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U.S. Weighs Role for FBI in Slaying of Two Gay Men : Crime: Rights activists say local authorities lack will and competence to investigate Mississippi killings. Sheriff says he has a suspect in custody.


WASHINGTON — Justice Department officials Thursday were studying the weekend slayings of two gay men in Laurel, Miss., in an effort to determine whether the FBI should enter the case.

National gay-rights activists, meantime, claimed that local authorities lacked the will and the competence to investigate violent crime in a county that has been the site of anti-gay confrontations.

Maurice Hooks, the sheriff of Jones County, Miss., said that a 16-year-old student is in custody as the suspected killer and that his motive appeared to be robbery. Hooks refused to say whether Marvin McClendon, the suspect, had confessed.

"I definitely can say it was not a hate crime," Hooks declared. He said that McClendon, arrested at his high school, was charged with two counts of capital murder in the Saturday killings of Robert Walters, 34, and Joseph Shoemake, 24, both of Laurel.

Their bodies, found near abandoned railroad tracks, bore single gunshot wounds in the head with a .22-caliber weapon. Hooks told reporters that one of the victims was carrying about $100 before his death but that no money was found on the bodies. Jewelry and credit cards, however, were found.

Gay-rights advocates reported that one victim's pants were down around his ankles. Jones County Coroner Joyce Perrett acknowledged that one man's walking shorts were pulled down but said it appeared that had occurred when the bodies were dragged. The man's underwear was in place, and there were no signs of sexual abuse, Perrett said.

The tip leading to McClendon's arrest was phoned to police in response to a $1,000 reward that had been advertised, Hooks said.

At the Justice Department, lawyers in the civil rights division were matching information about the crime with federal civil rights statutes and a 1990 law giving the FBI jurisdiction to investigate so-called "hate crimes."

But Myron Marlin, a spokesman, explained that these laws are limited to violent crimes against persons because of their "race, color, religion or national origin." Sexual orientation is not covered in the statutes, he noted. Gay-rights advocates long have sought to have sexual orientation included in the law.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force sent an urgent request to Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to begin a federal investigation of the murders because "we have no confidence in the ability of local authorities," according to Beth Barrett, a task force representative.

Recalling the recent history of Jones County, Barrett noted that Reno sent a delegation from the department's Community Relations Service to the area last December to try to mediate a dispute between the nearby community of Ovett, Miss., and a rural lesbian retreat called Camp Sister Spirit, which has been a target of anti-gay harassment.

Reno asked the community relations representatives to try to ease tensions in the county after a community meeting attended by 250 residents opposed to the retreat, which was founded by Wanda Henson, 39, and Brenda Henson, 48, two sisters who owned the farmland. About 20 women live on the property.

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