The evening didn’t pan out as well as he had hoped. Hands in pocket, to ward off the night’s cool mountain air, the “gentle giant” walked four miles from Park City to his condo at Park West. The two cowboys who had picked him up in a bar earlier in the evening, seemed only to have been interested in getting high. He was tired, the drugs and alcohol from the abortive party was waning through his system in the wee hours of the morning. As he reached the parking lot of his condo, he heard the rambling of an old ranch pickup truck come alongside him.
“Oh it’s them,” he thought. The older cowboy, who had “played” with him in the bedroom just hours earlier but became enraged when he tried to kiss him, beckoned him. What do they want now? He approached the passenger-side window. In an instant the cowboy whipped out a pistol and shot the gentle giant between the eyes. Probably too stunned to know what happened, his last sight was that of a grinning cowboy as he dropped to the ground beneath the starry sky. Dead. Hands still in pocket and 50 feet from his front door.
In late August 1993 this tragic drama was played out between business owner Douglas Charles Koehler and two Park City ranch hands David Nelson Thacker and Clint Marcus Crane. Koehler was 31 and co-owner of the Frame-It Shop in Murray. His friends called him, at 6-foot-4-inches tall, a “gentle giant” who frequently rode his horse, Fred, in the Utah mountains. Family and friends remembered him as articulate, talented and a friendly person. “He was a hell of an artist and someone who wouldn’t harm a fly.” He also was a gay man.
Thacker was a 28-year-old cowboy from Union, Nev., who was hired to work on a Park City ranch. He supervised the 21-year-old Crane, a ranch hand from Obion, Idaho. Thacker was a troubled man. He had little intelligence, had molested young girls, and was more aroused by consenting males than consenting females – according to a court ordered psychiatric diagnostic testing. Needless to say he had issues with his sexuality. He also was a bully. Crane was afraid of him but they shared a condo in Park City provided by the ranch owner.
On Aug. 20, 1993, Thacker and Crane met Koehler at the Saddle and Spur Bar in Park West. Upon seeing Koehler in the cowboy bar he told the bartender that Koehler “was as queer as a three-dollar bill.” However, Koehler bought the cowboys drinks and offered them cocaine. So the trio played pool until closing and Thacker suggested they continue the party at his Park City condo. Crane, once there, laid on the couch as Thacker and Koehler went into a bedroom. Thacker claimed he fell asleep and awoke to find Koehler fondling him and performing a sex act on him.
“It certainly seems highly probable there was some consensual sexual activity that took place despite Thacker’s contention Koehler had made an unwanted sexual advance.” At some point Koehler probably tried to kiss Thacker which threatened his perceived self image. He threw Koehler out of the condo. Stewing over Koehler’s sexual activity with him, Thacker took a shower, grabbed his .22-caliber revolver, and woke up Crane. He told Crane that Koehler had tried to kiss him and had decided to “go get the guy.” On Aug.22, “they left with the intent to do some injury to Mr. Koehler.”
Crane thought they were there only to scare or beat up Koehler and was horrified when Thacker shot him. Crane was too frightened of Thacker to go to the police but within two days Thacker and Crane were arrested.
The cowboys were tried separately. Crane plead guilty to attempted obstruction of justice and was sentenced on Aug. 21, 1994, one year after the ill-fated meeting with Koehler. The prosecutor allowed Crane to take a lesser plea because he said, “Almost 100 percent of our direct evidence that Mr. Thacker was the shooter came from Mr. Crane. I think Mr. Crane is a good person and a different character than Mr. Thacker.” Crane was sentenced to two years probation and ordered to perform 150 hours of community service, pay fines and fees totaling $1,306, and undergo a mental-health evaluation and substance-abuse treatment.
Thacker came to trial in August 1994 about the same time as Crane. However Thacker’s case came before the 3rd District court of Judge David S. Young, a descendant of Brigham Young. He was nominated to the bench by Republican conservative Gov. Norm Bangerter in 1986. His judicial rulings, however, often had critics claiming bias if not hostility toward women who appeared before him.
Thacker was represented by Ron Yengrich, a widely recognized and respected Salt Lake City criminal defense attorney. Yengrich managed to convince Summit County Attorney Robert Adkins that Thacker’s drug and alcohol intoxication at the time of the shooting should be taken into account, and Adkins agreed to reduce the charge from murder to manslaughter.
