Bob Goss walked across the hall and leaned into Cathy Heidemann's office. He looked at the department secretary and, crinkling his nose, announced that his office stank something terrible. "I have no idea what it is," he continued, "but would you please have somebody check it out?" It was a Monday in late September; Indian summer was in full flush. The stench in the religion professor's office would go on to permeate Webster University itself, resulting in mysteriously missing files, nasty innuendo and a string of resignations.
Heidemann called maintenance. A canvass of the office revealed that a corner shelf was missing a little piece of wood at floor level. "I thought some critter had crawled in there and died," recalls Heidemann, a good-humored blonde. "We put in air freshener, but it only got worse." The next day, Tuesday, Heidemann, maintenance staffers and some work-study students conducted a systematic search. "They started taking Bob's books off the shelf, and they found it," says Heidemann. "Someone had taken a book and cut out the pages -- like a secret compartment -- and put in some ... what looked like chicken parts that you would buy at the store. It was pretty rank."
A bigot with some chicken was running wild in the sheltered land of academia.
The targeted book, a hardbound edition of Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto, was penned by Goss. Another copy, the paperback version, was found nearby, also with foulness smeared on its pages. Heidemann surmises that the offal had been planted sometime over the weekend, resulting in three or four days of mounting stink. Moreover, Goss' office door had been locked, and there was no sign of forced entry. Whoever did the deed had had a set of keys.
Public-safety officer Seth Mirza was ready to clock out when he got the dispatcher's call: Go to the Department of Religious Studies, on the third floor of Webster Hall. "It looked like cut-up animal parts in that book," says Mirza, 28, who has since resigned. "Honestly, I don't know what it was. But I was damn near ready to pass out -- it was that bad."
By then, others from the public-safety department had shown up. More used to writing parking tickets than handling macabre pranks, they documented the evidence, then tossed the mess in a Dumpster. At that time, Heidemann produced a note found tacked on Goss' door the previous Friday. "It was written on a spiral-bound memo pad like the [public-safety] officers keep," says Mirza. "It said: 'For the real story on human sexuality, consult ...' and then it had passages from the Bible. I remember seeing Genesis, Exodus and Psalms. On the back of the note was the word 'faggot.'"
In the administration's eyes, that derogatory word elevated the incident to the status of a hate crime. "It's serious," says Webster president Richard Meyers. "This kind of behavior is not tolerated, and we're looking into it." They've been looking into it for four months but still haven't solved the problem.
To Mirza, the note pointed ominously to a fellow public-safety officer. "I am not a handwriting expert, but I could tell from the writing it was Larry Leonard. I had seen his writing on sign-in sheets and reports. I am as close to positive as you can be that it was him," asserts Mirza. "He made no attempt to hide his writing."
Staffers in the public-safety, maintenance and housekeeping departments, as well as certain administrators, have access to campus master keys. Public safety has an accounting system that requires officers to check out key sets in a logbook. The weekend of the break-in, it was discovered that a set of keys was missing from public safety. Sources say the higher-ups in the Department of Public Safety -- director Larry Vertrees, manager Jamalh Bussey and working supervisor Deborah West -- were trying to determine which of the officers had taken them. They narrowed their suspicions down to Lawrence Leonard.
Says Mirza, "A couple days after it happened, I was at the information desk, and Deb West came by and remarked offhand that Larry Vertrees had gone to talk to Larry Leonard and had gotten it out of him. When confronted, Larry started crying, basically admitted that he'd done it, said he had the keys and turned them back in -- that's how she put it."
Not true, responds West. "The same day the meat was found, I and some of the officers involved were talking about it among ourselves, and there was a lot of speculation that it was probably Larry Leonard. So anything Seth heard was strictly speculation."
Mirza further suspects Leonard because of what Mirza calls his "Bible-thumper" views: "We had some discussions about abortion, women's place in society, the Bible. You couldn't have an intelligent conversation with him. He is not one of these people open to new ideas. No matter what you would say, his mind was made up." In Mirza's mind, Leonard is further implicated by hearsay: "Another public-safety officer who was friendly with him indicated that Larry told her he had a problem with Bob Goss," notes Mirza. "He didn't agree with [Goss'] sexuality."
At the time of the incident, Leonard had already given his two weeks' notice. Was the rancid-meat-in-the-book trick meant as a parting blow, a political statement against Goss' -- and Webster's -- celebration of diversity and alternative values? Soon the rumor mill began to grind. All over campus, faculty, staff and students spoke of the public-safety officer who had committed a hate crime against Bob Goss.
But all the evidence is circumstantial. Leonard insists that no one from Webster University ever confronted him as a possible culprit. And, most emphatically, he says he did not write the note or plant the organic stink bomb in Goss' office. In fact, at the time of the incident Leonard had been assigned to Webster's downtown campus, located at Ninth Street and Washington Avenue, for at least three weeks. Although he frequently checked in with the Department of Public Safety by phone, he says, he only went there occasionally to pick up his check and take care of various business.
