The following is the first in a two-part series written and researched by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.
“Who Killed Anthony Adams?”
The question spray-painted as graffiti across Salt Lake City 40 years ago still begs an answer.
Adams’ body was discovered nude, soaked in blood and crumpled against the radiator in his Avenues apartment on Nov. 6, 1978. The 25-year-old city bus driver had been stabbed five times in the neck and twice in the chest. One neck wound extended deep enough to cut into the muscles along his spine.
Cold for these many decades, the case still stirs speculation about whether the murder could have been a hate crime, a political assassination — or maybe a crime of passion?
Bob Waldrop doesn’t claim to know the answer. What he is certain of is that the young man he once knew as a parishioner made a rich target.
“Tony had three strikes against him. He was black, gay and he was a Socialist, so just how hard was anyone in the officialdom going to care about his murder?”
Waldrop, former reverend of the Metropolitan Community Church in Salt Lake City, remains convinced — along with other friends and acquaintances of Adams — that the murder was never adequately investigated. They also know that the snuffing out of this bright life cast a dark shadow on Salt Lake City’s robust LGBTQ community in the late ’70s.
Adams was prominent in activist circles. Beyond working for the Socialist Workers Party, he was also a member of the NAACP, protested on behalf of gay rights and participated in a campaign to pressure the University of Utah to divest its stock in companies that operated in South Africa during the apartheid years.
Ron Millard was the detective who spent the most time on the Adams murder case. Now retired, he shakes his head at claims police didn’t properly investigate.
He acknowledges the case was a challenge because the two detectives originally on it were reassigned midinvestigation when he took over. He never knew why.
“It was total confusion,” he recalls.
Also, he says people don’t appreciate that homicide detectives of his day were carrying something like 400 “crimes against persons” cases each year — everything from rape to simple assault.
The Adams case was particularly frustrating, Millard says, because the victim’s life seemed so compartmentalized. He was active in many different groups but showed only select aspects of himself to each one. Even people who were close to him had no idea about his other interests. Millard can’t help but feel this was all a product of the closed nature of the gay community.
“Today," the ex-detective says, “you don’t have the same secrecy and stigma gay people had to deal with back then.”
Millard never suspected the Adams slaying was a hate crime or one driven by politics. More likely, he believes, it was a bar pickup-turned-bloody. For one thing, the police report listed a witness who saw Adams the weekend of his murder at a tavern in the company of another man — white, with long dark hair, a mustache and a short beard.
Despite coming to the crime scene after it already had been cleared by the original detectives, Millard found a knife with what appeared to be a bloodstain on it inside a utensil drawer. This could have been a second murder weapon, along with a knife recovered from the bedroom, and Millard theorized it indicated a spontaneous crime of passion.
“If it would have been premeditated," he says, “they would have brought their own weapon.”
It was fairly common in those years, Millard says, for domestic disputes between gay men to turn violent — a point echoed by J. Wallace Graham, the state medical examiner of that era.
This view clashed with that of the activist community at the time. About five weeks after Adams’ murder, a delegation of civil libertarians and gay-rights leaders met with then-Salt Lake City Police Chief Bud Willoughby. They described a climate of “violence in the community,” including increasing threats and the murders of at least two gay men. They asked for greater police protection.
Waldrop, a member of the group, was quoted by The Salt Lake Tribune as saying the LGBTQ community feared “there might be an L.A.-type slasher out there.”
At the same time, Syd Stapleton, a Socialist Workers Party official out of New York City, urged police to treat the Adams killing — just days before an election in which he was actively campaigning for the party’s 2nd Congressional District candidate — as a political “assassination.”
Willoughby made no promises, except to assure that his department would work just as hard to investigate murders in the gay community as any other.
About a week later, a Socialist Workers Party attorney received a visit from officers who showed him a composite drawing and a photo of a suspect in another homicide. The man didn’t recognize the subject, but officers asked the attorney to provide “a complete membership list of the persons associated with the Socialist Workers Party so that each could be interviewed and shown the pictures.”
The officers repeatedly pressed for the membership list. When the party representative asked instead to get copies of the composite drawing and photo to circulate, police refused.
