Commentary: Remembering the gentle victim of a Utah hate crime

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Surrounded by supporters, Gov. Gary R. Herbert signs into law the new hate crimes bill along with Senate President Stuart Adams, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, Rep. Lee Perry and Lt Gov. Spencer Cox, at the Utah State Capitol, Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

“Doug was murdered last night,” my friend told me before I could say hello when I picked up the phone Sunday, Aug. 22, 1993.

The sentence she was saying didn’t make sense.

“What do you mean Doug was murdered?

In an exasperated voice she said, “Doug, Big Dumb Doug was shot and murdered last night.”

Big Dumb Doug. That was the name he insisted I use when I addressed him. Doug Koehler was anything but dumb. He was a smart businessman with a wild sense of humor and was gentle and kind. “The Gentle Giant” is another nickname of Doug’s.

Doug was gay.

Last week, as Gov. Gary Herbert signed Utah’s historic hate crime bill — Senate Bill 103 — the warm memories of the gay community from my teenage years came rushing back.

At 16 years old in the mid-1970s, I made a fake ID and went to the Sun Tavern with friends. At the time, it was Salt Lake City’s main gay bar.

In all my adult life of going to bars, some high-end others anything but, I never felt as safe as I did when I was at the Sun.

The gay people in the bar knew we were kids. They wouldn’t serve us beer and they made us feel safe. Not one person behaved inappropriately.

If my parents ever found out I went to a gay bar ...

I am now 60. They have both passed and I still panic at the thought. To them if someone was gay there were perverted. Evil. Terrible.

I remember thinking that, if I got caught, I would tell my parents the people at the Sun were a lot better than those Catholic boys trying to rip my off my blouse. Had that conversation happened (and I am serious when I say this) there is an excellent chance my parents would have had me committed.

Back to Aug. 21, 1993.

Doug was a close friend of my close friend, the late Mick Mackey, then a popular radio D.J.

Doug, Mick and several others hit the Park City bar scene and at some point, Doug became separated from the rest of the group. He ended up the Saddle and Spur bar and went home with roommates and ranch hands David Nelson Thacker and Clint Marcus Crane.

What happened after is not clear, but I believe that Thacker came out that night and immediately regretted his intimate time with Doug. He suddenly became totally macho and he convinced himself that he didn’t like “queers.” Later, a court-ordered psychiatric exam showed that wasn’t true, that Thacker preferred males to females.

After Thacker and his roommate were arrested, Crane agreed to testify against him. Thatcher decided to cut a deal.

Thacker had a great defense attorney, Ron Yengich, who argued that Thacker didn’t know what he was doing because Doug gave him cocaine and booze. He also claimed that the gun went off accidentally.

But Thacker had an even more important ally. Third District Court Judge David S. Young agreed that Doug Koehler had some responsibility in his own murder.

Thacker and his roommate Crane hunted Doug down, found him walking home, asked him to come over to the car, Doug leaned into the window and Thacker shot him between the eyes.

Somehow, Judge Young felt Doug was at fault, too. If this had been a young white straight male who had been shot between the eyes, you can bet this his killer wouldn’t have had the help of Judge Young.

Thacker was sentenced to six years in 1994 for shooting Doug between the eyes because he was gay.

Thacker has long since been released.

Thankfully, Judge Young was later voted out of office.

Mick Mackay was never the same and he died at the young age of 43. He died of a broken heart.

Utah is finally catching up with the rest of the U.S. Tuesday, Herbert signed SB103, a new hate crimes bill that adds sexual orientation to the list of enhanced penalties for a hate crime.

Doug Koehler should be the one remembered in this story. He was kind, funny, smart and when his arms grabbed you in a big bear hug you felt safe. Safe in his wonderful loving arms.

Finally, we have a bill that gives teeth to hate crimes prosecutions. If only we could have protected Doug from the hate on Aug. 21, 1993.

Tricia Arrington Griffith

Tricia Arrington Griffith is a former radio personality in the Salt Lake City market, proprietor of the crime-solving website WebSleuths.com and the host of the Sword and Scale podcast.