© Jack Cashill
"As soon as I heard five [years], I could not hear much after, and I hurt because I felt I let you and everyone down."
So wrote former sailor Steven Nary from his cell in Avenal State Prison in the middle-of-nowhere, California. Nary, now 32, had just endured a 3 ½ hour parole hearing, his first after more than thirteen years of incarceration.
Despite a near perfect prison record, a long standing conversion to Catholicism, an excellent psychiatric report, almost enough college credits to graduate, numerous letters of support, several job and living offers—including one from my wife and me—and the imperative of California’s empty coffers, Nary’s bid for parole was rejected out of hand.
As the heartbroken Nary learned, he will not be eligible for another hearing for five more years.
On the same day Nary was undergoing his ordeal, the Leather Pride Contingent was celebrating Gay Pride Week in San Francisco with its second annual “Dirty Jock Strap Sale.”
Ten years ago, Nary had been tried for second-degree murder in San Francisco in the very same week that Russell Henderson, one of Matthew Shepard’s killers, was being tried in Laramie, Wyoming.
The timing of the hearing might have been coincidental, same for the trial, but it is unlikely that they both were. Nary had killed a gay man, and San Francisco’s political class is always eager to unruffle gay feathers.
Worse, the man Nary killed was the activist publisher of the leading Hispanic newspaper in the Bay area. San Francisco’s political class did not want to ruffle those feathers either.
The assistant DA from San Francisco who attended the hearing made sure all the proper gay themes were sounded.
Nary’s undoing began on Saturday evening in March 1996. That fateful night the then 18 year-old apprentice airman left the Alameda Naval Air Station and headed into the city.
Nary took the BART to the the Montgomery Street Station and walked up towards the Palladium, a co-ed dance club for young people. There, he met up with a Navy buddy on the long line outside the club.
The two young sailors left the line to buy some beer and drank, as sailors do, more than they should have. The two got separated, and Nary headed back to the Palladium where he figured he would find his buddy.
Nary tried dancing but was still too unsteady so he sat down by himself and watched. An older Hispanic gentleman with two young girls joined him at the table. When the girls left, the man sidled over to Nary.
Juan Pifarre, a 53-year old Argentina native, had started the evening at a friend’s house in the Castro district where he and they had a few drinks.
Sometime that evening Pifarre also did at least a few lines of cocaine. He then drove to that most of unlikely of places for a middle-aged gay man, the Palladium.
If sex or companionship were what Pifarre wanted, Lord knows there were a hundred other clubs in San Francisco that promised a dramatically safer and easier score than this one. Pifarre obviously wanted something more.
The girls Pifarre sat down with had put Nary at ease. He suspected nothing. After Pifarre and Nary got to talking, Nary mentioned that he had to leave to catch the last BART back to the ship. Pifarre offered him a ride.
“He seemed like a nice person,” Nary testified at his trail, “trusting person, and I’d get back to the base sooner.” Nary accepted the offer. It would be the last ride the lanky teenager would take as a free man.
On the drive, Pifarre told him Nary he had been to a party earlier. There he had had too much to drink and done too much cocaine, both likely true. He wasn’t sure that he could make it across the bridge and back, likely false.
“His wife was out of town,” Pifarre told Nary. He suggested that Nary “could stay at his house. He could call some girls.”
Pifarre, in fact, did have a wife, the result of a sham marriage to keep him from being deported. Pifarre also had two priors for sexual offenses, a reputation as a belligerent drunk, and a history of violence with his sexual prey.
Nary’s memory on what happened chez Pifarre has always been imperfect. He wrote to me from prison about Pifarre’s attempt to rape him.
“I felt stuck. I could not speak. I could not move, and I could not do anything. He just kept trying and trying over and over. In fact it brings me to tears as I write this because I have avoided this image for so long.”
Nary had no idea he was describing the precise reaction of a person who had been slipped a date rape drug, then all the rage among sexual predators in the gay community. Nary’s public defender did not even raise the possibility at the trial.
"Please, stop," the lanky, 18-year-old sailor begged as he struggled through a paralyzing stupor. Pifarre would not. Finally, in desperation, Nary grabbed a glass mug by Pifarre's bedside and smacked the chunky, coked-up Pifarre in the head with it. Pifarre fought back.
Nary had never before been in a fight. But this time he was fighting for his life. When he finally subdued Pifarre, likely by choking him although the coroner’s report is imprecise, he grabbed his clothes and fled back through the deserted streets to his ship.
Back at the ship, Nary told the chaplain and then turned himself in. He had no idea that San Francisco had morphed into a gay Scottsboro, and he was about to be made a latter-day Scottsboro boy.
After rotting three years in a San Francisco jail, Steven got his kangaroo moment in court. When Nary testified that he had been “disgusted” by what Pifarre was doing, the prosecutor hung him on a homophobia charge.
Had Nary been a female sailor under the exact same circumstances his case never would have gone to trial. Had it been any other city, he would not have been tried, let alone convicted, of second-degree murder.
At the parole hearing, the assistant DA all but retried the case even to the point of submitting grisly crime scene photos.
As a motive for the killing, she claimed that Nary had killed Pifarre lest his fellow sailors find out he was gay. When Nary protested this explanation, the commissioners questioned his remorse.
Needing to appear penitent—as he deeply was for all that happened—Nary could not even defend himself. Writes Nary, "Goliath slaying David became the picture."
And so a serious injustice morphed into an outrage. Now, only the governor can help. If you have access to him, please pass this along.
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