On May 23, 1980 a gay Chicago man visiting Los Angeles hitched a ride from a man in a black sports car on Santa Monica Boulevard, the main thoroughfare through the gay enclave of West Hollywood. After a few minutes, the driver pulled onto a side street and asked the passenger if he wanted to make out. When the passenger declined and started to get out of the car, the driver struck him on the back of the head with a heavy metal pipe, inflicting an injury that would require seven stitches.
It was the beginning of a crime spree that would leave four young gay men dead and four others critically injured over the next eight months. Like the recent attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, it would present a confounding picture of a killer seemingly driven by both hate and desire.
The first victim, Richard Sulita, reported the assault to police and returned to Chicago, never expecting to see his assailant again. Exactly a year later, police asked him to return to Los Angeles, where he identified Donald Miller, a three-time convicted felon, in a police lineup.
Police built a case that eventually tied Miller to a string of murders and attempted murders with a disturbing pattern. In each of the attacks, Miller, a welder, used a metal pipe to brutally beat and rob his unsuspecting victims. His modus operandi made it remarkably easy for him to target his victims and gain their trust: He frequented gay bars and feigned interest in hooking up for sex. In at least two cases, he even engaged in sexual activity with victims before assaulting them.
Was Miller gay? Or was he just playing a twisted game, seeing how far he could take the deception before striking the rapid, brutal blows that fractured skulls, shattered jaws and lacerated ears?
The media is asking similar questions today of Omar Mateen, a seemingly straight Florida man who frequented gay clubs and hookup sites before going on a rampage that left 49 dead and more than 50 injured at a gay dance club in Orlando. Was he secretly gay and self-loathing? Or was he just playing a sick game as he looked for vulnerable victims?
The truth is we may never know. Human motivation, like human sexuality, is hardly as easy to trace and catalogue as we’d like to believe. It could be that both of these killers—separated by 35 years and 3,000 miles—shared a common pathology. Perhaps they came to despise the desire they could not understand and could not accept in themselves, projecting that hatred onto others. There is certainly a wealth of research data to back up that notion, in theory.
Or perhaps they simply enjoyed dancing on the thin line between the forbidden and the conventional.
If they did harbor secret desires, they were not gay in the sense we have come to define it as a healthy expression of a person’s sexual orientation. Their actions prove that much.
Sadly, the four men Miller beat to death are all but forgotten today. We only know a little of their lives, and something of their deaths, from court documents and other public records.
Just as the media has told the stories of the Orlando victims, I’d like to relate what I know about these four young men, savagely robbed of their lives for no other reason than that they trusted a stranger in a place they thought was safe. I covered the murders and the search for the killer as a reporter for radio station KPFK in Southern California in 1981.
Michael Thomas, 32, met Miller at the Spike, a gay club in West Hollywood, just before midnight on July 11, 1980. They left together and Thomas was found lying in the street on nearby Laurel Avenue minutes later, still alive but suffering from a severe head wound. A homeowner discovered the injured man when she stepped outside to quiet her barking dog and heard a strange gurgling sound. Thomas, who had been struck on the head at least four times, was struggling to breathe. He died in the emergency room a few hours later of blunt force trauma to the head.
Robert Sanderson, 36, lived on Laurel Avenue, just a few blocks from the Spike and another gay club, the Rusty Nail. That’s where friends last saw him on the night of Nov. 29, 1980. At 1:30 a.m. a security guard found him on nearby Melrose Avenue, staggering and bloody. A trail of blood led back to Laurel Avenue. Sanderson told the security guard he had been beaten up, then lost consciousness. He remained unconscious until dying in the hospital on Feb. 12, 1981 of blunt force trauma to the head.
Coincidentally, Sanderson’s father also died violently of a traumatic brain injury, killed by a hit-and-run driver outside an Albuquerque nightclub in August 1945, when Robert was less than a year old.
Danny Harman was 22 when he came to Los Angeles from Kentucky in 1980. On Jan. 23, 1981 he went with a friend to a gay bar called Woody’s Hyperion in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles. When the friend left about a half hour later, he couldn’t find Harman. The young man’s body was found the next morning in Compton, less than a mile from Miller’s childhood home. Harman lay in a pool of blood, his skull split open. A short obituary in the Bowling Green Daily News said Harman had been found dead in Los Angeles “of unknown causes.” He was described as a member of the Lawrence Chapel Baptist Church in Smiths Grove, Kentucky, and a former employee of Colt Industries in Bowling Green.
Ernesto Ramirez, a 28-year-old hairstylist, went with friends to the Rusty Nail on the night of Feb. 13, 1981. He was seen leaving the bar with Miller shortly after midnight—Valentine’s Day. At 12:35 a.m. Ramirez was found unconscious and covered in blood on a nearby street. He had suffered massive injuries to his face and skull, and lacerations to his right ear. He remained in a coma until April 20, when he died of blunt force trauma to the head.
Solid Police Work
Just as the police in Orlando have been lauded for their response to the June 12 massacre, Los Angeles police detectives worked hard to solve the Miller case in 1980-81. They staked out gay clubs, interviewed numerous witnesses and potential witnesses and distributed flyers with a composite drawing of the killer to bar patrons. They captured Miller in a dramatic operation on May 8, 1981 as he was in the act of beating a young gay man he had picked up at Woody’s Hyperion. The man, Miller’s last victim, told police that he and Miller had engaged in oral sex just minutes before Miller attacked him.
This case was especially notable considering the poor relationship that existed at the time between the LAPD and the city’s gay and lesbian community.
Kudos should also go to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, which successfully prosecuted Miller on four counts of first-degree murder in 1983, securing the death penalty for the 40-year-old killer.
Miller died of natural causes on California’s death row in 2005.