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A Creature Was Stirring: The Christmas Eve Murder Of Brian Boothe

Posted December 25th, 2013 in Archives, Field Reports, Investigations by Billy Jensen

 

On Christmas Day 2002, Brian Boothe was found dead in his apartment in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan, victim of a knife wound to the neck. “Police sources” tagged it a suicide in several newspapers.

 

Boothe’s brother Tommy had committed suicide just three months earlier, pumping carbon monoxide into the car he had been living in outside of his job at Ants and Things exterminators in Bayport. New York newspapers, and perhaps the police, connected those dots: A gay male spending Christmas Eve alone, whose brother had recently taken his own life…it had to be suicide. But Brian had not spoken to his brother in years. None of the Boothe family had.

 

“We kept saying ‘It’s got nothing to do with it,'” says Boothe’s mother, Kay, from her home in Patchogue. “Brian was the least affected by [Tommy’s] death.

Brian Boothe

 

And Brian Boothe, by all accounts, was happier than ever. He would be heading to Long Island for Christmas dinner the next day, relishing in giving his 3-year-old nephew and godson Owen another toy with plenty of loose pieces, a practice that annoyed his sister-in-law. When his friends talked about foregoing their beloved annual ski trip to Aspen, he fiercely objected, charging the $4,000 for the January 19 vacation to his credit card. His friend Lisa Steinbring, who had lunch with him the day before his death, recalls how Boothe was “gleeful [while] describing the soon-to-be arrival of [his brother’s baby girl] Cassidy.” Christmas cards he wrote to his family were full of hope for the new year. To everyone who knew him, Brian Boothe was loving life.

 

But that didn’t stop the New York tabloids from positing suicide. And it took the medical examiner four months to officially declare Brian’s death—the result of a vicious slice to the throat—a homicide. Still, the police are sharing none of the details of the investigation with the family. “They won’t tell me much about the crime scene,” says Boothe’s sister, Donna Kukura of Shirley, “because I’m a family member, and they think it was someone he knew, he trusted.”

 

Friends and family will converge on St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan this Saturday, wearing “JUSTICE for Brian” pins on their lapels, for a memorial. Maybe afterward they will caravan out to the Island, to the Ground Round on Montauk Highway in Bay Shore, where Booth #287 is dedicated to Boothe, who was a server there for five years. The family will look warily at the faces in the crowd, as they did at the funeral in December, to spot any odd people or odd behavior. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with,” says Kukura. “Everyone’s a suspect.” The police put that thought in the family’s heads. Regardless, people will be there to remember a Long Island boy who moved to the city and made good, only to be struck down in the prime of life.

 

A BAKER AND BEEKEEPER
Kay Boothe remembers her son putting on song-and-dance shows in the backyard of their house on Valley Road in Patchogue. She remembers his beekeeping phase, along with the day the bees got loose and flew away (Brian cried). She remembers Brian and his brothers Jimmy, Tommy and Sean going down to River Avenue Park to move turtles from the perimeter of the park back into the marshes, safe from encroaching civilization. She remembers him staying home on Thanksgiving while his family went to the parade—because he wanted to stay in the kitchen and help cook, and the time he waited anxiously as the family tried his fresh-baked cookies, only to see everyone spit them out, realizing too late that he had substituted baking soda for baking powder. Those are the kinds of stories Kay Boothe remembers.

 

“Anyone he touched remembered him,” Kay Boothe says through tears. “It’s a shame whoever did this, to snuff out his life. Because he loved life. And he loved the city. I used to live in the city [and] I kept telling him, times are different and he would say ‘Oh ma, people are out at all hours.'”

 

Boothe wasn’t out at all hours on Christmas Eve. A creature of habit, Boothe was always in by 2 a.m.

 

On Christmas Eve, he left 1 Penn Plaza, where he worked at Seabrook Consultants as a human resources strategist, and went to the Gap to buy presents for his two nieces. “I don’t know [what they are] yet. I haven’t opened the Christmas gifts,” says Kukura.

