by Eric Ginsburg
After a gay veteran Stephen White passed away from his injuries sustained in a violent attack, residents are left with many unanswered questions while those close to him honor the man they knew.
The few details that are available about that night at the Battleground Inn in Greensboro came out slowly at first, shocking and horrifying people as the picture emerged. Still, gaps in the public understanding persist, adding to confusion and sadness.
By now many residents are familiar with the basic framework of the events that ultimately led to Stephen White’s death as he fought to overcome his injuries at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem. White, who was 46, met 26-year old Garry Gupton at Chemistry, a relatively new gay club on Spring Garden Street in Greensboro, on Nov. 8. Gupton, a water resources employee with the city and before that a part-time parks & recreation worker since 2012, left the venue with White in a cab and checked into the Battleground Inn with him.
It isn’t clear what happened immediately after the two men checked in, but Gupton was observed by hotel staff acting “incredibly irrationally,” Greensboro police spokesperson Susan Danielsen said, adding that he was yelling things that were difficult to understand including, “F*** you, Israel!”
At around 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 9, police officers and fire fighters responded to a fire alarm, and kicked in the door to the room, where they found White unconscious and took Gupton into custody in the parking lot. Both were treated for smoke inhalation, but White suffered from serious burns on almost half his body and had signs of assault on his upper body, Danielsen said. He died from his injuries almost a week later on Nov. 15.
Assistant District Attorney Howard Newman said that it appears White was assaulted with items in the motel room including the telephone, television set and a small table. Gupton didn’t have any injuries that needed medical attention, he said. After White passed away, Gupton’s charges were upgraded to first-degree murder and he is now being held without bond at the Guilford County Detention Center in downtown Greensboro.
Danielsen said hate was not the motivation.
“We arrived at that conclusion by statements from people that we interviewed,” she said. “The conditions under which they met and under which they left together do not indicate a hate crime. The crime is certainly very violent and very serious.”
Chris Sgro, the executive director of Equality NC who also lives in Greensboro, said that regardless of the attacker’s motivation, the incident was “clearly senseless and unjustifiable by any means.” Scgro said his organization doesn’t want to jump to any conclusions about what fueled the attack, adding that he is sure police are looking into all potential motives.
“I loathe any kind of violence along these lines and this is clearly a tragedy,” he said. “Equality NC has been in touch with the mayor’s office and the city. I have full faith that there is total competency around this investigation so we will wait and see what the verdict of that investigation is.”
Gupton was fired from his job with the city after White died and Gupton was charged with murder, city spokesperson Donnie Turlington said.
Chemistry owner Drew Wofford told the News & Record that Gupton was new at the venue, and flirted with drag queens before talking and hooking up with White before the two left consensually together. Alex Teal, White’s longtime partner, has heard other stories about what happened that night.
Teal said he has been told that Gupton was crying that night at the bar, saying he didn’t know how to come out as gay. It is his understanding that it was the first time the two met, adding that some people have told him they met Gupton when he came into Q Lounge, a longstanding gay bar on West Market Street, last summer with a woman. Several other gay men in Greensboro also described Gupton as unknown or an outsider to the city’s gay community.
White comforted Gupton that night though nobody else wanted to, Teal has been told, probably being able to relate because he didn’t come out until he was 37.
Teal and White started dating around Christmas 2009, Teal said, and they were living together. Last summer they decided to take a break, and they had recently reconnected. That Saturday night was supposed to be a sort of last hurrah for White before he came back and resumed a more steady relationship, Teal said.
“Stephen was too trustworthy,” Teal said, a general trait of White’s. “He felt everybody was good and didn’t think that bad things would happen to him.”
Most of the important questions about what happened that night remain unanswered for the public, though a fuller picture may come together as the toxicology reports, White’s autopsy and the fire department’s investigation are completed. Other details likely won’t emerge until Gupton’s trial, if at all.
Many people are unwilling to accept the police department’s verdict that the horrific act doesn’t rise to the threshold of a hate crime, particularly because of the extreme and violent nature of the attack.
A central question on many people’s minds concerns Gupton’s motivation. Was it internalized hatred and oppression that was projected onto White? Is Gupton gay, either openly or privately? The suspect’s sexuality remains a public mystery, as does whether the attack was premeditated and what the status of Gupton’s mental health was prior to that evening.
The window to room 417, at the corner on the top floor where Gupton and White checked into late that evening, is boarded up now. Without access to security footage and without talking to the inn’s owner or anyone who was working that night, it is difficult to dispel various theories about what happened or form a cohesive narrative.
Investigators undoubtedly possess that information, but Battleground Inn owner Harry Patel declined to comment on Monday, saying he is too busy dealing with insurance and the room itself.
Remembering Stephen White
Teal and other people close to Stephen White focus first on three aspects of who he was — that he loved, really loved, playing pool, his noteworthy kindness and his ability to overcome adversity.
White was born in New Jersey but his parents moved to Greensboro in the mid-’70s. White spent much of his life here, and his family still lives in the area, Teal said. He served in the US Army, as well as the Border Patrol, as a Blackwater security contractor, an Air Marshal and on a security detail at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. He enjoyed his position with Border Patrol the most, Teal said, and would sometimes have former coworkers over to their house.
