[Originally published in The Stranger, March 31, 2005]
Last June three men from rural Washington jumped out of a pickup truck and, wielding a broken vodka bottle, attacked a gay man in Seattle. This week all three were found guilty of a hate crime, bringing an end to a story that has been covered here--when it has been covered at all--as a clash of opposites: rural versus urban, straight versus gay. But a look into the pasts of the victim, Micah Painter, and his three attackers reveals that a single force shaped all four young men: Evangelical Christianity.
A religious revival was underway in America. It was the 1740s, and itinerant preachers crisscrossed the land, frightening crowds with tales of an everlasting damnation in the afterworld. These preachers read the Bible literally, and in their minds the words were there, plain as day, in the Book of John, chapter 3. To get into Heaven, one must be "born again." The idea caught on fast, spawning a mass of conversions-or rebirths-that came to be known as the Great Awakening.
It was the emergence, in America, of Evangelical Christianity.
This new religion soon spread across oceans and continents, lodging in the minds of millions who came to believe in a need to be reborn and in the literal truth of the Bible. It was in this way that Evangelical Christianity eventually entered the mind of Vadim Samusenko, a young immigrant from Russia and a spiritual descendant of this landmark revival, who last summer awoke inside the cab of a white pickup truck that was rolling through downtown Seattle on a balmy summer night. Samusenko had a bottle of Smirnoff vodka in his hands, the kind of good time officially forbidden by his strict Evangelical church in Bellingham. Four friends were with him, two young men and two beautiful young women, all Russian-speaking Evangelicals like himself.
They had come into Seattle to spend the sunny hours of this Saturday at Alki beach. There, they had sipped champagne, built a bonfire, and after dark had gone to a downtown club, where there was more drinking. Outside the club, one girl's shoe broke, and anyway it was getting to be time for the girls to go home to Kent. Everyone climbed back in the truck. They were driving around, looking for a freeway on-ramp, when the entire group noticed a young man dressed in tight white pants and no shirt. The man was walking, people in the truck that night would recall, like a girl.
The man they thought walked like a girl was named Micah Painter. He had left the Timberline, a gay club at the foot of Capitol Hill, where a celebration in honor of Gay Pride weekend was taking place, and was on his way to get a dry shirt from a friend's car. As he headed away from the club, Painter heard someone yelling "faggot!" and turned to see a person in the white truck giving him the finger. Although he had no idea exactly what type of person this was, Painter had long been clear on how Evangelicals felt about his appearance, and his affection for other guys. Painter's father had been an Evangelical preacher and, as Painter would put it later, "having a faggot child was not his idea of fun." At a young age, Painter said, he had run away from the violence of his home life, vowing not to be beaten and bullied anymore.
He gave the person in the truck the finger back--vigorously," as one witness would recall, like he really meant it.
The people in the truck, it turned out, shared both his father's Evangelicalism and what Painter remembers as his father's violent contempt for homosexuals. One of the girls in the truck that night would later tell a Seattle Police detective that if Painter had not been walking like a girl, with all the distasteful things this implied to the Evangelicals in the white truck, events would have proceeded differently. "I don't think [Samusenko] would ever have gotten out," she told the detective, "if [Painter] wouldn't have been gay."
Being gay, she explained, is "against our religion."
Within 150 years the Great Awakening had arrived in Russia. There, Evangelical Christianity would grow steadily, despite the efforts of many powerful forces: czars, who distrusted the new religion; the Russian Orthodox Church, which felt threatened; and more recently, Communist leaders, who persecuted Evangelicals, sending them to prison and confining them to mental institutions. In 1978, in an effort to hide from this hostile culture, seven Russian Evangelicals would dash past armed guards and into the U.S. embassy compound in Moscow.
They were allowed to stay. Five years later President Ronald Reagan, to the consternation of Soviet officials and the delight of Evangelicals in America, used the plight of these persecuted Russian Evangelicals to dramatize the lack of religious freedom in the Soviet Union. Reagan's stand became a popular part of his crusade against the "evil empire" (a phrase he coined that same year while speaking to an Evangelical group in Florida). Thanks to Reagan, the Russian Evangelicals in the U.S. embassy ultimately earned exit visas to America.
