Gay Or Rapist?

12.16.2008

By Richard Morgan

Capt. Eric Beyersdorf, a navigator with the Nevada Air National Guard and a member of the U.S. Marshals Service, woke up in his room at a Ramada Inn during a temporary duty shift in Florida one morning in March 2006 feeling great, which was his first warning. He shouldn't have felt great; he had gotten trashed the night before and was expecting a wicked hangover. But instead he felt 'euphoric' and was even thinking about getting in a round of golf with his buddies. Then, in the shower, as he later testified, 'When I was washing my butt, in that area, I realized that it wasn't closed like it always is. It was open.' He continued, 'My buttocks were bruised, and I had what I thought was like a rug burn on my penis, and my head was sore and my wrists were sore.'

Suddenly he had nightmarish flashbacks of being with an Air Force captain who got him drunk and maybe drugged, then waking up bent over a bed, being raped. In his flashbacks he passed out only to wake up again, this time being raped on the floor, struggling and hearing multiple voices saying 'Here we go. Grab him.' He remembered that he fled outside but collapsed and was dragged back to be raped while his body was draped over an ottoman.

After the flashbacks in the shower, Captain Beyersdorf talked to his fellow soldier buddies, who laughed at him about 'homo-ing up' the night before with an Air Force captain they had met named Taylor. He was not sure what happened, but he eventually reported that the Air Force captain had raped him, triggering an investigation that ended Taylor's military career.

What is known for sure is that Capt. Devery Lane Taylor had sex with men. On the witness stand he acknowledged being gay. During his court-martial at Eglin Air Force Base, in the patch of the Florida panhandle nicknamed the 'Redneck Riviera,' locals branded the serial rapist 'Tail Gunner.' According to testimony, he attacked his victims twice in the summer of 2004, not again until December 2005, then monthly until March 2006. In March 2007, Captain Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison after being found guilty on four counts of forcible sodomy, two counts of kidnapping, two counts of attempted sodomy, and one count of unlawful entry. He is ineligible for parole until the year 2027. He is now serving out his sentence in Kansas at Fort Leavenworth's U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, the Pentagon's only maximum-security prison (and a backup facility for Guant'namo Bay).

The Taylor trial, which stretched for nine days, highlights a particularly sticky wicket entrenched in 'don't ask, don't tell': A fair military trial in a same-sex rape case is practically impossible.

Prosecutors had difficulty investigating allegations without violating the 'don't ask' rule, and as the defense argued, a rape charge can't be pleaded down to consensual gay sex because that's also illegal in the military. (For that matter, the Pentagon also forbids consensual adultery and heterosexual sodomy.) Any soldier who gets so much as a blow job -- let alone gives one -- is a criminal, according to the military code. So when soldiers are charged with homosexuality, the only way to avoid losing their job and retirement is to claim rape. 'Don't ask, don't tell' becomes, in effect, 'can't ask, can't tell.'

The court-martial judge himself pointed to an injustice that occurs under 'don't ask, don't tell.' If the rape charges don't stick, the gay ban could be enforced. 'The government would change their mind and go, 'Yeah, we'd rather have half an apple than no apple at all,' ' the judge warned.

The judge's words might have resonated with Captain Taylor, who grew up the son of apple farmers in a tiny Appalachian town where he spent his summer vacations canning food grown on his family farm. A churchgoing, God-fearing Boy Scout, Taylor majored in computer science in college, doing summer factory work to pay his tuition, and studied abroad in Romania. He worked various gigs, installing 911 computer-aided dispatch systems for the U.S. government, and completing another contract project at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador. He spent free time volunteering at Salvation Army thrift stores and soup kitchens. (Letters sent to Captain Taylor at Leavenworth were not answered. His brother and father, reached by telephone, declined to comment for this article.)

Captain Taylor didn't join the military until he was 33, in April 2003 -- his mother had wanted him to have a traditional career first -- but he quickly became chief of patient administration for the 96th Medical Support Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base. Eglin was his first and last military assignment. He was honored as Company Grade Officer of the Quarter his first and third quarter there and was Company Grade Officer of the Year for 2005. He was also awarded the Outstanding Service Medal for two years. He was very popular, organizing the base's bake sale and chili cook-off. Every performance report praised him as an excellent officer.

At 38, he sat solemnly during his court-martial, coiffed red hair and pressed dress blues entombed by the chamber's dark wood paneling; blood-red carpet spilled all around his feet. In the 274 days he was jailed between his arrest and his guilty verdict, he says he read the Bible verse by verse and wrote more than 60 songs. Nobody could argue that he wasn't impassioned and goal-oriented.

The trial often lacked the dignity and decorum that all those sharp military uniforms evoke. Soldiers talked about being 'homo'd up.' A civilian in his mid 20s -- who had lost 80 pounds in five months to help achieve his lifelong dream of joining the Navy -- admitted to having consensual sex with Captain Taylor and was asked, 'You don't think you're a homosexual?' He answered, 'Not now, no.' Testimonies became ensconced in a particular kind of fog: Accusers were too drunk to remember much of what happened but certain that, whatever happened, they didn't agree to do anything gay.

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