“It was a threat,” says Clemens Bak, an Adams friend and fellow Socialist.
Bak feared officers armed with a party membership list would show up at people’s workplaces for interviews and get them fired. To this day, he harbors no doubt about the police’s intent.
“They were just trying to figure out how to get us to shut up,” Bak says, noting the community outcry over Adams’ murder.
A few months after the slaying, Adams’ brother Keith recalls driving to the Police Department to try to get an update. The clerk announced him to another officer: “That dead f-----'s [anti-gay slur] brother is here.”
Keith left with no new information.
Months dragged on without a break. No suspect was ever identified, and the file settled into a box on a shelf.
The murder of a moment
Decades before electing its first gay mayor and elevating the Pride Parade to its second biggest parade, Utah’s capital was home to five gay bars, along with all-night bathhouses and even a nudist strip along the Great Salt Lake dubbed “Bare Ass Beach.” The gayest part of town was where the Vivint Smart Home Arena and KSL now sit. The original Sun Tavern, a prominent gay bar, stood there and pulled in national headliners like Gloria Gaynor, who belted out “I Will Survive” to throngs of gay people trying to sing along loud enough to be heard at LDS Temple Square.
Whatever the motive for the murder, the stifling effect on this rising community was clear, says LGBTQ historian Ben Williams. He sees parallels in the way society reacted to the rallying voices of political trailblazers like elected San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, who was slain the same month as Adams.
“Tony Adams and Milk were both victims of that backlash,” Williams says.
For years after the unsolved Adams murder, activism in the Salt Lake community was muted. In the early ‘80s, Michael Aaron, then with the Gay Student Union, recalled trying to enlist older gay residents to get involved in conferences and events only to be told not to “rock the boat.”
“They were saying, ‘We’re getting killed and the cops don’t care,' ” Aaron says. That pervasive sense of fear and frustration was motivation for Aaron to help document hate crimes against gay people — attacks and harassment that were never reported to police — and start pushing for legislation in the ’90s. A bill eventually was passed in the Utah Legislature, but it was largely toothless, and lawmakers have repeatedly rejected efforts — continuing even now — to toughen the hate crimes law.
The cold-case squad of the Salt Lake City Police Department in recent years has reopened Adams’ homicide investigation — one of about 100 they are looking into with the help of a federal grant.
Former Detective Cordon Parks, who until his recent retirement led the cold-case squad, says this kind of forensic investigation is mostly retracing the original detectives’ steps; it isn’t about reinventing the wheel.
“The old homicide detectives were very sharp people in their day,” Parks says. “They didn’t have all the scientific tools we have today, but it’s rare to find something they overlooked.”
It’s no comfort to the murder victim’s family and friends that investigators are sticking to the 1978 theories that disregard politics or hate as a possible motive.
Adams “wasn’t running for political office,” Parks says. “He wasn’t even that well connected in the political community or the gay community for that matter.”
Parks believes it was a crime of opportunity likely perpetrated by a person or group who targeted gay individuals as vulnerable targets for robbery — “street kids making money.”
Police agreed to release publicly for the first time a lead they think may be relevant to solving the case. They gave The Utah Investigative Journalism Project the name of a person of interest: Mickey Ann Henson.
Henson was first classified as a person of interest in 2012, after her death, based on a fingerprint found in Adams’ apartment.
Police know little about her except that in the late 1970s she was a drug user, a prostitute and was suspected of associating with a group known to rob gay people.
But what was a female prostitute doing in the home of a gay man?
For a time Parks wondered if Adams was actually gay, given Henson’s presence in his apartment, especially considering what happened right before the murder.
The Police Department fought requests to release certain portions of the report about Adams’ body and the crime scene. However, an autopsy file obtained by the journalism project revealed information the department had kept secret.
In consultation with police and The Tribune, the project has decided not to risk jeopardizing the case by disclosing these details, except to say that they suggest Adams may have been about to become intimate just before he was stabbed to death. Still, swabs taken from the body did not find the presence of semen.
Parks wonders if Adams wasn’t lured into a situation where he became naked and vulnerable only to have Henson and an accomplice, or someone else, attempt a robbery that went brutally wrong.