The next year, 1984, Vadim Samusenko entered the world, born to Evangelical Christian parents in Vladikavkaz, a city in southwestern Russia, midway between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It is an industrial region known for smelting zinc and refining silver. By the time Samusenko was 6, the Soviet Union was collapsing, emigration laws were loosening, and an exodus of tens of thousands of Russian Evangelicals to America was underway. Samusenko's family decided to join the tide and headed for Sacramento, California, a city that had become fixed in the minds of many oppressed Evangelicals in the former Soviet Union because of a short-wave religious radio broadcast emanating from Sacramento during the Cold War.
The truck stopped and Vadim Samusenko, 20 years old at the time, stepped out. He still had the vodka bottle in his hand, and he put one question to the shirtless man who walked like a girl: "Are you gay?"
"Yes," Painter replied.
Two other young men would jump out of the truck that night in Seattle, rushing to join Samusenko in the attack on Painter. Together, the three encircled their victim, "like a pack of wolves," one witness said, punching and kicking him repeatedly. Samusenko broke the vodka bottle against a wall and stabbed Painter with its jagged edges, slashing Painter between the eyes and leaving two long, deep cuts in his back. An officer called to the scene later would describe Painter's back as looking like a sliced-up flank of meat. A doctor who treated Painter would remember the wounds as being so deep they went down to the bones of his rib cage. Painter, who had smoked some meth before he went to the club and while dancing had also taken a pill of ecstasy, initially felt confident enough to stand his ground. He had used his strong arms to hold Samusenko at bay, grabbing his wrist to stop the descent of the broken bottle and putting Samusenko in a headlock. It was then, Painter said, that he felt a kick to his back and a powerful punch to the side of his face, and heard people shouting, "Die, faggot!" He said he fell to the ground, no longer able to defend himself, and cried out for help as three attackers now descended upon him.
One of the men who joined the attack was David Kravchenko, 19 at the time, who had been in the back of the truck's cab, next to Samusenko. He is a strong, round-faced young man who was born in the Ukraine in 1985, and with his Evangelical family immigrated to Fresno, California, sometime between 1989 and 1992. Kravchenko's father, Nikolay Kravchenko, worked in Fresno as a piano tuner. His mother, Rita Kravchenko, found work as a preschool teacher at the First Church Christian Center, where the school's mission is to "support parents who seek to obey the Biblical instruction."
The other young man who rushed to help Samusenko was the tall, baby-faced Yevgeniy Savchak, 17 at the time, who had borrowed the truck from his older brother, Alexi, so that he could drive his two older guy friends, and the two young women, into Seattle that day. Savchak was born in 1986 in Almaty, the capital of what is now Kazakhstan, located just east of the Caspian Sea. His father, Vasiliy Savchak, a slim man with a thick beard and a serene expression, converted to Evangelical Christianity in the 1970s after being introduced to Savchak's mother, Aleksey. She is a short woman with soft features and an equally calm expression, who covers her head in light scarves and favors heavy dresses that come to her ankles.
At the same time that other Evangelicals were moving to the United States, Savchak's father voluntarily moved his five children to Siberia. The Savchaks lived in a small town near the border with China, not far from the port city of Vladivostok, and did missionary work. The children enjoyed Siberia but soon learned that their Baptist faith made them second-class citizens in Russia. "If you were Baptist that means something's wrong with you," Alexi, the older Savchak brother, said. "You're not a normal person." In the factories, and where you are working, if they know you're a Baptist, you're the stupid person. You're just like, you know, a low person. Something's wrong with you."
Eventually, in 1998, tired of discrimination against Evangelicals in Russia and fearful that his sons would be drafted into the war in Chechnya, Vasiliy moved his family to Bellingham, where they knew a cousin who had come to America earlier. In Bellingham, now free to practice his religion, Alexi would come to talk openly about gay Americans in much the same way that people in Russia had talked about the Baptists, the low people.
"I don't respect those kind of people," Alexi said of homosexuals, speaking to me last October. "I think something's wrong. If I find out somebody's gay in my community, that means something's wrong with this person."
He continued, explaining why, according to his religion, this is the only way to feel about homosexuality. "Because look," he said, "God create only two people: female and male. And Adam and Eve was just only two. God didn't create like four guys and two guys and two girls and like this, you know. He didn't do this. Just only two. And in the family, it can be only two. It can't be like two guys or two females. It can't, that's totally wrong. When you see these gay people or lesbian people kissing each other, that's nasty. I hate this."
Alexi said he believes all three of the young men who attacked Painter--his brother, Samusenko, and Kravchenko--feel the same way, which is: "That's nasty. If you're gay, something's wrong with you. That's not normal."
