In the 1990s, Queer New York faced dual crises: ongoing fear and misinformation around AIDS and a disturbing rise in hate-motivated violence against the community. It was within this environment that a serial killer — protected by a lack of media interest, antagonism from the NYPD and a political climate rife with homophobia — managed to pursue, murder and horribly dismember at least four victims, going decades without being caught.
When a suspect was finally identified, it became clear why the killer had evaded capture in plain sight: he’d gotten away with murder before. This grim phenomenon is explored in HBO’s new documentary, Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York, in which members of the LGBTQIA+ community recall the unease of knowing a serial killer was among them and talk about how the recent murders of Julio Ramirez and John Umberger show it can happen again.
1973: “JOINED AT THE HIP”
It’s the early 1970s in the sleepy riverside town of Orono, Maine. Two graduate students, Fred Spencer and Richard W Rogers share a room. Witnesses describe the two as “joined at the hip” — until one day, they aren’t. On May 1, 1973, cyclists discover Spencer’s battered body in the Bird Stream forest. After interviewing his housemates, police trace bloody fingerprints and the hammer used to murder Spencer back to Rogers. Despite clear physical evidence of the crime, Rogers uses the “gay panic defense”, claiming that he killed Spencer after his former roommate hit on him. A jury acquits Rogers in less than three hours.
1988: “THAT WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU”
Having evaded responsibility for the murder of Fred Spencer, Rogers is living and working as a surgical nurse in New York City. On July 11, he invites Frederick Lerro back to his Staten Island apartment. After Lerro asks Rogers for a soda, he instead delivers an “orange juice”, and Lerro wakes up bound to a bed with Rogers standing over him with a needle. “That will take care of you for a while,” says Rogers, as he injects Lerro with an unknown substance. Miraculously, Lerro wakes up outside Roger’s apartment building and calls the police. Rogers is charged with assault, but the defense extensively grills Lerro over “his choice” to go home with a man shortly after meeting him. Rogers is acquitted in a nonjury trial in December 1988.
THE LAST CALL
1991-1993: “GAY BARS WERE ONE OF THE FEW PLACES WE COULD FEEL SAFE”
Living with the threat of violence wasn’t a new phenomenon to the New York City’s queer population. “If there’s one thing that is universal to LGBTQ people that we all know, it’s violence,” said Matt Foreman, former Executive Director of the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, or AVP (now known as the New York City Anti-Violence Project). “I think it’s hard for straight people to understand what it was like for people to walk into a gay bar back then,” he added. “I remember the first gay bar I walked into — I felt like I was home.”
Gay bars were a welcome respite from the often openly hostile outside world — a world in which the AIDS crisis, unrecognized by the Reagan administration until 1985, had given platforms to everyone from conservative pundits like Anita Bryant to the NYPD’s Samuel DeMilia, who was quoted as saying “When you’re talking about homosexuals, you’re talking about people committing a crime.”
“Gay bars were one of the few places we could feel safe,” said former AVP Executive Director David Wertheimer, but “there were people — because they hated gay people, were afraid of gay people, or were afraid of their own feelings — who would come to these places with the intention of doing harm.”
In May 1991, 54-year-old former investment broker Peter Stickney Anderson — described by friends as a popular socialite who was “enthusiastic about life and meeting people” and “always liked to keep the cocktail hour going” — was last seen alive enjoying a drink at popular gay bar and piano lounge The Townhouse on E58th Street. On May 5, Anderson’s dismembered remains were discovered near a rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. New Jersey investigators interviewed Anderson’s friends about his disappearance, but the case soon went cold.
In July 1992, Thomas Mulcahy — a married father of four from Sudbury, Massachusetts — disappeared after spending an evening at The Townhouse during a business trip. On July 10, his dismembered remains were found in trash bags near a rest stop in Woodland Township, New Jersey.
Anderson and Mulcahy had a crucial element in common — neither man was “out” to their larger communities. Tony Hoyt, a friend and former boyfriend of Anderson’s, described their romance as one that “could not see the light of day…in the old days, psychiatrists were making so much money off of telling gay people they were sick.”
“I always felt like my dad was different from the other dads, growing up,” said Mulcahy’s daughter Tracey. “He was more cosmopolitan — his life seemed bigger than Sudbury. In my teenage years, I sensed that there was more to him than the life that I experienced.”