Adkins argued before Judge Young, “It should make no difference, but this person was killed because Mr. Thacker doesn’t happen to like that lifestyle, or is attracted to that lifestyle.” He summarized saying that “anything less than a one-to-15-year sentence would be inadequate for this killing, which some have termed a hate crime.”
Yengrich countered that the high levels of intoxication played a key factor in the shooting. “I think that indicates that Mr. Thacker did not intentionally kill Mr. Koehler and should be given the benefit of the doubt.” He suggested that the gun went off accidentally making a maximum sentence for manslaughter inappropriate. He summarized by saying Thacker was fully prepared to serve time and was remorseful for the shooting.
Thacker told the court, “It was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done,” and “It wasn’t because he was gay or anything like that.” This was contrary to what he told a fellow jail mate, “You should have seen that queer drop.”
Judge Young, before sentencing, claimed that in his eight years as a judge, he didn’t “remember receiving such a strong outpouring of support for a defendant.” He said he received 49 letters in support of Thacker and only 16 letters in opposition. Young said this sentence was one of the most difficult of his career claiming Koehler had some responsibility in his death. Young argued that Koehler would be alive if he had not “supplied the drugs and alcohol” the night of his death.
He suggested that the penalty of the maximum prison term of 15 years for manslaughter was “too high” and “too stiff.” He then sentenced Thacker to five years in prison with a one-year enhancement for using a firearm – over the protest of Adkins – who stated the alcohol and drug use had already been considered when the charge had been reduce from third-degree murder to manslaughter. Young claimed however his sentence “was not meant to diminish the value of Koehler’s life.” Nevertheless he sentenced Thacker to serve no more than 6 years in state prison – less than the penalty for shoplifting.
Immediately after the sentencing more than 100 outraged people gathered on the steps of the State Capitol to protest Judge David Young’s ruling. “What Judge Young has said is that it’s OK to kill faggots,” said David Nelson.
“Any reasonable Utahn would look at the case and see it as gay bashing. Thacker hunts down and executes someone and is guilty of no more than a third-degree felony? That’s the same as shoplifting $250 of merchandise,” said Michael Aaron.
The Gay and Lesbian Utah Democrats filed a complaint against Young with the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission. The document called for the “strongest-possible penalty,” including his removal from office.
Not only was the gay community outraged but so was the Salt Lake Tribune. “Such leniency implies that life – not just Mr. Koehler’s, but everyone’s – is worth relatively little in this society. … Thacker’s sentence defies the premises that life is precious and that the American justice system is fair. … Whether Judge Young is guilty of prejudice against homosexuals, his decision at least has offended principles of justice,” said in the editorial.
Judge Young later came under fire again in 1996 for alleged bias against women, as well as gays, but managed to keep his position. However, when the Utah Supreme Court publicly reprimanded Young in 1999 for judicial misconduct, in 2002 voters ousted him, making Young the first state court judge ever removed in a retention election. Summit County Attorney Robert Adkins was appointed to the 3rd District Court by Gov. Olene Walker in 2005.
With the recent outrage against a young man in our community, we have witnessed that times have changed. Today the decent citizens of this state are fully supportive of seeing that the denial of justice is not based on one’s sexual orientation. The indomitable Dottie Dixon is asking the community to help.
“Whatever ya choose ta do to help Dane Hall recover, recoup and rebound – then do it with all the passion ya can. But please do SOMETHING! There are several clubs havin’ fundraisers, raffles, etc. Community leaders are meetin’ and plannin’ and makin’ sure something GOOD comes out of this tragic event. TIME ta step up, all of we Utahan’s ALL of us. UNITY is the key, be angry, stay angry, but do something.”
I have talked with many about the brutal attack and not surprisingly found that every gay man I spoke with had also been a victim of a physical assault. I would like to create a Facebook page dedicated to recording the amount of bashing that has taken place in Utah over the years. Justice delayed is justice denied. Perhaps putting a face and a name to a hate crime will help some in Utah understand that gays aren’t simply seeking special rights, but human rights.
“Hate is viral. It targets a victim and extends that fear to a group and a community thus its purpose is to terrorize beyond the specific act. Its message is to you far removed. You too are its intended victim. Hate survives because it is sheltered directly or indirectly under the umbrella of silent acquiescence. Its power is our apathy. Its voice is our silence. Its politics our willing acceptance. The antidote to hate is YOU. What will you do? When will you speak? Where will you stand?” – Sim Gill