The three attackers had far more in common with Painter than they could have realized. All four men shared an Evangelical upbringing by very religious fathers, came from large families in which they stood out among the siblings, had a taste for indulgence, exhibited an impatience with their small hometowns, and at key points in their lives had been forced to run away from places where it was difficult to be who they were.
Micah Painter was born in Bremerton on July 24, 1980, just a few months before Reagan was elected. His father, Keith Painter, preached at a large Evangelical church called the Granary, set atop a high hill along the road to Silverdale and catering to Pentecostal Christians, a subset of the larger Evangelical movement. His mother, Betty, was a homemaker who in her spare time sold pizzas to support the church, where her children attended school and, four times a week, went to religious services.
School pictures of Painter from the time show a towheaded kid wearing burgundy sweaters, the word "Granary" stitched onto them in white. The sweaters are pulled on over crisp, white-collared shirts and red ties, and in the earliest school photo something stands out: bruises around Painter's eyes.
Painter was the youngest of five kids who lived a life circumscribed, he said, by their father's religious fervor. They could not go to the movies, could not listen to anything but Christian music, and could not wear shorts because their father said shorts were immodest.
"My dad was such a control freak," Painter said.
Painter found his first non-Christian music at age 7, when Michael Jackson's Bad was released, and thrilled at copying the dance moves on the inside of the album cover. "I fell in love with that album," he said. "Of course I got in extremely big trouble." His dad made him get rid of the record, but it would not be the last time Keith Painter would catch his son with forbidden music.
There was a man who attended Painter's church in Bremerton who had some training in gymnastics, and, for some reason, Painter's father often asked the man to walk around on his hands at the Granary. "I think it was used for some reference to our lack of strength as human beings or whatever," Painter said, "but I couldn't tell you exactly. I just remember being enthralled by that, and I went to the library and I checked out a book called The Kurt Thomas Book of Gymnastics and fell in love with it." Painter talked his father into letting him take gymnastics lessons at the local YMCA, but was only able to go to a few classes before his father suddenly moved the family to rural Illinois.
The Painters landed in White Hall, a tiny town about 250 miles southwest of Chicago, where his father had grown up. There, Painter's dad gave up preaching and found work as a long-haul trucker. His mother opened a Dairy Queen franchise. Painter remembers White Hall as a place one could walk through in 10 minutes, and that he would complain to anyone who would listen that he was bored. In response, his parents allowed him to start going to classes at the Stevens School of Dance & Gymnastics in Jacksonville, about 30 minutes north of White Hall. There, Painter said, "I got pretty good pretty fast." Eleanor Stevens, who runs the school with her husband, said Painter was one of the most talented gymnasts she has ever seen. Her daughter, Amy Stevens-Kaufmann, who helped run the school, agreed. "He had so much natural talent," she said. "Had he been given a set of parents that backed him, he could have been an Olympic gymnast. He had the talent, and he had the drive."
Painter began spending more and more time at the gym, entire days in the summers. It was an escape from a difficult family life, certainly, but his devotion was also a reflection of his nature. "I've always taken things to their extreme," Painter said. He remembers thinking, "If you're going to be an athlete, be an Olympic athlete."
A newspaper clipping from the time shows a grinning Painter who has just qualified to compete nationally after winning first place in the regional tumbling championships in Peoria. Another clipping announces that Painter has come in first at the National Tumbling Team trials, and will be heading to Canada for a competition there.
The only thing standing between Painter and his dream, he and his coaches said, was his father.
"His father would not allow him to wear shorts because they weren't supposed to expose their legs," Eleanor Stevens recalled. "And in gymnastics, you wear long pants, like, on the rings. But with other events, like on the floor routine, you can't." The instructors had to gamble that Painter's father would never come to the gymnastics meets and catch his son in shorts. It was a safe bet; he never showed, although Painter's mother did come frequently. She wasn't strong enough to stand up to her husband at home, Painter said, but at least his wearing of shorts at the meets stayed between the two of them.
Instructors at the Stevens School thought Painter was probably gay, and that this was the source of much tension with his father. Eleanor Stevens remembers how Painter would take pride in teaching girls how to do a standing back tuck on the balance beam-a backward summersault in the air that requires the gymnast to jump from, and then land on, the narrow beam.
"Micah would get up there and say, now this is how you do it, girls," Eleanor Stevens recalled. She remembers this because in the gymnastics world, "guys don't do beams."