“The Townhouse provided anonymity,” said Michael Ferrari, a former pianist at the bar. Ray Robert Lee, a gay Hell’s Kitchen resident who moved to New York in 1980, told W42ST that The Townhouse was known as somewhere “young entrepreneurs went to meet their investors. It was a pleasant place, but it tended to be an ‘old-school’ crowd.’” Added State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, who arrived in the city in 1992: “When I first moved to New York, I lived in an apartment not far from The Townhouse — I was very curious as to what it was. You got a sense that it was a safe space, mostly for men who were in the closet and wanted to have a place to meet others.”
For many of those already living “out” in New York’s LGBTQIA+ community, the lack of momentum and attention by the NYPD after the murders was less than surprising. “I think a lot of potential tips [on the cases] were missed because of the way [the police] approached people at The Townhouse with very little finesse,” said Matt Foreman. “To this day, homophobia [in the NYPD] is rampant.”
“It was deadly dangerous to be openly gay in the NYPD,” said Edgar Rodriguez, former president of the force’s Gay Officer Action League (GOAL). “[Homophobia] was very prevalent in the ranks. I’m not saying every cop was like this. There were so many cops I worked with that were just amazing, beautiful human beings — but before I came out, the fear I felt within the NYPD was significant,” added Rodriguez, recalling an environment where fellow officers would routinely threaten violence against queer New Yorkers.
An added bias came into focus when 44-year old sex worker Anthony Edward Marrero was murdered after last being seen at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in 1993. Marrero’s identity as a victim of color, as well as a sex worker, contributed to the narratives surrounding his death, said Bea Hanson, former Program Coordinator for the AVP in the 1990s. “Anthony Marrero was treated differently,” she said in an interview for the documentary. “Thomas and Peter were treated as upstanding businessmen — [for Anthony], there was racism because he was Puerto Rican and homophobia because he was a sex worker.”
Antonio Marrero described his great-uncle’s life as filled with rejection: first, from his family, and later, by the larger New York media, who were all-too-eager to dismiss Marrero’s death as a consequence of gay sex work. “There was this hesitation about Tony’s sexuality that’s still ingrained,” said Antonio. “It was, ‘that’s the kind of lifestyle he led, that’s what ends up to those people…’ Tony was buried by more than just cemetery dirt — he was buried with shame, and that really put him into the ground forever,” he added. “What I knew about Tony from the media was that he was a male prostitute and a drug addict — and that couldn’t have been it. No one lives just one headline — there’s more.”
For other members of the queer community like Ray Lee, learning of the disappearances was unfortunately routine. “Hearing about [the murders] wasn’t shocking,” he told W42ST. “Homophobia has always been around. We just thought, ‘Oh, another gay bashing’ — because there were many other incidents of people that we knew who disappeared.” Lee added that watching the documentary reminded him of the ever-present fear of living in a world where anti-queer violence is so prevalent. “One of the people who spoke invoked a truth that I think, even today, many LGBTQ people still harbor on some level — [that] for all gay/queer people there resides in us a fear of being attacked or hurt and then when these murders happened, it seemed that in an instant that feeling was taken away. Where we had to be even more aware and cautious.”
Emboldened by a lack of arrests, the killer moved on. Just months after Marrero was murdered, Michael Sakara — an openly gay 57-year-old legal typesetter — was murdered after an evening at his regular bar, the 5Oaks piano lounge in the West Village in July 1993. Like Anderson, Mulcahy and Marrero before him, Sakara’s dismembered remains were discovered on the side of a highway.
The queer community — led by the AVP and LGBTQIA+ media outlets like Gay USA and Gay City News — raised the alarm. “We knew more about him,” said Matt Foreman, as Bea Hanson added: “Michael Sakara’s murder rattled the community in a much deeper way than the other ones — because Michael was like a lot of older gay men that would go to their piano bar and hang out.” The AVP distributed flyers warning bar patrons to be vigilant and put out a $10,000 reward (approximately $20,000 in today’s currency) for information regarding the murders.
“After Michael’s murder, a task force was formed and the NYPD did not join,” added Matt Foreman. “It was like, ‘why aren’t you doing more?’” The only department that did take action (in addition to detectives from New Jersey who were actively working on the case), added Bea Hanson, was the NYPD’s bias crime unit. “They were connected to the community and wanted to do the work.”
“The local LGBTQ media was so important in covering this story,” Hoylman-Sigal said. “There’s a running theme that the community isn’t always heard until they take to the streets and shout it from the rooftops that action is required. The community organized and fought for and fought to protect its own.”
“Whenever anyone was beat up or something bad happened, we’d talk about it,” said Andy Humm, the longtime host of queer-focused television program Gay USA. “They [the NYPD] are extremely withholding unless there’s a lot of public pressure.”
