The Death of Richard Heakin
By Jack Ryan Wampler
On June 6th, 45 years ago, Richard “Dickie” Heakin, a 21 year old openly gay man from Lincoln, Nebraska, was here in Tucson visiting friends. Around midnight, when Heakin and his friends were leaving the Stonewall Tavern near Speedway, they were harassed by a group of thirteen high school boys aged 15-17. Four of the teenagers delivered blows to Heakin, with one to the neck that a medical examiner said “caused extensive hemorrhaging.” Heakin was rushed to the hospital, but later died from injuries to his brain.
The four attackers, Charles Shemwell, Herman Overpeck, Scott McDonald, and Russell Van Cleve, were arrested later that night. On June 29th of the same year, court hearings for first degree murder charges began. Judge Ben Birdsall reduced the charges to involuntary manslaughter, and decided the defendants would stand trial as juveniles. After over 3 months of hearings, Birdsall found them delinquent in the manslaughter charge, and on October 21 they were sentenced with probation until they turned 21.
The LGBT+ and local communities were outraged, calling the sentencing a slap on the wrist for an obvious hate crime. They were spurred to action, and founded Tucson Pride the following year, the first organization of its kind in Arizona. Tucson also became one of the first cities to pass anti-discrimination legislation based on sexual orientation, and held a Gay Pride & Heakin Memorial in Himmel Park.
While Pride Month began as a way to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York, Pride Month in Tucson has an even deeper meaning.
Richard Heakin’s death changed our community forever, but hate crimes and injustice have not yet disappeared. While celebrating this June, we hope that you remember the tragedy of Richard Heakin, the community organizers that came together to transform our city, and the work that still needs to be done here and all across our country
Jack is one of our Summer 2021 Interns