When he wasn't at the gym, Painter said, he lived in fear of his father. "My dad had this habit of taking me out to the corn field," he said, "and then he'd beat me up and leave me out there." One of the beatings occurred, Painter said, because his dad had discovered that Painter once again had a Michael Jackson tape. It's a memory that meshes with the memories of instructors at the Stevens School, who said they sensed Painter was scared of his father. And it's a memory echoed in Painter's social-service records in Illinois, which were shown to me with his permission. Deborah West, who became Painter's case worker a few years later, after painter had left the Stevens School and become a teenage runaway, would write: "Dad usually took him out into corn fields to beat him, and didn't like it when he got up."
Another person involved in Painter's case would write, "Last p.m. Micah had his dream again: Dad finds Micah's tapes by Elton John and shoves him down their spiral staircase and he dies of a broken neck."
"I believe he was abused," said West, who has been a licensed clinical counselor in Illinois for 15 years and currently heads a publicly funded social services agency. "We don't have any absolute proof of that. There were no trials or anything like that, but I believed at the time he was." His stories went back too far. He was telling stories of when he was 5, 6 years old. The normal kid on the street who just wants to get out of the house, they don't do that. It's not typical of them to go into story after story."
When I reached them at their home in Illinois, Painter's mother denied that her son was ever abused, and his father strenuously denied beating Painter. "I have never, ever, never been abusive to any of my children," he told me. I asked Painter's father about his concern over his son wearing shorts. He replied: "So?"
I asked how his Evangelical Pentecostalism had made him feel about his son's homosexuality. "This conversation has come to an end," he said.
Painter subscribed to a magazine called International Gymnast and read in it about Gold Cup Gymnastics, a school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, known for having produced several Olympic athletes. One he particularly admired, Trent Demos, had just won a gold medal on the horizontal bars at the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona. Painter mailed off a tape of his routines.
"I remember watching that video tape," said Ed Burch, Gold Cup's head coach. "He was just outstanding on tumbling. Just outstanding."
Burch, too, saw Olympic potential in Painter, and invited him down to Albuquerque. Immediately, there was a problem: Painter had an almost reflexive antagonism toward male authority figures. Burch tended to yell and Painter, Burch said, "would take it personal."had I known earlier, I would have handled myself a little bit different." What Burch came to learn, through a conversation with a woman who he remembers owned a Dairy Queen--a woman he believes was Painter's mom--was that Painter's father didn't like who his son was and had been physically abusing him. "I remember sitting there thinking, 'What a mess this guy's in,'" Burch said.
When Painter went home to White Hall for the summer his parents told him that they were reluctant to keep paying the fees at Gold Cup. He arranged to live with his oldest brother, Martin, in Waterloo, Illinois, not far from St. Louis, so he could attend a gymnastics academy there. He was now high-school age, about 16, and he had found the book Breaking the Surface by Greg Louganis, the Olympic diver who was one of the first American cultural icons to make a public journey out of the closet. One day in Waterloo, he said, his brother Martin found the book, too.
"He comes home, yelling and screaming at me and hits me," Painter recalled, "knocking me into a wall and then down about a half a flight of stairs. I was so scared. I knew he was going to tell my dad." And that, Painter was certain, would mean more violence. He ran out of the house, through a rain he still remembers, to a nearby family-resources center.
In Painter's social-service records from Illinois, the incident, which happened on April 11, 1995, is recorded by Deborah West: "Today Martin (brother, 27) picked him up and shoved him into a wall. No marks. It happened because, he says, 'I'm gay and my family is all Christian and don't feel that's right.'" (Martin Painter could not be reached, but Betty Painter said he had not abused Micah Painter.)
West went on, recording Painter's experiences with his violent family. Martin didn't want "fruity" stuff in his house, she wrote, and wouldn't let Painter disobey him. Keith Painter, West recorded, used to beat Martin, too. "Dad's always right, mom would never intervene," she wrote.
Painter told West that his father was verbally abusive too: "Dad keeps telling him he's ugly and needs plastic surgery and that Micah embarrasses him," she wrote. Next comes an account of Painter being beaten on Thanksgiving, "because mom told dad Micah had Elton John, Michael Jackson, and Madonna tapes--Feels he's sure brother or dad would kill him."
The records go on: "Micah is very scared, broken voice, trembling, has been crying." West called Micah's mother about the incident at Martin's house. "Talked to mom," West wrote. "She said it was all [Micah's] fault."