Public pressure eventually led to a press conference led by then-mayor David Dinkins and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, who stated that the city would continue doggedly investigating the crimes. Kelly, who was a member of the NYPD’s vocally anti-gay Emerald Society, stated that his membership would not interfere in the investigation, but by late 1993, the task force had disbanded. “They walked away and didn’t tell anyone,” said Matt Foreman, who along with Bea Hanson strung “bloody” mannequin parts around Manhattan to protest the city’s inaction. Larger media outlets who did pick up on the story nicknamed the case the “Last Call” killer, a reference that many believed cast guilt on the victims for being out late at gay bars. “[It was] blaming the person for what they’d gotten themselves into,” said Hanson.
And for the victims’ friends and loved ones, there was little closure to move on. “After there’s a murder of someone you spend a lot of time with, your life changes for a while,” said Lisa Hall, a bartender at 5Oaks and friend of Michael Sakara. “I got depressed, the bar got slow — people were afraid to come in — and the bar closed.” Matt Foreman left the AVP. “I couldn’t summon up the anger,” he said, “because I was so worn out.”
1999-2005: “I FELT LIKE I HAD TO REPRESENT THEM”
But as the case faded away and life barreled toward the end of the millennium, “things were changing for our community,” said Foreman. Thanks to the tireless work of queer advocacy groups like ACTUP, there was significant progress in AIDS and HIV-related medical treatments. Queer representation had finally surfaced in network media. New York’s own political landscape even gained several openly queer legislators. “It was only after the community elected queer officeholders that the community’s concerns were heard — and it was all about having a place at the table,” Hoylman-Sigal said. “Things changed due to the leaders who came before me — Deborah Glick, Phil Reed, Christine Quinn, Danny O’Donnell and others, who were trailblazers in the movement.”
Forensic science had made progress, too. In 1999, New Jersey detective Stephen Colintano — who had been working on the “Last Call” cases for years — saw a television program detailing the process of vacuum metal deposition to retrieve fingerprints from plastic bags. Colintano immediately ordered the bags containing the victims’ remains to be sent to a facility in Toronto, one of the only places in North America where the technology was available. The results were fed into the nation’s burgeoning Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), but it took until 2001 to get a match with a newly-added Maine state database. The result? None other than the man once charged with murdering his roommate: Richard W Rogers.
In addition to the physical evidence linking him to at least two of the crimes (Thomas Mulcahy and Anthony Marrero), Rogers fit the profile of the killer. He worked as a nurse at Mt Sinai, with access to drugs that could knock his victims out and the knowledge of how to use them. His medical training enabled him to surgically dismember his victims’ bodies with precision. He had an apartment on Staten Island, where detectives had determined the trash bags containing the victims’ remains had originated. Every one of his scheduled days off coincided with the disappearances of his victims.
Detectives planned a complex surveillance mission to secure even more evidence linking Rogers to the deaths of Peter Anderson and Michael Sakara, but their strategy was cut short by the NYPD — who, after learning that the suspect worked at the same Mt Sinai hospital where then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s mother was admitted, decided to arrest Rogers immediately. “To me, there was no logic [behind the decision],” said New Jersey detective Thomas Hayes. “I really didn’t think Mayor Giuliani’s mother was a target, based on what we knew about him.”
In 2005, Rogers was charged with the murders of Thomas Mulcahy and Anthony Marrero. Ocean County New Jersey prosecutor Hillary Bryce told HBO that because Anderson and Marrero had both been found in New Jersey — whereas Anderson and Sakara’s bodies were discovered in Pennsylvania and New York, respectively — their office had the “best chance” of convicting Rogers. “I felt like I had to represent [the victims],” said Bryce of her office’s determination to win the case, “I try to do that in all cases, but in this one a little more so — because we were in such a time and a place where it could have been ignored, downplayed or even looked at with animosity. I developed that as one of my roles — to focus on them, to remember them.”
Jury selection proved to be a challenge. The DA’s office had to distribute a special juror survey in hopes of eliminating the same biases that had no doubt led to Rogers’ acquittal in 1973. “When you hand a case to a jury, you hope you’ve picked the right people that can do it justice,” said Bryce. “The judge asked a lot of questions about how [jurors] felt about homosexuality.” Queer advocates were still skeptical. “The questionnaire is a really good illustration of what we deal with — if the best we can do is, ‘live and let live’,” said Bea Hanson of the survey’s most positive opinion on LGBTQIA+ rights, “that is a very low bar to clear.”
