Last edited: March 29, 2004


Suicide Prompts Protests About Police Raid

Hartford Courant, February 1, 2002
285 Broad St., Hartford, CT, 06115
Fax: 860-241-3865
Email: letters@courant.com

By Deborah Petersen Swift, Courant Staff Writer

JOHNSTON, R.I.óProtesters are picketing and questioning their actions, but police and town officials are making no apologies for a Jan. 16 bust of an X-rated video store, which was followed by the suicide of a Connecticut man arrested in the sting.

"As far as an apology goes," Johnston Mayor William R. Macera said Thursday, the suspects "should apologize to the residents of Johnston for engaging in that alleged behavior."

Carrying signs reading "Capital punishment for a misdemeanor," for example, about a dozen people demonstrated in front of Johnston Town Hall at rush hour Wednesday. They questioned the tactics used by police and the necessity of carrying out the bust.

Four days after the arrest of Stuart E. Denton, 55, his body was found in a shed in the backyard of his home in the Moosup section of Plainfield. The chairman of the townís planning and zoning commission had hanged himself.

"The real key point of the protest was to bring home to Johnston police and Johnston town officials the outrageousness of their handling of the situation and their real culpability," said Kate Monteiro, one of the protesters.

John Blakeslee, another protester, said the theater is "such a small nuisance in their town" and the bust was "over what was such a small, minor indiscretion on the part of seven men that were arrested."

The men were each charged with misdemeanors after undercover police found them masturbating themselves or each other while watching a sexually explicit video in the 42-seat theater of the Amazing Express video store on Hartford Avenue in Johnston. The store, located in a cinder block building with peeling gray paint, is in a sea of strip malls. The store sells and rents all types of sexually explicit videos.

Blakeslee, who like many of the protesters is gay, said that visiting such theaters is not a mainstream gay activity, and it is impossible to know if Denton was gay.

"It all becomes so complicated," Blakeslee said. "Itís difficult to say what is the reason. Was it because he was gay? Was he gay? What is gay? Society is so unprepared to deal with the nuances of sexual orientation, we canít say."

What people do know is that shame over such arrests can lead to suicide, said Blakeslee, who has protested similar stings in the past in Providence, warning that this can happen.

Johnston Police Chief Richard Tamburini said the suicide was a worst-case scenario. "It was a very unwelcome and very tragic turn of events," he said. "These kind of situations never come to a soft landing."

Police, however, could not ignore the complaints they received about the storeís theater, he said. It is unrealistic to send a uniformed officer to the theater as protesters suggested, nor should these men be given privacy to do what they want, he said. "This is a public facility. We didnít go in with battering rams and knock down doors," he said.

A man who found himself in a similar situation decades ago, David Knapp of Guilford, said he thinks police should treat the theater as a private place.

Knapp, now 75 and openly gay, travels the state talking to schools about understanding homosexuality. But before he had told others, including his now-former wife that he was gay, he sometimes frequented an area where gay men were known to cruise.

"I am not proud of it particularly, but I did," he said Thursday. "On one occasion, an undercover officer was there. I was absolutely terrified." At the time, Knapp was involved in a parentsí school group, running for a local board of education and lay leader for his church. He was married, and his wife did not know he was gay.

"Can you imagine what that would have done to me if I was arrested and my name was published in the newspaper?" he said. "I would feel like doing the same thing that Denton did."

Knapp got away. He no longer visits such places. He is now openly gay, but has paid a high price for that, including being forced out of his church and the Boy Scouts, he said.

"Yes there are risks to coming out even in Connecticut. What no one thinks about is the dangers of not coming out," he said.

Monteiro said the protesters are meeting this week to plan their next step, which may include raising issues about how the media played the arrests, and possible meetings with the chief and the mayor.

The chief said he welcomes such a discussion.

"Sending out faxes to the media and carrying placards and signs and protesting isnít the way, in my opinion, to address the problem. My door is always open," Tamburini said.


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