Painter refused to go home. There was a meeting with his parents, a meeting West remembers 10 years later. "It didn't go well at all," she said. Micah's father appeared to be a "fire-and-brimstone" type. And she felt sorry for his mother. "You could tell that her heart was being torn between her husband and her son," West said. "She didn't want to lose her son, but she didn't want to go against her husband."
Painter was sent to Call for Help, a halfway house for runaways. He stayed there three weeks, the maximum time allowed. Then he wound up back home because he was too scared of going into foster care. There was more violence, Painter said, more contempt for his sexuality, and then Painter ran away to Chicago. He was 17.
In a matter of years he had gone from realistic dreams of competing in the Olympics to a frightening existence in which he had to hustle to feed himself. He began traveling a route that is familiar to many in the gay community, a sort of gay underground railroad that leads out of places like White Hall to big cities like Chicago, a road on which the stops are maintained by characters who may seem unsavory to the rest of the culture, but who, to Painter, were saviors. He lived with someone he believes is now in jail for child pornography. He got online in Chicago and found a man in Bellingham who was looking for a houseboy. He went on his own back to Bellingham-a place that could, very loosely, be called home. Being a houseboy there was, he knew, a "use-use situation," but he was too proud to live on the street, and, he said, "at that point I needed to be taken care of." From Bellingham, he made his way to Seattle, now working as a prostitute. A man named Dan hired him, then fell for him. They lived together for several years. With Dan's encouragement, Painter went to school at Seattle Central Community College, where he got the equivalent of a high-school diploma in 1998. He still clung to the dream of being a professional gymnast, an increasingly unrealistic goal. A tremendous, unshakable disappointment settled over him. "After you've done what you love for so long and it's no longer there for you, it leaves a lot of empty space," he said. Soon there were moves up and down the West Coast, and around the country. In L.A., he worked as a prostitute and tried drugs. Before, he had told himself, "If you're going to be an athlete, be an Olympic athlete." Now, the same impulse to take everything to extremes told him, "If you're going to be a drug addict, do it till you die."
Vadim Samusenko arrived in the Sacramento area with his family in 1990. Finally free to practice their religion, the Samusenko family attended a large immigrant church in the suburbs, Second Slavic Baptist. People who knew them recall the Samusenkos as a strongly religious family whose son Vadim attended church three times a week. He graduated high school in Sacramento, he told police, before moving up to Bellingham, probably arriving around 2002. Kravchenko moved to Bellingham around the same time, and soon all three of the young men who would attack Painter--Samusenko, Kravchenko, and Savchak--were attending the same church, Bellingham's Slavic Baptist.
Like Second Slavic Baptist near Sacramento, Bellingham's Slavic Baptist is also a church of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. It is housed in a large building of tan brick and set well back from the street, its blue sign written in both English and Cyrillic script.
Russian and Ukrainian kids are for the most part treated decently in Bellingham, the beneficiaries of a tolerance that radiates outward from the famously liberal Western Washington University, perched high on a hill overlooking the city. That is not to say, however, that foreign-born kids in Bellingham aren't made very aware that they are different.
"Kids can be cruel," said a graduate of the Bellingham public schools who attends Slavic Baptist and didn't want to be named. "I got this a lot: 'Go back where you came from.' Some kids learn to deal with it and stay away from kids who pick on them. And some kids learn to deal with it by beating them up."
Walter Ilyan, a respected religious leader in Bellingham's Russian and Ukrainian community, agreed: "Kids always will take a poke at you. That's exactly what happens with all of our Slavic people." But with the encouragement of their churches and their parents, "they go hang out with their own people. And things cheer up." Sticking together has another bonus: strength in numbers. "If one boy comes and starts making fun of the Russian boy, then the other Russian boys can beat him," Ilyan said. Sensing that his statement echoes the circumstances surrounding the beating of Micah Painter, Ilyan moves to correct himself: "They could protect themselves."
Asked about what the boys who would soon be on trial in Seattle for beating up a gay man were taught about homosexuals, Ilyan states that their community believes in a literal reading of the Bible: "The church says God destroyed Sodom because of them." Could a person taught this in church then come to think it was fine, even God's will, to harm gay people? "No," says Ilyan, because the same Bible "tells us to love our enemies and to preach the gospel."
This idea, commonly expressed as hating the sin and loving (as a means of hopefully converting) the sinner, was echoed by the member of Slavic Baptist who asked not to be named: "It's in the Bible, and it says they beat gays or lesbians or something with rocks. But it also says somewhere that we're not supposed to take matters into our own hands."
The line between intolerance and incitement is approached, but not overtly crossed.