Despite the uphill battle, the jury deliberated for less than four hours and found an “unemotional” Rogers guilty of the murders of Mulcahy and Marrero. Sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison, he is suspected of committing at least one other murder in addition to the killings of Anderson and Sakara. The verdict “was an emotional release,” said Mulcahy’s daughter. “We finally were able to breathe.”
“I was thrilled,” said Matt Foreman, “but it was so delayed — it felt like justice denied as well. It took so long that it wasn’t as gratifying as it should have been.” Bea Hanson added: “We have to take the victories that we have — but it doesn’t solve the problem — this is happening again and we’ve come full circle in many ways.”
EPILOGUE: THE PRESENT
2023: “IT COULD HAVE BEEN ME”
Nearly two decades after Rogers was convicted, some aspects of queer life have changed. LGBTQIA+ marriage is legal. There is no ban on queer citizens serving in the military. More medical progress has been made to make living fully with HIV and AIDS a reality. The FDA has even adjusted their decades-long ban on gay men donating blood. Some aspects, however, remain frighteningly familiar. Conservative politicians like Ron DeSantis have waged legislative war against the LGBTQIA+ community. The Supreme Court has allowed business owners to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ patrons. Violence and legislation against transgender people continues to climb. A young queer New Yorker, O’Shae Sibley, was murdered in Brooklyn last week. Even here in Hell’s Kitchen, the queer community is not protected from predators, as demonstrated by the cases of Julio Ramirez and John Umberger, robbed and murdered after going out at local gay bars in the spring of 2022 — a distressing footnote made clear in the HBO documentary. While both Ramirez’s and Umberger’s deaths were initially classified as an accidental overdose, protests and pressure from community advocates — just like in the 1990s — eventually led to the apprehension of a ring of suspects in March 2023.
“There’s still foot-dragging around anti-LGBTQIA violence — the trust [between the queer community and law enforcement] has been frayed in recent years due to the targeting of Black and Brown queer New Yorkers, many of them trans,” said Hoylman-Sigal. “Even today, with the recent murders in Hell’s Kitchen, and in particular, Julio Ramirez, there’s been an initial skepticism with law enforcement that was there 30 years ago. Part of it is understandable — police aren’t going to jump to conclusions while investigating a crime — but part of it is a built-in bias against LGBTQIA+ people, a stereotyping that the community is overreacting, and positing that risky behavior makes us responsible for misdeeds that may befall us.”
To improve safety for queer New Yorkers, “we’re working in Albany to repair those relationships,” said Hoylman-Sigal, noting that in 2019, his office was able to ban the very same “gay panic” defense used by Rogers at his 1973 murder trial. “We still need more open channels of advocacy, and I’m hopeful that we can work more closely with law enforcement to protect the vulnerable members of our community,” he added. Thinking back to the early 1990s and the Rogers case, he reflected on how easily any queer New Yorker could have fallen victim. “It could have been me as a young New Yorker who was new to LGBTQIA+ life,” he told W42ST. “It is now a different time, thankfully — although it’s incumbent on the community to hold the NYPD accountable every step of the way.”
Ceyenne Doroshow, a friend of Anthony Marrero and founder of advocacy group GLITS (Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society), reflected on the continuing need for activism around queer safety in the face of continued anti-trans violence. “At one point does our government step up and say this needs to be declared a state of emergency?”
But amid the resurgence of violence and bigotry against the LGBTQIA+ community, a powerful sense of resilience has not dimmed. Anthony Marrero’s great-nephew was inspired by his relative’s legacy to live proudly out in the open, despite ongoing family rejection. “This is not just Uncle Tony’s story,” he said of the progress from 1993 to today. “This is the queer community’s story.” Tony Hoyt, Peter Anderson’s friend and former boyfriend, noted that “Peter would love it today” to see the gains made over the past three decades. Thomas Mulcahy’s daughter Tracey remembered walking by a PRIDE parade where “they were blasting that song I Am What I Am. That was a song my dad liked and I was like, ‘Oh, I could see him fitting in here.’”
“The legacy of Peter, Tom, Anthony and Michael helped galvanize a community — the strength of the community is to celebrate who we are and that we’re in all this together. We have a responsibility to each other and that’s a joyful thing,” said Bea Hanson. It’s a concept that Hell’s Kitchen resident Ray Lee certainly believes in — whether it be navigating the dangers of a deadly pandemic or the threat of violence in queer spaces. “I’ll never forget the day I was diagnosed as HIV positive,” Lee said. “I walked outside on September 9, 1987 and looked up at the sky and thought, ‘I’m going to get through this.’ Those of us that survived, and are still here — our work was not in vain.”