Tall and broad, with short brown hair, blue eyes and an open face, the 26-year-old former U.S. Navy electrician speaks freely about the incident: "I only heard about the situation secondhand. But whoever did it, that's against what I was hired to do." As for the common assumption that he is the culprit, Leonard is not surprised. "I'm a Christian," he says. "I'm very proud of that. I never made it a secret, and that wasn't popular at Webster. I was told by my superiors to stop talking about God, about Christianity. But that's part of me, what I talk about sometimes, like other people talk politics and sports. And I never made it a secret that I don't agree with Bob Goss' views. He has a right to his opinions, but they are not mine."
Leonard says he has wanted to be a cop since he was 5 years old but that after a year on the job, his aspirations had changed. At the time of the incident, he was in the process of switching careers; for a month before his departure from public safety, he had been moonlighting as a carpenter. That's what he is doing now -- a self-proclaimed "extreme Christian," taking up the trade of Jesus Christ himself.
An ordained Jesuit who left the Roman Catholic Church, Bob Goss now refers to himself as a Buddhist scholar and gay Christian theologian. In addition to Jesus Acted Up, the religion-department chair has co-authored Our Families, Our Values: Snapshots of Queer Kinship and Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible. In the '90s, Goss spearheaded demonstrations by the militant gay activist coalition Act Up (hence the title of his book) and has preached the gay Gospel on radio and TV talk shows.
"You become a target when you speak and write," says the silver-haired prof, 53, adding that he has received threats in the past for his outspoken views and has even "been stalked by a rabid Catholic who wanted to save my soul." He says that intolerance in this country is rampant "and homophobia is right at the top of the list because it's legitimized -- by religion. I mean, watch Pat Robertson or listen to John Paul II."
But he dishes it out as well. Not so long ago, Goss went straight from a Webster University graduation ceremony to join a raucous contingent outside KTVI (Channel 2) studios protesting the station's decision to air Dr. Laura Schlesinger's show. The talk-show shrink was targeted because she has denounced homosexuality on her radio show. "Dr. Laura is a bigot," declares Goss.
Had the Webster Groves Police Department been notified of the planted-meat incident, the puzzle might have been solved by now. But Goss expressly declined to report the incident to police. "Gay and lesbian students are integrated fully into the curriculum here," he remarks. "I don't want bad publicity about the university because of one homophobe who got in my office and destroyed some things. We have free speech and relish diversity. This act is not going to change that."
The lock on the door to Goss' office has since been replaced, and yet some mornings the door is open even when it was locked the evening before. Housekeeping personnel? Poltergeists? Nothing is known to have been taken, but still, says Heidemann, "It's unnerving. We don't feel safe here."
Goss' office is not the only one being invaded. Sometime before the Christmas break, a file on the break-in disappeared from Larry Vertrees' office; a separate report kept by the Department of Public Safety is still intact.
On Jan. 28, Vertrees gave notice. His departure coincides with the entrance of Diana Wieland, an attorney with the silk-stocking firm of Armstrong Teasdale. An experienced mediator, Wieland has been hired as an "outside consultancy" to assess the Department of Public Safety and make recommendations to Richard Meyers, the university's president. She is also expected to get to the bottom of the rancid-meat business.
The hiring of a lawyer/sleuth came too late for Seth Mirza, who resigned from public safety in December out of disgust over the incident. "I hoped this was going to be investigated by the university," he says. When that didn't happen to his satisfaction, Mirza decided he would bring it out in the open. "There was no question I was going to be fired," he says. "We had been told in so many words: 'You talk to the media, you're gone.' Furthermore, I didn't want to work for a department where this goes on. If this happens, what else happens that you don't know about?"
Vertrees could not be reached for comment, but in his departure roiled a wake of contradictions. When Erica Burleson, editor of Webster's student-run newspaper, the Journal, spoke with Vertrees before he left, she was told that Leonard blubbered when confronted but did not confess to any untoward actions against Goss. However, now that Vertrees is gone from the university and presumably free to talk, the story has changed. In a Journal story published Feb. 14, Vertrees acknowledged that Leonard, when confronted in his office, did in fact break down and confess to writing the note and stuffing the book. The story also says that during a recent phone interview with Burleson, Leonard confessed to writing the note but said he did not stuff the book. OK.
Told of the student-newspaper story, Leonard reiterated his claim of innocence on both counts. "I did talk with Erica," he says, "but she got it wrong. It's her misunderstanding. She can take whatever I say any way she wants."
He says he's removed from the allegations: "They can use me for their scapegoat, and it's not going to bother me. And even with all this going on, I don't expect my reputation as a person of honesty and integrity to change with those who know me."