At the crack of dawn on July 22, Joel Boner, 30, awoke to a terrifying scene. Outside his tent at an Ocoee homeless camp at the intersection of State Road 50 and Bluford Avenue, two 19-year-olds — John Hawthorne and Cameron Milner, who according to police reports had been "killing time" all night waiting to cash in winning lottery tickets for a $2 prize at a nearby 7-Eleven — had rolled up on Hawthorne's ATV. Hawthorne got off the vehicle and began cutting up Boner's tent with a 4-inch knife. Boner walked outside; Hawthorne shouted at him to leave the camp.
A scuffle ensued. Boner did not survive.
Boner suffered 15 stab wounds — seven of which were in his back — and was pronounced dead at Orange County Regional Medical Center at 7:45 a.m. Hawthorne was arrested, charged with first-degree murder and held without bond. (Milner remains uncharged.)
Over the next month, however, the case has taken some unexpected turns: Hawthorne confessed, but the charges against him were reduced to second-degree murder anyway. (He has since pleaded not guilty.) Then, Orange-Osceola Circuit Judge John Adams Sr. released Hawthorne from jail on a $25,000 bond — meaning he could bail out with just $2,500 cash, a shockingly low amount for such a heinous attack — to await trial at his parents' home, confined only by a GPS ankle bracelet.
"Nobody gives a shit," says Lon Boner, Joel's uncle, who lives in Marietta, Ga. Adams' decision, he adds, was a "slap across the face."
Perhaps, but it's also almost fitting for an area renowned for its antipathy toward the less fortunate. For the past four years, the state has ranked first in violence directed at homeless people, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. The Coalition cites 30 cases in 2008 alone, three of which ended in death. Orlando ranked third on the Coalition's list of "meanest cities" toward the homeless, thanks to its relentless pursuit of a policy to ban serving food to homeless people in public parks.
The Coalition doesn't think it's a coincidence that incidents like those that left Boner dead are prevalent in places where the homeless are treated like dirt, so they're working in five states — including Florida — to elevate violence against the homeless to hate-crime status and pursuing similar efforts at the federal level.
But this may be a hate crime already. The police report quotes Hawthorne telling police that Boner was gay — a fact that may also have contributed to his brutal death.
Lon Boner doesn't buy the supposed series of events that ended his nephew's life on that July morning: that Hawthorne and Milner randomly came across the victim, that the fight was somehow fair, and that the 15 stab wounds — again, seven of them in Boner's back — were in self-defense.
"The only thing we're listening to is what John Hawthorne has to say," he says. "Joel would tell it like it was, but someone murdered him."
According to Hawthorne's statement, he "noticed a man he had seen before in the area." However, the nature of their previous contacts is unclear. Later in the police report, a detective notes, "`Hawthorne` also said he believed Boner was gay and said he was disgusted this man had touched him. John said this really upset him."
According to Lon Boner, Joel came up with nine siblings, living out of a bus with his father — Lon's brother — Paul, an "itinerant preacher." That lifestyle, he laughs, is probably what made him set out on his own. Lon retrieved Joel's belongings from the Ocoee police after his death, including an active passport, with which he says his nephew traveled in exotic places like Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines until 2006. Since then, he'd been in Central Florida, working temp jobs by day and living a squatter's life in the camp by night.
He had his own bank account, didn't drink, didn't do drugs and was only "a little crazy"; Joel had been known to sport "a tiara and a tutu" on occasion, but those who knew him saw him as a harmless loner.
In his statement to police, Hawthorne makes three things clear. No. 1: He never felt threatened by Boner. (According to cops, "John said numerous times during the interview that he was not in fear for his life and said he knew Boner was not that big.") No. 2: He provoked the eventual fight. The incident happened when Hawthorne, who had been drinking all night, began slashing Boner's tent and yelled at him to leave the property — although the land is privately owned, it does not belong to Hawthorne or his family; therefore, he had no legal right to kick Boner out — though Hawthorne claims that Boner hit him first. No. 3: Though there was a lot of blood at the scene and they knew Boner was injured, Hawthorne and Milner left him to die without seeking any help.
Boner made his way out to Bluford Avenue, a quarter-mile away from the crime scene, before collapsing and later dying at the hospital. According to Lon, his last words to the man who found him were "Please hurry." (Police and prosecutors refused to comment on the open investigation.)
Meanwhile, Hawthorne and Milner were back at Hawthorne's nearby home, where they showered and posted updates to their Facebook pages — "Crazy night" and "What the fuck just happened?," respectively.
There's no doubt that Hawthorne killed Boner. Even if that were an accident — or a fight that spun out of control — had they chosen to call 911 rather than update their Facebook pages, there's a chance that Boner would still be alive.
(Hawthorne's attorney did not return Orlando Weekly's phone calls seeking comment.)
So why is Hawthorne now at his parents' house, instead of awaiting trial at the Orange County Jail?
The answer, it seems, is that the victim is homeless and gay, and therefore doesn't matter.
"Frequently, law enforcement fails to investigate physical attacks, including murder, as hate crimes due to lack of training, a desire to avoid bad publicity, or both. Equality Florida will continue to monitor this case and ensure it is prosecuted to the full extent of the law," says Brian Winfield, communications director for Equality Florida, in an e-mail.
On Aug. 7, Judge Adams granted Hawthorne a $25,000 bail, and he was back home by Aug. 10. Tellingly, Lon Boner says that no one from the police or state attorney's office told his family about the bond hearing, and therefore none of them could argue to keep Hawthorne locked up — although defense witnesses pleaded for his release.
"With homeless folks, a lot of times they don't have the same family support system to demand justice," says Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, who has followed this case. "So there's no one yelling at the police department or being interviewed in the local media."
In this case, according to Lon Boner, the justice system isn't making those family members aware of such opportunities.
Judge Adams has made politically insensitive waves in the past. In 2004, Adams sentenced a sex crimes detective to two years of house arrest for having sex with a 14-year-old, telling the girl that she would get over it.
According to the state attorney's office, Adams has been dropped from the Hawthorne case.
As it stands, the case's next hearing is set for Aug. 27, but Lon Boner says that nobody has confirmed that date for him either. The state attorney's office is "still reviewing the case to determine what violations were committed and `what` we can prove," says spokesman Randy Means in an e-mail. (According to news reports, prosecutors will decide whether or not to charge Hawthorne with premeditated murder after reviewing the autopsy.)
Meanwhile, Lon Boner suspects that his brother's case will probably have a short shelf life. His nephew's life will go down as one of little consequence — and as a result, he worries that Hawthorne will get off too easily.
"By his own admission, John Hawthorne has committed hate crimes," he says. "This is crazy."firstname.lastname@example.org