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In the days after Dane Hall was brutally beaten last month outside a Salt Lake City dance club hosting a gay night, hundreds of community members believed he was the victim of a hate crime.
But Salt Lake City police say their investigation is taking them down a different path. They are now looking at whether the attack may have been motivated by drugs, not Hall's sexual orientation.
"There is so much misinformation and partial information out there that we're still sorting through it all," police Chief Chris Burbank told The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday. Jail records show Leon Dane Hall, whose uses his middle name, was arrested July 2 for possession of narcotics, marijuana and drug paraphernalia. Police are still investigating that incident and Hall has not been charged with any crimes in connection with the arrest.
But Burbank said drugs may have fueled the attack, and it is possible Hall knew his attackers.
"When we're talking about narcotics dealers, those can be some pretty violent people," Burbank said. "There is speculation it was narcotics-driven."
On Wednesday, Hall spoke briefly to The Tribune, saying "I am not a drug dealer and my previous arrest has nothing to do with this,"during a Facebook chat. He referred all other questions to his lawyer, who declined to comment.
Hall previously has said a group of men he did not know shouted gay slurs at him as he walked home from Club Sound, at 579 W. 200 South, and then proceeded to punch him several times. They eventually placed the side of his face on the sidewalk and kicked the back of his head in a move known as curb-checking, according to Hall.
Burbank said he isn't discounting any motive including anti-gay sentiment for the assault on Hall since the investigation is ongoing. His department has denied a Tribune open-records request for initial police reports about Hall's July 2 arrest and Aug. 26 attack, as well as a recording of a 911 call made about the attack.
The Aug. 26 attack left Hall with a broken jaw and cheekbone, but Burbank says he doesn't believe people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community are at any heightened risk for assault.
"Salt Lake City is by and large a safe city," said Burbank. "There are very few circumstances where strangers are perpetrators of crime."
A second attack that was reported to police on Aug. 26 in which a man's boyfriend was beaten up in his apartment "appears to be a domestic issue" not motivated by anti-gay sentiment, Burbank said.
"It had no relationship to Dane Hall," he said. LGBT community leaders said Tuesday they condemn violence against anyone for any reason, and that whatever the motive, they support Hall because he was the victim of violence.
"When anyone is brutally attacked in this way no matter the circumstance it is not OK," said Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center.
But they assured the public that a trust is being developed to ensure donations collected for Hall go solely to medical bills and cost of living while Hall is unable to work.
Larabee and many others say the community's emotional response which generated a social media firestorm and prompted fundraisers, rallies and community discussions about hate crimes highlights the fear many LGBT people contend with every day.
"Any community that regularly finds itself targeted for violence tends to be very sensitive when anything happens," said Eric Ethington, an activist and author for PrideinUtah.com.
"When people hear the story about an LGBT person being attacked, it strikes a chord of fear because the thought is 'That could have been me.' "
Ethington had planned a rally for last week, but postponed it until a time closer to the Legislature's next session. He wants to broaden the subject to rally against violence against any marginalized group and not basing it solely on the attack on Hall, he said.
Marian Edmonds, pastor at the nondenominational City of Hope Church, echoes those sentiments.
She and her partner and co-pastor, Julie Watson, held a prayer vigil on Sept. 9 that quickly grew in size because of the emotional outpouring from community members over the attacks.
"We don't want to do one thing and forget about this," she said. "We want to keep attention on the fact that people don't feel safe."
She and Watson organize a group each Tuesday to walk through the Club Sound area and through The Gateway mall to raise awareness about hate crimes.
The group carries large photographs of hate-crime victims, and she says people stop her to encourage her or to ask more questions.
"Some people say hate crimes don't exist. We need to talk more about it," Edmonds said. "This happens and people are afraid to go out and live their lives, to hold hands with their partners in public."
Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, called the community's response of "compassion, empathy and concern" appropriate regardless of the situation.
"No one deserves to be beaten up," she said. "As a community, we should not tolerate violence, it is never justified, it is never OK."
Equality Utah is planning an October community meeting in which she hopes representatives from the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office and police department will talk about hate-crime statutes and how to stay safe.
"We now have an opportunity to continue the conversation as a community about violence prevention, about our cultural values and about creating safety for all residents, regardless of who they are, and the circumstances they are in," Balken said.
American Fork attack still being investigated as possible hate crime
While much public attention has been paid to the double assaults in Salt Lake City, Cameron Nelson has been healing from an attack that American Fork police believe was motivated by anti-gay sentiment.
Nelson was taking trash out of the salon where he works at about 12:45 a.m. on Sept. 8 when two or three men began shouting gay slurs at him and punching him, police have said.
He suffered a broken nose and minor injuries.
While he is physically recovering and has returned to work, his sister, Marnie Barnes, says he is still trying to mentally regroup from the attack.
She says that while she doesn't condone violence in any form, fights that are provoked make a lot more sense, rather than "absolutely random, unprovoked acts of violence."
Police are treating the attack as a hate crime and are still tracking down leads but have yet to find any suspects, Sgt. Gregg Ludlow said Tuesday.
Barnes is worried her brother's attackers are still at large.
She said Nelson had attended a family birthday party over the weekend, and was pushing his nephew on the swings and playing on the monkey bars, being "everyone's favorite uncle."
"I just wish people could look at the inside instead of the outside, and just view each other as valuable human beings and forget the exterior," she said. "To have amazing people segregated or pigeonholed is so unacceptable. It boggles my mind."
Anyone with any information about the attack can call the American Fork Police Department at 801-763-3020.