Healing Place

The life of hate-crime victim Philip Walsted is remembered at a Fourth Avenue memorial

Perhaps it's appropriate that the memorial to Philip Walsted, a gay man who was beaten to death three years ago, sits across the street from the yellow bungalow in which he and his partner used to live.

Fourth Avenue near Speedway Boulevard was Walsted's neighborhood. He liked to be in the thick of things, his partner said, so he would often walk around one of Tucson's most active and colorful stretches of road.

No one can say for sure, but maybe that's what the 24-year-old was doing in the early hours of June 12, 2002, when he was beaten with a baseball bat just a few blocks from his home.

Things have come full circle three years later. On Sunday, June 18, about 50 people gathered at Catalina Park, 901 N. Fourth Ave., to dedicate a memorial to Walsted. Some attendees also expressed satisfaction about the conviction of his killer, 23-year-old David Augustine Higdon.

"I hope that as years go by, people will stop here and remember and think about all the hate that's out there in the world," said Walsted's mother, Judy Boyer, during the service. "It's been rough--three years of it, and it still goes on every day. I know he's looking down, and he's very pleased. I'm just so touched by all of this."

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community center Wingpsan, the city of Tucson, Walsted's family and his partner, Jonathan, collaborated to create the memorial. It includes a bench with blue beads--blue was his favorite color--set into the concrete around it. There's a pistachio tree that will eventually provide shade and a granite stone bearing Walsted's name, the years he lived and a short inscription.

Boyer also purchased a tile with a dragonfly depicted on it that was set into the concrete near the tree. Like a dragonfly, she said, her son's spirit is hovering around her always.

It was that sense of vitality and presence that Walsted's friend Colleen Davis picked up on when she said a few words to the crowd.

"Never in a million years did I think I'd be remembering him in the past tense, because he's still so alive," she said. She added through tears that she named her 3-year-old boy Connor Philip in his honor.

Walsted's sister, Amie, said she was amazed and grateful that the memorial was built, but believed that her brother's spirit was with her regardless of physical reminders.

"Philip's with me all the time," she said. "I don't need to go to a cemetery or a spot to have him with me."

Amie said she still aches even though Higdon, a self-avowed "white separatist" who got a swastika tattoo while in prison, was sentenced to life behind bars on March 28 for what police said started as a robbery.

"You think that it will make things all right, but it doesn't," she said. "It will never be OK."

Janna Excell, a counselor who has treated Walsted's family since the murder, said Higdon's sentencing and the memorial will be a comfort in at least two ways.

"First, the sentencing was certainly helpful in making this family feel that part of their journey was over," she said, adding that the many delays and frustrations inherent in prosecuting someone for such a crime sometimes made the courts seem like "an injustice system" for Walsted's family.

Second, Excell said, the memorial will be a "healing place" for the family and others who happen upon it.

"I know long after we're all gone, this will be here," Excell said. "I hope one day, children will ask, 'Mommy, what's a hate crime?' And I hope one day no one will know the answer. Hopefully, the evolution of humankind will progress to where hate crimes are a part of our history, not our future."

Excell said the community has to foster an appreciation for life. She cited the police's contention that Higdon and others at his home were using Walsted's driver's license to cut cocaine as indicative of the mindset that needs to be eradicated.

"That's how little Philip's life meant to them," Excell said. "Plus, he (Higdon) was very proud that he had killed someone gay."

Although Philip's partner, Jonathan, couldn't be at the ceremony, he said over the phone from his apartment on the East Coast that the memorial is "a triumph." He asked that his last name and current whereabouts not be used in this story for his safety.

"This memorial was appropriate, and between the city and me--with Wingspan's help--we got it done," Jonathan said. "It was recognition. It's like an assurance to everybody in the Tucson community that hate behavior against groups won't be tolerated."

Lori Girshick, anti-violence project coordinator for Wingspan, said the memorial is a valuable reminder about the life that's been lost. If, in some way, his murder makes people aware of crimes against the LGBT community, then perhaps something good can grow out of a tragic and painful event, she said.

"Now the city has a place you can go in remembrance and reflection," she said. "We have had a lot of visibility around Philip in our community. I think it has some kind of impact, awareness. I would like to think that people would speak out more when they witness something negative."

Even if Walsted's murder has had some sort of positive effect, it has come at a heavy price. The psychological wounds still fester for his family.

"I'm on this roller-coaster ride," Boyer said after the service, with one arm around Excell. "One time, I'm OK. The next, I'm nuts. Sometimes it's hard to just get out of bed. I don't know how to describe it; I just miss my son."