One police report shed some light on why investigators liked this theory. It notes that Henson’s sister, during a visit from out of town, recalled hearing Henson and her friends state, “Let’s go roll a f-- [anti-gay slur]."
Henson’s sister, Cindy, who asked her last name be withheld to protect her privacy, is highly skeptical Henson had anything to do with the murder.
Cindy says Henson was a warm and compassionate person, especially when she was younger. Yes, she was a wild child, who ran away at age 11. And it was true she worked occasionally as an escort, but her sister says she wasn’t a criminal living on the street.
“She had a family living in Salt Lake; her dad lived up there. She had people that loved her and a good job,” Cindy says. “She was not a street rat.”
She says the police theory that Henson would be involved in targeting gay men doesn’t make sense. She was bisexual and, at the time of Adams’ killing, had a girlfriend.
“I don’t remember her or any of her friends hurting gays, because she was one of them,” Cindy says. “She would have stood up for them.”
Among several police reports about her sister was one containing the story about Cindy recalling Henson plotting with friends to “roll a f--."
But Cindy says the report distorted her memory. She says it wasn’t something said to a group of friends. Instead, she says, she was alone with Henson, and they had walked past a strange man outside a gay-friendly bar who asked a question of that nature to her sister, who didn’t respond.
Henson was involved in another high-profile murder case of the period — as a witness for the prosecution against white supremacist Joseph Paul Franklin, who gunned down two black men jogging in Liberty Park in 1980. Henson, it turns out, had been solicited for sex by Franklin and later testified against him in state and federal trials though she feared for her life in doing so.
In support of their gay-targeted robbery theory, police suspect Adams may have intersected with a criminal element perhaps because he had been arrested for prostitution.
Adams left his phone number in bathroom stalls at bars, undercover vice officers asserted, and they called him to set up a meeting at a downtown hotel, where he was busted on May 31, 1978.
Adams pleaded not guilty and was ready to stand trial Oct. 31, 1978, but the case was dismissed at the last minute — less than a week before his murder.
To this day, Maurianne Webster, Adams’ sister-in-law bristles at the idea that he was a prostitute or would solicit one. She got to know him well when he lived with her and her husband before he moved into his Avenues apartment, and describes a person who was responsible and always busy with school, his job, his activism and, sometimes, baby-sitting her kids.
“Anthony wasn’t just my brother-in-law, he was also my best friend,” she says.
After Adams’ death, articles in The Militant, a newsletter produced by the Socialist Workers Party of Utah, alleged the case was a frame-up by vice officers attempting to coerce Adams into becoming a confidential informant who could spy on the activist groups of which he was a part.
The Militant further theorized that police covered up details of the murder and that the authorities may even have been involved. The Socialist Workers candidate for mayor of Salt Lake City in 1979, Pam Burchett, campaigned on demanding a thorough investigation into the police cover-up or worse.
‘A quiet warrior’
Williams, the local LGBTQ historian, recalls the optimism.
“Anything was possible,” Williams says. “Women’s liberation, gay rights, the war ended, and the protests worked. The Village People were on the radio and disco — our gay art form — had taken over America.”
Waldrop remembers that feeling, too, but also an underlying sense of danger. Now a resident of Oklahoma, the former minister recounts distributing flyers for his gay-friendly church outside the Sun Tavern one time when a car full of men pulled up.
He approached them with his usual greeting, “Jesus loves you! Here’s a flyer about our church.” But when he got close, he could see the baseball bats clutched in their hands. Waldrop believes his clergy garb caught the men off guard and they sped away.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the time offered little in the way of understanding toward homosexuality. Apostle Boyd K. Packer said during the priesthood session of General Conference in 1976 that members must “resist” temptation from gay men. He jokingly told a story of how he personally thanked a young man who confessed that he had punched his missionary companion for making a romantic pass.
“I am not recommending that course to you," Packer said, “but I am not omitting it."
In this tumultuous environment, Adams was busy creating a name for himself in all kinds of controversial causes — from gay rights to racial justice.
