A seemingly idyllic city in East Texas hid an ugly second face brooding in the shadows; a culture of hatred and bigotry that culminated in an innocent man’s death on a cold November night in 1993. This is the story of Nicholas West.
Tyler is a moderately sized city in East Texas, named after the tenth president of the United States, John Tyler. It’s a beautiful place with a population of a little over 100,000. One of the jewels of the city is the centrally located Bergfeld Park, a beautifully landscaped, family friendly area. It was also known in the early 90’s as a meet up spot for members of the gay community after dark.
There were a few reasons gay men and women chose to meet up here. To start, there simply wasn’t anywhere else to go; there were no night clubs or businesses in the area that were safe for them. Then there was the crude and brutal practice of “gay bashing” that had become popular among homophobic young men in the area. In fact, the murder of another gay man not far from Tyler had been fresh in the minds of the East Texas gay community.
Houston, Texas 1991
Ten McCullough high school students between the ages of 15 and 17 were drunk and high in the early morning hours of July 4th. They left a high school party in their hometown suburb known as The Woodlands and drove to the Montrose area of Houston, where they tried, and failed to gain entrance to a variety of nightclubs. Montrose was known to have a large gay population. One such member of the community was 27 year-old banker and Texas A&M alumn, Paul Broussard.
Paul was with two of his friends when he encountered the ten students in a parking lot of a nightclub. The gang of ten taunted Paul and his friends before brutally beating Paul with a nail studded 2×4 and kicking him with steel-toed boots. 17 year-old Jon Buice then pulled out his pocket knife and stabbed Paul twice before he and his friends fled the scene.
Paul died several hours after the attack from a combination of internal injuries, and what an expert medical examiner called “a delay in treatment”. The AIDS crisis in America was reaching it’s peak in 1991. As a result, police and medical services were slow to respond to calls originating from the Montrose area. The fear of contracting AIDS overrode their commitment to public service. To add further insult to injury, Paul Broussard’s murder was not investigated by police.
It was both the attack itself, and the mishandling of the aftermath that spurred Houston Gay Rights Leader Ray Hill into action. Hill was told directly by police that they had no intention of solving the murder. In response, Hill organized what would become the largest and longest lasting gay rights demonstration in history. Gay Rights advocates marched through the streets of Houston and in front of the Mayor’s home for several days until action was taken.
The “Woodlands Ten” as they came to be known, were eventually arrested. Four of them got probation, while the other six received prison time. All six would be paroled by the beginning of 2012. While Ray Hill himself now believes the murder wasn’t motivated by prejudice, it seemed clear at the time that this was a deadly example of gay bashing.
Rockwall, Texas, 1993
Donald Aldrich was a 29 year-old high school dropout, living in a trailer park and working fast food jobs. He had been in and out of prison for various burglary charges. None of these hardships were forced on him. It was only his own poor decision making that got him where he was. But Aldrich, he saw it differently. In his eyes, he was never to blame. Life handed him down a series of bad breaks, and the fags, as he called them…well, they had everything. He later said “I work all my life tryin’ to have something nice and make something of myself. About the best job I can get is working in a restaurant makin’ minimum wage or just barely over it, and it’s like, I get no breaks. From the time I was a kid, it seemed like there was a lot against me, and yet here they are, they’re doing something that God totally condemns in the Bible. But look at everything they’ve got, they’ve got all this nice stuff. They’ve got all these good jobs, sit back at a desk or sit back in an air-conditioned building not having to sweat, not having to bust their ass, and they’ve got money. They’ve got the cars, they’ve got the apartments. They’ve got all the nice stuff in ‘em. So, yeah. I resented that.”
But according to Aldrich, it wasn’t his idea to begin “fag-bashing” for profit. After one of his stints in prison, Aldrich had met 19 year-old Henry Dunn and 17 year-old David McMillan over Citizens Band radio, commonly known as the CB. They each had their own handle – Aldrich was called Sundance- and even referred to themselves as the CB Gang. Supposedly, one of his new friends’ 13 year-old sister had suggested making money by robbing gay men. Given his resentment of gays and the fact that members of the gay community were still reluctant to report crimes to the police, well, this seemed, to Aldrich, like a brilliant idea. So, he, Dunn and McMillan went for it.
Aldrich acted as a lure for the CB gang’s victims. He encouraged the sexual advances of men looking for a “pickup”. The trio would then rob the unsuspecting men. It began as a way to quickly earn money, but soon escalated to something more sinister. They began using baseball bats, clubs and crowbars on their victims. When beatings weren’t enough, they reduced their victims to psychological and physical humiliation. In one instance, they instructed a man to enter a partially frozen lake, where they made him stand for hours while firing gunshots over his head.
They wanted to instill fear into their victims. They succeeded. Of seeing that fear manifested in the eyes and on the faces of these men, Aldrich said “You could say I got a little bit of pleasure out of it.”
November 30th, 1993
Nicholas West was a 23 year-old medical clerk that drove a red Mazda truck with a state of the art stereo system. This was what got the attention of Henry Dunn and David McMillan. They saw Nicholas driving his truck into Bergfeld Park. The two attempted to come onto Nicholas several times but he wasn’t interested in either of them. Aldrich gave it a go and approached Nicholas’s truck, feigning a romantic interest. Nicholas invited Aldrich to join him in his truck. The two drove to a nearby Montgomery Ward department store, and parked in the lot. Unbeknownst to Nicholas, Dunn and McMillan had followed him in a different vehicle. The three men then brandished their guns and forced Nicholas into their car. Dunn held a shotgun on Nicholas while McMillan drove them to a rural road in Smith County- about ten miles outside of Tyler. Aldrich followed in Nicholas’s truck. Aldrich stopped the truck along the way and began ransacking it, looking for money and valuables. When the other car caught up with him, Aldrich questioned Nicholas as to how much money he had on him. The terrified 23 year-old answered and was warned by Aldrich that he better not be lying, or he would be tied to the bumper of his truck and dragged the rest of the way to their destination. Upon arriving in Smith County, the three men removed Nicholas from the car and began walking toward a clay pit that was located about 300 yards from the road. The pit was a remote location, where nobody would hear the screams that followed.