"According to the Bible," Ilyan told me, "[being gay is] an abomination--That person is going to be damned forever."
"But," he added, "we teach our children no fighting."
Samusenko, Kravchenko, and Savchak were clearly having trouble internalizing this and other messages from their church. The boys do seem to have understood they were supposed to stick with their own kind and view homosexuality as a sin. But their church also forbade them from drinking, stealing, beating people up, and ignoring the law in general, and in the two years leading up to the attack on Painter, they collectively violated all of these prohibitions.
Kravchenko shoplifted a $13 bottle of Pinot Noir from a grocery store, fought with a guy who looked at him funny and, with a group of Russian friends, participated in a vicious assault on a man who had earlier slashed the tires on Kravchenko's red Pontiac Firebird, according to police reports. On Valentine's Day last year, Samusenko was caught shooting a stolen semi-automatic handgun into a river, and received a felony firearms charge. The month before the attack on Painter, the two underage friends, Samusenko and Kravchenko, were caught together at a Bellingham park in possession of a case of Miller Genuine Draft and both received Minor in Possession of Alcohol (MIP) charges.
In comparison, the younger Savchak had hardly any record, but in May of 2003 he was stopped for driving without a seatbelt and lacking the adult supervision required by his learner's permit. A few days later, the same officer pulled him over for the same offense.
On June 26 last summer, Savchak borrowed a brand-new white pickup truck from his older brother and went to get Samusenko and Kravchenko. Both of the older guys were under court orders not to drink because of their MIPs, and Samusenko was also under orders not to leave Whatcom County overnight without permission because of his felony stolen-firearms charge. Apparently unconcerned, the three piled into the truck and headed south down Interstate 5, toward Seattle, for a day of drinking in the sun and hanging out with two beautiful girls.
LEAVING LOS ANGELES
Los Angeles, Painter said, "is a wonderful place if everything is right in your life. But if some things are wrong, it's a wonderful place to indulge your worst obsessions." He was solidly in the second category, on a tear with his drug use, when he met an older man who was, Painter said, "on quite a path himself."
The two fell in love, began doing everything together, and when it came to drugs, Painter said, they "did a lot of everything." Painter still worked as a prostitute, but now, having sex with this man he loved, he saw on the man's face an expression he never saw with his clients: caring, devotion. He found he couldn't stomach the idea of telling the man, No, we can't have sex tonight, I have to save myself for my work. He stopped being a hooker.
He didn't stop the drug use, though. And in "fucked-up hazes" the lovers said terrible things to each other. Eventually Painter realized that if he stayed in L.A. much longer he was going to die.
The day after Thanksgiving, 2003, he arrived back in Seattle, which he considered enough of a home to run back to, and crashed with an old friend. He had now finally given up on his dreams of being a gymnast--hard dreams to give up," he said--and began working as a personal trainer at Gold's Gym on Capitol Hill. Things were evening out, he had good friends, and enjoyed some side work as a landscaper. Painter always looked forward to Gay Pride weekend, and was planning to celebrate that Saturday night. He spent the afternoon working in his yard, pruning wisteria, and then watched the first round of Olympic trials for women's gymnastics. He put on a pair of cowboy boots and his tight white pants, smoked some meth, and then headed off to the Timberline with a friend.
Three hours later, walking away from the Timberline to get a dry shirt from his friend's car, Painter heard the shouts of "faggot!" It seemed unreal, everything that happened next, and then he was in the emergency room. Photos of him there show Painter lying on a gurney, his back smeared in blood, deep wounds curving across his lower back.
A few blocks away from the Timberline, a tall black man named Richard Evans was sitting on some steps. Micah painter was still bleeding, his once-white pants reddening to the knees as he made his way back to the club. On the steps, cooling off from a quarrel with his girlfriend, Evans said he saw a white pickup truck pull into the alley in front of him. Three guys jumped out of the truck, he said, one of them covered in blood. "We beat that faggot!" one of the boys announced.
The guy covered in blood took off his wife-beater T-shirt and wrapped it around what looked like a cut on his wrist. Then he began talking to Evans, telling him how he had just stabbed a guy with a bottle. Evans said the bloody man asked him a few questions, and then suddenly pulled a gun on him. Evans recognized it as a .22 caliber pistol, and heard the man demanding to know if Evans was a cop. He said he wasn't. The bloody man's two friends calmed him down, and then the bloody man decided Evans was their "homie." Evans told the young men he needed to call his girlfriend and one of the Russians offered him his cell phone. Sirens could be heard in the distance, getting closer. Evans suggested the guys had better get out of there fast, and, he said, they did.