Leon Brown worked with Adams on the University of Utah anti-apartheid divestment campaign and recalled Adams as passionate but not in-your-face aggressive.
“When he expressed his views, he did so in a nonstrident and confident but almost conversational manner,” Brown says. “He was a quiet warrior.”
Adams was not born into a tradition of radical politics. His family had moved from Baltimore to Salt Lake City and were devout Catholics. Anthony attended Judge Memorial High School and was involved in student life — active in the science and chess clubs, and the student United Nations. He was on the honor roll, the soccer team and the staff of the school newspaper, The Judgeonian. He also was a member of the debate club.
A fuzzy picture from his junior yearbook shows Adams in his neatly buttoned Judge blazer, crest and tie pounding a podium midspeech. The caption applauds his “dynamic displays.”
He and his brother were both National Merit finalists in high school, and they possessed extraordinary drive, thanks in no small part to the example of their mother who attended college in the 1940s — despite the obstacles of discrimination.
From an early age, Adams grappled with being gay and a man of faith. But, ultimately, he learned to accept himself through Waldrop’s Metropolitan Community Church, which preached that Christ’s love and homosexuality were not mutually exclusive. The church was also active in social justice issues.
Adams met Waldrop at a meeting of the Salt Lake City Coalition for Human Rights, a group championing various progressive causes. Through this organization, Adams took part in various high-profile confrontations, from suing the state for refusing to allow gay residents to host a formal dance in the Capitol Rotunda to picketing the performance of singer and anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant at the Utah State Fair in 1978.
The coalition’s protests were peaceful, even though the same couldn’t always be said of the reaction from the public. The activists held a candlelight vigil for murdered gay men before the Bryant protest, only to have someone toss a tear gas canister into the crowd.
In the fall of 1978, Adams was campaigning for Socialist congressional hopeful William Hoyle, who was running against Republican Dan Marriott and Democrat Ed Firmage.
The first weekend of November, he went home early from work at the Utah Transit Authority to his Avenues apartment. He’d had a tooth pulled and was hoping to recuperate before a political rally for Hoyle that Sunday.
Adams never made the rally.
Monday — the day before the election — his party colleague, Bak, went to check on him.
“It was deathly still in there,” recalls Bak. Finding the apartment door ajar, he entered and was confronted with the discordant image of Adams, lying nude, soaked in blood, collapsed against a radiator, his mouth open, unbreathing.
Forty years later, answers about what transpired in that apartment remain elusive even as questions multiply.
The possibility of two knives used in the murder present the possibility of two assailants. That could suggest a hate crime, which police continue to discount, or a robbery gone bad, as investigators believe.
There are also some troubling discrepancies.
Missing from the evidence file, according to police, is the knife believed to be the murder weapon. (Police have openly acknowledged one knife missing from evidence but would not comment on the status of the second knife referenced by ex-detective Millard).
One of the first officers on the scene reported what seemed to be recent damage to the door — possibly during a forced entry — and that the attacker apparently left a stack of records inside the entrance to keep the front door from swinging all the way open. Millard, who arrived later in the day, thought the damage to the door was old and predated the murder.
Police were unaware until it was recently brought to their attention by the journalism project that older gay community members had been told by Adams’ late boyfriend Bill Woodbury that he had discovered the body, not Bak, as police reports say.
At his funeral, Adams was eulogized by friend and University of Utah professor Ricardo Sanchez as a pioneer of sorts; a man “who in having lived, dared to go beyond fear and resignation, in so doing you created much that we now realize.”
But this rallying moment was soon followed by other acts of violence.
Three weeks after Adams’ body was discovered, another gay Salt Lake City man, Doug Coleman, was shot to death a few blocks away. A few months later, Mona Ulibarri, a lesbian, was raped and murdered.
While police said Coleman’s suspected killer was arrested and sent to a mental institution, and eventually died, no one was ever charged in either homicide.
Online now and coming soon in print: Part 2 examines the mystery of the missing evidence in the Adams, Coleman and Ulibarri cases. Read it here.
Eric S. Peterson is the founder and a director of the Utah Investigative Journalism Project, a nonprofit based in Salt Lake City.