 

He stopped at a Rite-Aid drug store, then the dollar store to get wrapping paper, before returning to his apartment, where he presumably wrapped the presents. He called his mother to finalize plans for Christmas dinner, and then went out for a drink.

 

He went to three of the East Village’s many gay bars. Boothe had declared his sexuality to his family at 16, and according to Kukura, the “family was very accepting of him.” Witnesses say they saw Boothe at Phoenix, in the East Village, at 6:15 p.m. Later on that night, he’s placed at Wunderbar. Boothe’s last known stop was The Cock, on Avenue A, which he left around 1 a.m. The Cock is “a place you would go at the end of the night if you wanted to pick up [a date],” says Tom Gestal, Boothe’s best friend of more than 10 years, who lives in Ft. Lauderdale.

 

No one saw him come home. There is no doorman at Boothe’s Stuyvesant Town apartment at 605 East 14th St., just a buzzer system. Boothe lived on the eighth floor.

 

Twelve hours later in Shirley, Donna Kukura was preparing a Christmas turkey as members of the Boothe family picked at hors d’oeuvres and the children played with their new toys. Brian was supposed to arrive at 2 p.m. As the minutes turned to hours with no answer on his cell phone, worry began to set in. Kukura’s husband, Joe, and brother, Jimmy, drove to Boothe’s apartment, hoping to see Brian’s red Toyota Celica convertible heading toward them on the Long Island Expressway. They arrived at the apartment building at 6 p.m. Jimmy, who would sometimes crash at Brian’s place, used his key to get in. Inside, they found Brian’s body in the bedroom doorway, on its side, in a pool of blood.

 

A PICK-UP CRIME
At a crime scene, detectives are taught to ask themselves two fundamental questions: “What is present at the scene that shouldn’t be here? And what is absent that should be?”

 

There was no sign of forced entry. There did not appear to have been a struggle in the apartment. Three beer bottles were on the kitchen counter. Brian’s pockets held drink tokens from one of the clubs he had been to the night before.

 

The murder weapon, possibly a knife from Boothe’s kitchen, though the police will not confirm this, was found in the apartment. “I guess it was in a bag of gifts, because there were stuffed animals in there that we haven’t gotten back,” says Kukura. The family had told police they did not want to be responsible for moving anything with blood on it from the apartment.

 

Brian’s laptop and cell phone were missing, but $160 was in the wallet in the dresser drawer, hampering a robbery motive. The family surmises that Brian was attacked in his bedroom and tried to run out toward the small hallway, where he collapsed. Placing the murder in the bedroom leads them to believe that Brian was fairly comfortable with his killer.

 

Because Boothe had visited bars directly beforehand, his murder has the earmarks of a crime known all too well in the gay community. “In our opinion, it might be a pick-up crime,” says Basil Lucas, senior bias-crime advocate with the Anti-Violence Project (AVP), a New York-based nonprofit organization that chronicles crimes against gays. A “pick-up crime” is defined by the AVP on their website, as “when the victim meets someone (“picks them up”) and then a crime is committed against the victim at the pick-up scene or at a more private location.” Pick-up crimes range from petty theft to robbery, rape and murder.

 

“If I had to guess, [I would have to say that] as many gay men are murdered at their home as on the street,” says Clarence Patton, AVP’s director. Over Memorial Day weekend of last year, for example, a man met his victim at a gay bar in Chelsea, went back to the victim’s friend’s apartment and stabbed him. The victim survived and a man named Billy Bowen was arrested on June 5 of last year and indicted on attempted murder, first degree robbery and first degree assault charges. The case fell apart and Bowen was set free. But the AVP says that the attack is just one in a long list Bowen has perpetrated against gay males. (AVP doesn’t feel that Bowen was involved in Booth’s death; NYPD will not comment on him). Other pick-up murders include the 1998 killing of Peter Garcia after a night at the nightclub Limelight. Because of the clandestine nature of the meetings, pick-up crimes often go unsolved. “Many of these men, because of the shame and closet situation of their lives, they don’t report,” says Lucas.

