By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Leiva, 31, was an employee of Miami Beach restaurant the Forge and a singer at Jamboree Lounge on Biscayne Boulevard. He volunteered at local homeless shelter Camillus House and did research for Radio Cadena Univision.
Cops soon arrested Derrick Lamar Evans and Eric Johnson, both of whom fingered the other for Leiva's death. They choked him from behind, near his bedroom, and robbed him of a stereo, according to court documents. They were sentenced to 20 and 12 years, respectively.
Inside Jamboree Lounge, Leiva's boss, Juan Vayas, gestures to a small black stage where Leiva once crooned in Spanish. "Everybody here was so depressed after he died," the businessman recalls in a soft voice. "He was down-to-Earth, never drank or smoked... He was so kind."
Although it was obvious to friends and activists that the killers were homophobic, the murder was never classified as a hate crime. The reason: The language of hate crime law is vague, and officers aren't adequately trained to notice and document the signs. (The charge is determined by the State Attorney's Office based on police reports.)
"Unless someone is spray-painting the word fag on your body, they don't consider it a hate crime," says Herb Sosa, president of Unity Coalition of Miami-Dade. In three recent police reports obtained by New Times, little or no reference is made to victims' sexual orientation or to anti-gay slurs.
The state's definition of a hate crime is "intentionally selecting a victim based on... race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation..." Guilty parties are punished more harshly, and the classification sends a strong message: You won't get away with intolerance here. But it's often difficult to prove.
Sosa shakes his head and adds, "Police numbers don't match our numbers, and that's a problem."
Gay bashing was rare in Miami Beach before 1990. If it happened, few spoke up. One of the first well-publicized cases came in October 1991, when a motorist attacked a gay off-duty Miami Beach Police officer named Ambrose Simms. The officer was on his way to the gay club Sugar's when two men in a late-model car shouted a slur and chucked a beer bottle at his leg. He explained to newspapers that he was targeted because of his sexual orientation.
The following year, Miami Beach Police appointed Simms to serve as a liaison for the town's growing gay population. By 1996, officers received sensitivity training they dubbed "a gay-specific lesson in diversity." The department later announced that a hate crime hot line was ready to combat the behavior.
It didn't always work. This past fall, a string of gay-bashing incidents began in South Beach. On October 11, a chubby mechanic targeted a gay 31-year-old named Peter Morales on Washington Avenue. According to police reports, Diego Molina-Caceres "began to harass him, touching his hair and calling him names." He punched him in the head, knocked him over, and was then arrested.
Morales, whose boyfriend co-owns Twist nightclub, called the Miami Beach Police Department hot line twice. He got an answering machine. According to Commissioner Victor Diaz, Morales heard nothing back from officers for several days. (Morales did not return New Times' calls seeking comment.)
Others were more outspoken. Says Babak Movahedi, who owns Halo Lounge near Lincoln Road: "It's ridiculous to have a hot line if nobody's going to respond for five days."
Miami Beach Police spokesman Juan Sanchez contends he personally returned the call promptly. The phone "system notifies [me] immediately each time a victim leaves a message," Sanchez says. "He didn't call me back."
Three weeks later, in early November, a gay European tourist was attacked on Collins Avenue and left badly bruised, according to activists. (He did not call police.)
Then, on November 29, passersby found Tony Lopez, a gay makeup artist, lying unconscious on the sidewalk. He has since moved out of his apartment. "South Beach has gotten too ghetto," he says.
Police spokesman Sanchez explains that Lopez might have provoked the beating by kicking one of the attackers' cars. "A derogatory term does not necessarily constitute a hate crime," he says. "If it smells like one and looks like one, we're gonna report it."
On a warm night this past December, Herb Sosa was giving a speech at a vigil on Lincoln Road. The activist, whose brown locks tend to fall over his face, looked out at the audience, where about 30 people held glow sticks in memory of murdered victims. "These things shouldn't happen anywhere," he says. "And they certainly shouldn't happen in South Beach."
Until the 1980s, Miami Beach was a peculiar mix of criminals, Cubans, and little old ladies. Then the beautiful people moved in.
Jerry Powers, founder of the Miami Beach-based magazine Ocean Drive, remembers that it began with German fashion photographers in the mid-'80s. "Europeans thought, Holy moly, this place is cheap," he says.
Designers, stylists, and models were largely gay, and as the fashion industry grew, so did the boy culture. They fell in love with vacant beaches and mouthwash-blue waters that looked yanked from a postcard. Adds legendary local publicist Charlie Cinnamon: "All the hotties came to town."
Gay people felt welcome in a city that was — at least geographically — cut off from the rest of America. "It was a secret," says Desi, a stylist who moved to Miami Beach from Boston in 1989. "If you were gay in the middle of the country and you didn't feel accepted, the word was South Beach." He lived a bohemian lifestyle, working a few photo gigs per week to pay $250 in rent.