Aldrich later said he had only planned to tie Nicholas to a tree to be found in a day or two, safe and sound. If he was telling the truth, the original plan went terribly awry. As he walked behind Nicholas, Aldrich noticed something. Nicholas had defecated in his pants. “I thought it was hilarious,” Aldrich later said.. “When you scare a man so bad that he literally shits himself, that man is scared. I enjoyed it. I really did.”
But his amusement soon turned to anger. Aldrich ordered Nicholas to take off his pants and shoes. Nicholas did as he was told, but in doing so, revealed that he was carrying another ten dollar bill that he hadn’t given to his captors. This enraged Aldrich. He didn’t like being lied to by a queer. Nevermind that Nicholas was most likely too terrified to remember every piece of money in his pockets. Aldrich used his .357 Magnum to strike Nicholas across the face several times. Now bleeding heavily from gashes on his forehead and eyebrow, and shivering from 40 degree temperature, Nicholas was led to the pits.
He fell several times along the way. When he did, he was kicked, and taunted by his three abductors. When they arrived at the pit, Henry Dunn decided that he wanted to fight Nicholas. When he refused, Dunn forced Nicholas’s hands into a fighter’s stance. Nicholas still refused to fight, but Dunn didn’t care. He began punching Nicholas with his heavily ringed fists. Dunn expected to provoke Nicholas into defending himself, but was only angered further when he didn’t fight back. Dunn hit Nicholas a few more times, then said “to hell with it” and gave up on the fight. He and Aldrich would then take turns shooting Nicholas, making it as painful and torturous as possible. The first shot was into Nicholas’s hand. Then the arms. Aldrich then shot Nicholas several times in the torso, strategically, to avoid fatally wounding him. Another shot, this time to the stomach. The ninth, and final shot was to the back of the head.
It would be two days before dirt bikers found the half naked, bloody body of Nicholas West lying face down in the clay pit.
An anonymous tip came in the day after the body was discovered. The informant led police to Dunn, Aldrich and McMillan.
Dunn was arrested while in possession of Nicholas’s truck. He quickly gave a confession, in which he admitted to shooting Nicholas four to six times and conceded that one of the shots “probably hit him in the head”. Dunn still refused to take blame for his murder, saying “ “I didn’t even know him. I didn’t pick him up. I’m sad it happened but I still don’t think I’m responsible for the actual shot that killed him. I never got that close. Nicolas West was still alive at the time we left.”
Donald Aldrich, the reported leader of the “CB Gang” also refused to admit he did anything wrong. He said “If you can walk into a 7-11 and rob a 7-11 for 15, 20 bucks, get your face on videotape, have somebody that’s gonna call the police; or if you can go into a park, rob somebody that’s out in the dark, come away with a hell of a lot more..because of the fact that they’re homosexual and they don’t want people to know it, they’re not gonna go report it to the police. Who you gonna rob? Where you’re gonna get in the least amount of trouble.” It’s as if he felt it was his only option. But again, he put himself into these situations.
Aldrich didn’t own a phone, so it was common for him to use the pay phone in Bergfeld Park to make his calls. The phone was located between the park’s restrooms and a picnic area. A space that was often used by gay men as a not-so-secret meeting place. Aldrich knew this. He wasn’t surprised when men would occasionally strike up a conversation or even hit on him. He wasn’t surprised, but he was incensed nonetheless, as a matter of principle. He would later say “It got to where I wanted to carry a gun up there and every time one of ’em came near me I was gonna shoot ’em for coming near me. You know, here I am, I’m not gay. I’m in a public park using a public phone and yet I’m going to get harassed by these homosexuals, but when I do something against them I’m breakin’ the law.”
David McMillan seemed to be along for the ride. He didn’t fire a gun that night, but his decision to take part at all would end up costing him dearly.
Dunn, Aldrich and McMillan were all indicted on charges of capital murder. Aldrich was the first to be tried and sentenced. He had been forthcoming in his confession, wrongly assuming that he would get a lighter sentence if he cooperated. That confession was used as the key piece of evidence against him. It took the jury only an hour and 17 minutes to sentence Aldrich to death.
Henry Dunn was also found guilty of capital murder and was sentenced to death on September 7, 1995
11/30/93 David McMillan was given a life sentence for aggravated robbery. He is now 41 years old and sits in Charles T. Terrell Unit- a prison in Rosharon, Texas.
Henry Dunn was executed by lethal injection on February 6th, 2003 in Huntsville, Texas.
October 12, 2004. Donald Aldrich was executed by lethal injection, also in Huntsville.
In the days and weeks after the murder, members of the LGBT community from around the country joined in Bergfeld Park to show their support and speak against hate crime. 17 years later, in December of 2010, a ceremony was held in the same park. Tyler Mayor Barbara Bass declared December 1st Access to Human Rights day in Tyler, Texas. A memorial stone was placed in the park with an inscription that read “Nicholas West died November 30, 1993. We will remember.”
Sadly, hate speech and crimes against the LGBT community still persist. If you would like to lend financial support to help in the fight, please consider donating to the Human Rights Campaign at HRC.ORG.
Frameline- Lone Star Hate (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0djlEHccejI)