A few days later, Evans was folding laundry when, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a news report about a gay bashing that had shocked tolerant Seattle and had now become a who-dun-it, a hunt for three men in a white pickup truck.
"The very next morning," he later explained to a packed courtroom in Seattle, "I woke up and realized I had these guys' numbers on my girlfriend's caller ID." He called the police.
The trial of the three men who assaulted Micah Painter began on February 28, on an unusually warm mid-winter Monday. Samusenko, Kravchenko, and Savchak showed up in court clean-shaven and impeccably dressed, as if trying to look as young and innocent as possible. Over the next three weeks of the trial they arrived daily in handcuffs on the eighth floor of the King County Courthouse, where Superior Court Judge Jeffrey M. Ramsdell's stuffy, windowless courtroom is located, and walked calmly¸--some observers would say smugly--inside, nodding and winking at family and friends from Bellingham who attended in ever larger numbers as the trial went on.
Judge Ramsdell is a scrupulously fair man with a large, shiny cranium, who, for an icebreaker with the 70 potential jurors during jury selection, announced that his hobbies are mountaineering and motorcycles. In front of the judge, at the King County prosecutors' table, sat Sean O'Donnell, a towering six foot eight man in sharp suits who, from a standing position, could look down on Judge Ramsdell even as the judge sat high on his elevated bench. Next to O'Donnell was senior deputy prosecutor Deborah Cashman, who seemed to rise to about O'Donnell's sternum, a fierce cross-examiner in conservative pantsuits.
The defense attorneys, in contrast, were a motley crew. Savchak's lawyer, Peter Connick, appeared in haggard suits and tied his narrow ties in a way that gave one end extremely short shrift, so that the other end of the tie could make the heroic journey over his impressive mid-section. He played a sort of Columbo character, poking fun at himself and pretending to bumble around when in fact he was laying neatly constructed legal traps. Kravchenko's lawyer, Timothy McGarry, seemed the nice guy, sporting a University of Washington lapel pin and smiling sweetly as he asked barbed questions. And Samusenko's lawyer, Thomas Olmstead, was the wildcard.
Samusenko's parents went looking for a Christian lawyer and found one in Olmstead, an unpredictable born-again Pentecostal from Poulsbo. His business card sports an ichthus (Christian fish) and he is best known in Seattle legal circles for having once sung a Christian hymn for his closing argument in federal court. (The federal judge, Olmstead recounted, told him to "sit down and shut up.") He was "saved" by Christianity in 1969, and has since defended people who have blockaded or set fire to abortion clinics, regularly proclaiming God's law to be higher than any civil law. During jury selection Olmstead told a lesbian joke to make a point about homosexuals being too overprotected by the PC crowd (no one laughed). He also announced to the court that he didn't even like to use the word "gay" because it had been "destroyed" by homosexuals.
The defense constructed a layered argument to explain why their clients should not be found guilty of either a hate crime or first-degree assault. An unspoken tension hung over the proceedings for Kravchenko and Savchak. Neither are U.S. citizens, which means that after they serve their jail time here they could be deported back to their home countries.
A different defense was used for each defendant, but the common themes went like this: First, the defense lawyers argued, Samusenko was drunk and so couldn't have formulated the intent to do anything. Second, even if he and his two friends had intended to do something, it wasn't because Painter was gay. Third, even if they had all noticed Painter was gay and were then heard calling him a "faggot," and after that got out of their truck and ran to attack him, the attack on Painter was actually self-defense, because Painter had been on meth and had fought back. Fourth, Savchak and Kravchenko were just trying to break up the fight when they joined in. And fifth, any witnesses to the contrary were high on drugs or drunk and couldn't be believed. (And one more thing: The gun Samusenko pulled on Evans was fake.)
It seemed a rickety defense, and O'Donnell and Cashman did their best to mow it down, employing a parade of damning witnesses. The two Russian girls who were in the truck that night testified that everyone had noticed Painter's feminine gait before the assault. Three other women who had been driving home from a Belltown bar that night described seeing the attack out their car windows, and one remembered hearing Painter being called a "faggot." Two gay men who had been on the street at the time, one of whom had been completely sober, vividly described a vicious group assault in which all three defendants participated. (Russian friends of the defendants who were watching the trial could be seen tittering or whispering to each other whenever any gay man testified.) Then Painter took the stand.