 

“I am 99.9 percent sure [Brian] picked someone up at that bar,” Gestal says of Boothe’s death. “I hung out with that guy so much. I know his moves.”

 

Gestal scoffs at the police’s notion that this was someone Boothe knew and trusted. “If Brian went out on a date, he would tell me about it,” he says. “No. This was a trick that went wrong.”

 

NEWSPAPERS GET IT WRONG
The headline of a 134-word New York Post story on Dec. 27 read “Police Suspect Village Suicide,” and cited unnamed police sources who said “it was probably a suicide.” The Daily News referred to unnamed “authorities,” who said Boothe “may have taken his own life.” Television reporters, too, mentioned unnamed authorities who said it was a possible suicide.

 

“How does a person kill himself when the knife was found across the room?” wonders AVP’s Patton. Kukura also finds it implausible, on several levels. “I work in psychiatric emergency,” says Kukura. “I’ve seen plenty of suicide attempts, and knowing him, that would definitely not be the manner [he would kill himself]. He was too vain.”

 

The initial media reports, never followed up, got the Boothe family worried that the police were not treating Brian’s death as a homicide. Since the crime happened on a holiday, the killer could be in New York for a short time on vacation or visiting home. “Whoever did this could be well on their way,” says Kay Boothe.

 

The night after Christmas, the police met at Boothe’s brother Jimmy’s house in East Patchogue. Just hours earlier, the autopsy on Brian’s body concluded that he had died of a knife wound to the left side of his neck, which lacerated his trachea, esophagus and right lung. The family was itching to get an investigation going. They wanted to set up a reward. They wanted to get CrimeStoppers involved. They just wanted some action. But Brian’s death was still being classified, unofficially, as a suicide by the NYPD.

 

“We can’t put up an award if the Medical Examiner hasn’t declared it a homicide,” says NYPD Deputy Commissioner, Public Information Spokesperson Det. Walter Burnes.

 

“The Medical Examiner’s office took forever,” says Kukura.

 

The Medical Examiner’s office has no timetable of the classification of death, and according to New York City Medical Examiner Spokesperson Ellen Borakove, did not call Boothe’s death a homicide “until we were satisfied the investigation was complete.” Borakove would not go into details on why it took four months in Boothe’s case, stating the office never comments on homicides.

 

Finally, Dr. Christopher Happy of the Medical Examiner’s office declared the death a homicide in the middle of April. The family got their wanted posters by mid-May. When the family returned to Boothe’s apartment for the last time to remove his belongings, they did sense an intensity to the investigation: Fingerprint powder covered the room, and pipes, plumbing and numerous floor tiles had been ripped out.

On Jan. 20, Kukura was just sitting down to dinner at 5:30 p.m. in her kitchen in Shirley when her cell phone rang. The caller I.D. showed Brian’s cell-phone number. She picked up, but no one was there. Four-and-a-half hours later, it happened again. This time, she heard voices.

“It sounded like two Hispanic men,” says Kukura. They were saying ‘Where’s Brian?’ and they sounded like they were drunk and at a bar.”

 

Police told Kukura there had been no activity on the phone since December 26. But one look at the bill shows that the phone tried to retrieve calls from the voice mail. The phone was also used to call Brian’s mother’s house. The family continues paying the monthly bill, just in case they get another call.

 

The memorial this Saturday is a chance for Brian’s friends who couldn’t make it to the funeral in December to mourn. At the funeral, the house was flooded with so many flowers that the family had to order an extra car to hold them all. “Everybody said the same thing about Brian—’He was my best friend,'” Donna says with a laugh. “I said to my husband ‘He’s got a lot of best friends.'” It could be the same this week.

 

“Christmas would never be the same for us,” says Kay Boothe. “Even Easter, we usually all get together and go to brunch. But we just couldn’t do it.”

 

The niece Brian so gleefully looked forward to meeting was born on Feb. 13. Instead of Cassidy, they named her Brianna.

 

Originally published in the Long Island Press, 2003.