys also said that the South Salt Lake City Police Department conducted a “poor investigation.” Kraft said that police did not take pictures of Latu’s house until July 7. Gustin also noted that police had not called in a crime scene unit and had not interviewed four other witnesses who were in Bell and Fair’s house at the time of the attacks.
“They investigated like someone went and took a candy bar from the 7-11,” she said.
One of those witnesses, Megan Dunyon, was on hand. She told reporters that police at the scene had asked only some basic questions, like witness’ names and their drivers license numbers. And when she and other witnesses asked if they could leave to go to the hospital where Fair was being treated, she said one of the neighbors, in front of police, threatened to kill them and their “faggot friend.”
When Dunyon tried to call the police department to get them to interview her, she said she received no response.
“They didn’t take our calls. I tried to leave messages,” she said. “Oh, and two days before the trial we get calls from someone wanting to talk to us. [They left a] message, they wouldn’t say what it was regarding to. I looked up the prefixes of the number, and it was the DA’s office.”
Bell’s sister Emily Gammell, her husband Garrison, and the couple’s friend Chris Swann also lived in the house at the time but were not home on the night of the attacks. The next day, they said came home to kicked in doors, carpets stained with blood and neighbors making threatening gestures, including coming onto their porch to smoke while peering into their windows. Despite repeated calls, they say police ignored these threats.
“We weren’t even involved [and didn’t know] what was going on,” said Swann, noting that they were not able to find out exactly what had happened at the house until 4:00 a.m. on July 5. “We were trying to find out what happened … and they [the police] said just to go in the house and don’t talk to the neighbors. And we’re like, ‘Well we understand, but obviously they’ve broken in already and none of them have been arrested, they’re still over [at the house next door].’ And they’re all, ‘Well, that’s just too bad.’”
Despite one neighbor aiming his finger at her husband like a gun, Gammell said that police dismissed the neighbors’ threats as “idle,” and told the three to stop calling and “get over it.”
“[They said] the neighbors’ actions were warranted, and everything they did was justified,” said Gammell.
On Oct. 7, the South Salt Lake City Police Department responded to criticism of the way it handled the case in a brief statement, part of which read: “Accounts of the incident that have been presented in the media do not accurately reflect the evidence obtained during the police investigation. Both the police response and investigation were proper. Any allegation to the contrary is based upon either a poor understanding or misrepresentation of the investigative facts.” The department declined to make further comment because “criminal charges arising from the incident are still under consideration.”
Additionally, South Salt Lake police officer Gary Keller defended the investigation on KSL Channel 5, calling it thorough and saying that the department’s best evidence was not used in Bell’s trial.
“We interviewed a large number of people — well over 15 people,” he said. “We collected all the information at the time. Crime Scene was called out.”
He also called Gustin’s criticisms “unprofessional.”
“It’s very irritating that she’d make a comment like that,” he said.
Bell and his attorneys said that they would name at least two of the neighbors specifically in the civil suit. When asked if they would sue the police department, Kraft said: “We’re certainly not precluding the possibility of other entities being sued as part of this.”
Gustin, however, said she did “not foresee” the District Attorney’s office being sued, adding that the DA merely acted on the reports the police department gave them.
The DA’s office initially declined to file charges against the family members. After Bell’s acquittal, however, District Attorney Lohra Miller said her office would reconsider.
“And I hope that they file attempted murder charges at least against some of these people,” said Gustin. “Because they did not leave D.J. alone until he was unconscious and they thought he was dead … and you’ve seen Dan’s pictures. He was within an inch of his life, the doctors said.”
Fair is still in need of surgery to repair a tear duct damaged in the beating. Along with scars on his chin, neck, chest and right foot, Bell said that he is partially deaf in his right ear and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Any sudden loud noises in the middle of the night terrify me. I wake up screaming and my partner has to comfort me,” he said.
Dunyon, who has fibromyalgia, added that the stress of the event has also aggravated her own illness.
“And it’s not just me, I know. It’s all of us,” she said.
Even though lawyer fees have taken a financial toll on Bell and his family, Bell said that he is not filing a civil suit for the money.
“I would like to see those responsible incarcerated to where they can actually get help. I don’t mean just incarcerated, I mean counseling. Severe therapy,” he said.
When asked why he had not decided to just move on with his life, Bell said doing so was impossible.
“As long as the people who attacked me are still free, I’m not free,” he said.
Bell and his attorneys did not say what damages they would seek in the civil case, saying that they would leave that up to the advice of the civil attorneys working with them. Kraft and Gustin also said they were not yet ready to announce the names of the civil attorneys joining their team.
Kraft said that he anticipated that the suit would be filed shortly.
A complete transcript of the press conference can be found at qsaltlake.com.