Olmstead tried to paint Painter as a meth-crazed aggressor who was, Olmstead made a point of noting, not wearing any underwear beneath his skin-tight pants that night. He began his questioning by asking Painter how long he had been gay, implying that his homosexuality was a recent choice. Painter replied, "All my life." Faced with yet another Evangelical authority figure being hostile toward him, Painter kept calm.
Olmstead: Didn't [Samusenko] break the bottle as you came at him?
Painter: No sir.
Olmstead: You came at him, didn't you?
Painter: No sir.
Olmstead: You made the decision that you could take this guy, didn't you?
Painter: I said to myself, 'If I have to, I can defend myself.'
One day during the trial, I pulled Olmstead aside after court and asked whether his client's religion had anything to do with the attack. With all three defendants choosing not to testify, their beliefs weren't getting much airtime in court. Olmstead told me he'd never talked to Samusenko about that, which seemed hard to believe. We kept talking about Evangelicals, homosexuality, and the Bible, and at one point Olmstead took my notepad and began drawing a bell curve to demonstrate to me that gay people aren't normal. It wasn't much of a point; everyone knows that gay people are not, statistically speaking, normal.
But I sensed an opportunity. I suggested to Olmstead that we let the bell curve instead represent all Evangelicals who, like him, believe that homosexuality is an abhorrent sin. Given that Evangelicals are such a large group, I wondered, isn't it inevitable that a certain percentage of them, however small, will focus more on hating the sin than on loving the sinner, and will find themselves inclined toward violence against homosexuals?
He conceded that yes, this was probably inevitable.
I asked whether that might not then be a cause for reevaluating parts of the Evangelical belief system.
"No," he said. "Not at all. The belief system is fine."
During closing arguments on Monday, Olmstead returned to what seemed one of his favorite themes, nostalgia for a past when people in this country acted properly. He took the jury on what appeared intended as a wistful trip back to a time when state laws criminalized homosexuality.
These days, he said, his voice filled with a sighing sarcasm, "it's a way of life."
The jurors were unimpressed; some openly scowled. Undeterred, Olmstead again ran through his theory that Samusenko had acted in self-defense that night. Then he returned to another of his themes, Painter's dress, seeming to imply that it had brought on the attack.
"Painter was asking to have attention drawn to him," Olmstead said, again noting Painter's lack of underwear. "He's sashaying down the street. He wanted that attention."
McGarry, Kravchenko's lawyer, told jurors the incident was not a hate crime but just "spontaneous combustion." Connick, Savchak's lawyer, appeared to suggest that the Seattle police and prosecutors had more interest in pleasing gay activists than in pursuing justice.
"There's no vast gay conspiracy against these three defendants," prosecutor O'Donnell said when he rose for his rebuttal. Then he reminded the jury that Micah Painter's clothing and mannerisms were not the issue. "Micah Painter is not on trial. He's allowed to wear tight pants. He's allowed to have his shirt off on a city sidewalk. And when someone challenges him with a broken glass bottle, he's allowed to stand there and protect himself."
Two days later, after 8 hours of deliberation, the jury agreed.
After Micah Painter testified in court he called me, and I could hear a lightness in his voice that had been absent before. He had been extremely nervous about facing his attackers, had been scared he would cry in front of them the way he had cried when he recounted the story of that night's events to me. Now, he was proud at having made it through his testimony relatively tearless.
But Painter still had other demons to face, he said. His drug use, which continued. His anger at his parents, which remained hot. ("I feel like they let me down so very much.") His anger at his father in particular. ("As much as [the attackers] traumatized me in a very short period of time, he traumatized me over a long period of time.") His search for new dreams absent a gymnastics career. ("I haven't found a foundation yet. I feel very much like I'm falling apart most of the time.") His fury at Pentecostalism. ("It's a crock.") And his search for something good that might come out of what happened to him.
Of all of the Painter kids, Betty Painter told me, Micah was the one who "got all the talent"--the musical ability, the effortless good grades, the instinctive gymnastics skill. She sounded a bit in awe of him still, but her memory comes from a time before her talented son felt he had to flee her home. Now he is 24 years old, estranged from his Evangelical family, a former runaway and prostitute, a recent gay-bashing victim, a member of the gay walking wounded. He works construction and landscaping jobs. He considers getting tattoos on his calves that say "Fuck" and "You." He tells himself that if everything goes to shit, he can always go back to being a hooker. He thinks, given all that's happened, it might be time to leave town again.