BANGOR, Maine — On July 7, 29 years ago, three teenage boys beat 23-year-old Charlie Howard and tossed him to his death from a downtown Bangor bridge because he was gay.
About 20 members of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor marched on Sunday from their Park Street church to the place Howard died nearly three decades ago with the goal of keeping Howard’s memory alive and bringing attention to the continuing struggle to end discrimination and bigotry against those who are labeled “different,” church members said.
Each year, the church dedicates a service to Howard on the anniversary of his death before marching to the State Street bridge over the Kenduskeag Stream. At the spot where Howard was thrown in, they drop flowers into the stream and talk about Howard, progress and tolerance as they watch the flowers float toward the Penobscot River.
Lois M. Reed of Bangor knew Howard when both were members of the Unitarian Church, now the Brick Church, at the corner of Union and First streets. That church merged in 1995 with the Universalist Church on Park Street. Reed said Howard found acceptance within the Unitarian Church, but faced ridicule, threats and violence on the outside.
Reed dropped a white rose into the Kenduskeag on Sunday, something Howard’s mother, who lives in New Hampshire, requested on the first anniversary of her son’s death 28 years ago, Reed said. Howard’s mother has said she will never return to Bangor.
Reed said that when the remembrance marches started 28 years ago, they were greeted with jeers, slurs and hostility that “stopped just short of violence.” Slowly, the tone changed and people became more supportive, she said.
Sue McKay, council chairwoman for the church, said Sunday that the Unitarian Universalist Church would continue to hold these services and remembrances each year to keep the memory of what happened not so long ago in this community alive.
The past year marked major changes in gay rights, including legalization of marriage in Maine and the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.
“No matter how many rights we get, there are still hurdles to overcome,” McKay said. “We keep the original seeds of what happened in our minds,” even as society’s perceptions shift.
The theme of Sunday’s service was respect. MaKayla Reed, a guest speaker who delivered the sermon at the church on Sunday, talked about how people tend to judge or stare at the ground when passing another person “hoping for the moment to pass quickly.” Insead, Reed suggested that a smile or a nod toward that person could do a world of both people.
Reed, who will attend College of the Atlantic this fall, is a member of several groups, including EqualityMaine, Mainers United for Marriage and Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
Howard’s killers, James Baines, 44, Shawn Mabry, 45, and Daniel Ness 46, were, respectively, 15, 16 and 17, when they beat Howard and threw him off the bridge.
On July 9, 1984, Ness, 17, Mabry, 16, and Baines, 15, all of Bangor, were charged with murder. After spending a night in jail, they were released to their parents.
Ness, Mabry and Baines pleaded guilty to manslaughter on Oct. 1, 1984, two weeks after District Court Judge David Cox ruled they should be tried as juveniles and not as adults. They were sentenced to the Maine Youth Center in South Portland for an indeterminate stay not to exceed their 21st birthdays.
Information about their juvenile records is sealed, but according to previously published reports, Baines was released after serving two years and Mabry was released after 22 months. Information on Ness was not immediately available.
During the decade after Howard’s death, Baines regularly spoke about tolerance to high school students. He also testified before the Legislature in support of a bill to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. Baines also wrote the book “Penitence” in 1994 with the help of Ed Armstrong, a family friend, about his experience.
On a stone near the spot where Howard died 29 years ago are the words: “May we, the citizens of Bangor, continue to change the world around us until hatred becomes peacemaking and ignorance becomes understanding.”
BDN reporter Judy Harrison contributed to this story