Newspaper nabs Atlanta’s Dahmer

Another predator who should’ve been stopped: Was it homophobia?

Gays were preyed on by the Handcuff Man for two decades and still the police didn’t act. So the paper did. Then they asked themselves whether the cops were the only ones with the attitude problem . . .

By Richard Greer

Richard Greer is a reporter with the Atlanta (GA) Journal-Constitution.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 8 (September 1991), pp. 1, 8.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

It seems unbelievable. The cops walked into Jeffrey Dahmer’s foul-smelling apartment, returned a bloodied victim to the now-confessed serial killer and left telling homophobic, racist jokes.

But months earlier, far from Milwaukee, an equally fantastic story was unfolding in Atlanta. Gay hustlers said a sadist they called the Handcuff Man was drugging, handcuffing, beating and sometimes burning male prostitutes, or men he thought were prostitutes. They told me dumped victims were turning up in Tampa and Atlanta, unconscious and maimed. And he’d been doing it, they insisted — virtually unhindered by police — for more than 20 years.

The grisly discoveries in Milwaukee forced police to act. In Atlanta, however, gay activists believe police would have continued ignoring the Handcuff Man had the Journal-Constitution not pressured them into acting.

After heated newsroom debate, we decided to profile the Handcuff Man’s alleged activities. And then we broke with tradition by naming the person we suspected in print — before he was even arrested.

Police officers admitted privately later it was our stories identifying a wealthy local attorney named Robert Lee Bennett, Jr. that led to his indictment.

Ironically, my first attempt at doing a story on the Handcuff Man had been rejected. A 21-year-old was found unconscious, burned and beaten after he accepted money from a stranger for drinking vodka apparently laced with drugs. I wrote a story on the attack, but couldn’t yet make a connection between this crime and the two decades of similar assaults.

Eight days later, a call from a source paved the way for me to interview gay hustlers who talked fearfully about a shadowy figure they called the Handcuff Man. A bartender recalled seeing him and hearing about his attacks as far back as 1968. And my informants were convinced this latest crime was his doing.

It seemed preposterous that anything of this enormity could have gone on for so long. But detectives told me during a late-night, mostly off-the- record, conversation that the Handcuff Man was apparently very real and they had no idea why there wasn’t an active investigation.

I still didn’t have enough for a story. But the next day brought a tip about an Atlanta cop who had a run-in with the Handcuff Man while moonlighting as a security guard at a gay bar in 1983. When the officer gave me the man’s name and date of birth, I had my story.

The result: a page-one piece detailing the Handcuff Man’s activities and stating that at least one police officer knew about him and had attempted to gather evidence years earlier.

But the story didn’t run without lengthy, incredulous discussions of what seemed to be an outrageous case of homophobia, of police simply ignoring attacks on gays. We considered actually naming our suspect at that point, but decided not to. In fact, we deleted some personal information, fearing it might identify him.

Why? Because we had no official documents linking Bennett with the Handcuff Man or with the latest attacker. Maybe they weren’t all the same person. Nonetheless, a vital question was beginning to form: When does a newspaper’s responsibility to public safety outweigh a private individual’s right to privacy and the standard practice of withholding the names of suspects who haven’t been charged?

While we agonized about our duty, the police held a news conference defending themselves and promising a full investigation. Meanwhile, I combed court records on Bennett. They were strewn with tantalizing but unsubstantiated references. He’d been arrested for allegedly kidnapping an undercover Atlanta cop in 1974. His wife, her attorney and several gays had accused him of being the Handcuff Man during his 1984 divorce trial.

Again, newsroom staffers debated naming Bennett. Again, we held off. I spent another day searching records in a 1982 murder case in which Bennett was charged but not convicted. This time, I hit the jackpot. State archives contained more than 400 pages of documents providing solid links between Bennett and the sadistic acts of the Handcuff Man.

Now did we have enough to justify naming him? No. Editors wanted a current link. We got it when the most recent victim chose Bennett’s picture from a photo lineup. Now, except for a formal criminal charge, there was nothing to prevent telling the public the name of the likely suspect — nothing except journalistic tradition.

The next day, the Journal-Constitution defied that tradition by prominently playing a story naming and profiling Bennett. He had not yet been charged and no other news media had used his name.

Did we do the right thing? I still wasn’t absolutely sure. The initial identification had come from the streets, not police work. Unlike, say, William Kennedy Smith, Bennett’s name was meaningless to most Atlantans and his right to privacy as great as any other little-known person’s.

Some editors shared my hindsight doubts, asking repeatedly: “Why are we doing this?” One angrily remarked that he hoped he was never an uncharged suspect in Atlanta. But others, including metro editor Pam Fine, saw this as an exception to the rule and a matter of practicalities and responsibilities.

“The court records were the first public documents we saw that linked Bennett to the Handcuff Man,” Fine reasoned. “They confirmed that his name had been linked to cases many years before.” Also, public safety was at issue, as gay hustlers continued reporting sightings of a car associated with the Handcuff Man.

“If we got his name out,” Fine added, we would be telling the police and the public we know who the suspect is. We felt . . . heinous crimes were involved and we decided to name him because we [knew who he was] and we recognized that police had waited two decades to actively pursue the case.”

In retrospect, I have no doubts. Considering the information we had by the time we printed Bennett’s name, our natural fears should have been  allayed. Our prime concern should have been prodding the police to enhance the safety of the young men who were at risk. (Thankfully, there were no attacks between the time I discovered the story and Bennett’s arrest.)

As it was, within a day, the publicity prompted Tampa police to request information from Atlanta that led to charging Bennett with the attempted murder of a Florida man burned so severely he lost both legs. Atlanta police followed with grand jury indictments two weeks later. The first trial starts next month.

But there are still questions I and many at my paper are asking ourselves: While pointing a finger at police for possible neglect, what about us? How did we miss the story for so long?

Maybe reporters actually knew about the Handcuff Man while his victims piled up, as happened in Milwaukee. But turnover and poor communication at newspapers — just like at police departments — deplete collective knowledge.

The toughest question of all: Were we homophobic ourselves? After all, the editor who first rejected the story had callously quipped, “I guess you have to be careful who you drink with.”

The questions linger. But the Handcuff Man’s gruesome story taught me something. Reporters must cultivate all sorts of unofficial sources, not just to get information, but to reinforce the understanding that every person — even if he’s “only” a gay hustler — is still a member of the public we serve. 

 

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