Teal describes a man with a strong affinity for food, especially steak, and said they were starting to plan some trips to travel around the world together.
Candace Lapan, a friend of White’s who met him through her girlfriend, said White was “a kind-hearted person” who often came to Q Lounge to play pool, adding that he would routinely best her girlfriend in matches.
“I want everybody to know who he was and that he was a good person and that there were so many people that cared about him in this community,” Lapan said. “It didn’t take long for Steve to become somebody that you would call your friend.”
She noted other things about him too, like the fact that he had four dogs and that on more spirited nights he might get up and sing karaoke. Lapan can vividly picture him at the microphone, singing Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt.”
White was seriously injured when he was “basically blown up” while serving with Blackwater in Iraq, Lapan said. She marveled at his ability to overcome physical limitations from the blast’s lasting impact, as well as from a more recent car wreck that he was lucky to survive, she said. He walked with a limp, and Teal said he had difficulty on stairs.
Teal said White probably had more than 18 surgeries when he returned from Iraq but that he still tried “to live life to the fullest and didn’t use it as an excuse not to do anything.”
“I want people to understand how he didn’t let his physical limitations stop him from doing stuff,” Teal said. “If Stephen didn’t exercise regularly, he would start losing muscle mass and it would be hard for him to function. He functioned very well for his injuries but on a daily basis he struggled. His back went out all the time. He couldn’t drive really at night anymore.”
Who is Garry Gupton?
He still lived in that area of the county, in a one-story yellow house with red shutters near Interstate 85 at the time of his arrest. A plastic water bottle, golf club and men’s sneakers rested on a concrete stoop in front of the house. A woman wearing a tank top who answered the door last week, holding a cell phone as she looked out through the screen door, said she owns the house and confirmed that Gupton lived there but declined to comment, adding that she doesn’t know him very well.
His record is relatively bare, consisting of just two speeding tickets and a simple-assault charge on Jan. 30, 2007, police spokesperson Susan Danielsen said.
Patrick Smith, the operations superintendent for the city’s water resources division who was Gupton’s supervisor, couldn’t offer much insight.
“He was a typical employee around here,” Smith said. “We never had to deal with him with any corrective action. We had no signs that anything of that nature would take place with him. He was just a typical worker and pretty much came to work and went home.”
Smith said that Gupton’s sexuality didn’t come up in the work place, adding that “we definitely wouldn’t ask questions like that and it wouldn’t be any of our business what he did in his personal life.”
One of Gupton’s childhood friends, who initially said he really wanted “to get out some things about Garry and who I know him to be” cancelled an interview with Triad City Beat after Gupton’s charges were upgraded to murder.
Another friend, who expressed interest in trying to clear Gupton’s name, backed off on Monday as well.
In lieu of information from people who know him, the only signs of who Gupton is beyond his alleged murder of White comes from his Facebook page. A few posts provide some insight.
In June of 2013, he wrote, “What are some good charity’s [sic] to volunteer for? I want to have a direct impact on helping the community.” In the caption to a photo that October showing him in a city uniform and a Batman mask, he wrote, “My secret I am the batman!! I the hero the city needs.”
Gupton frequently commented on posts by Vice, including one asking if the American dream is still possible in which he wrote. “Probably not if we can’t work together.”
The list of his “liked” Facebook pages revolve heavily around sports and cars, and his profile states that he is interested in women.
White’s injuries were so severe that only Teal and family members were able to visit him before he passed away, leaving Lapan and others feeling helpless. As she, her girlfriend and two friends sat alone at Q Lounge last week, angry and sad, they started planning a benefit for White’s medical expenses at the bar that Saturday.
Lapan didn’t think they would be able to hit their initial goal of $5,000 but was determined to try.
At the event on Nov. 15, people packed the bar and its fenced-in side patio. Attendees chatted about White’s love of pool and speculated about Gupton, wondering if his bond or charges would be changed. At a long table at the back of the bar, people perused a wide array of silent auction items on display while someone read out raffle winners on a microphone near the door. On the patio, more volunteers sold food and someone else shined people’s shoes, all to raise money for White’s expenses.
It was there, in the middle of the event, that Lapan and others found out that White had passed away.
In a way, Lapan was thankful they heard the news then, while people were together and could support each other and celebrate White’s life.
And by Tuesday, more than 250 people had donated more than $10,000 to the online fundraising page Lapan set up. With the page and the fundraiser, Lapan said they were able to raise more than $14,000, a figure that shocked her.
“I’m very proud of everybody,” she said.
Chemistry also held a fundraiser for White that evening, a drag show, though Lapan said it was an uncoordinated attempt to come together and support White and his family. The money will go towards his medical costs and expenses for his funeral, which will be held on Friday at St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
Gupton had a hearing on Monday afternoon to update him on his new charges, and he appeared on a monitor while still at the Guilford County jail. Wayne Baucino, a public defender, has been assigned to the case. He has talked to Gupton twice since being appointed, but cannot share anything about their conversations including whether Gupton will plead guilty or innocent.
Answers about that night remain elusive. But the people close to White don’t appear to be focused on the details of that tragic evening or what will happen at trial, instead directing their attention to honoring the man they knew and loved.