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No Place to Rest : They wanted the charm--and the security--of life in a small town. But it all went tragically wrong for Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill, killed, perhaps, because they were in love.

December 20, 1995|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is a town of grassy hills dotted with barns, a shopping mall where Sears is the big draw and a downtown, draped in winter frost and Christmas lights, five blocks long. No wonder legions of Californians have been driving in over the Siskiyous, plunking down their savings for a house or a small farm, and staying.

Since Jerry Lausmann moved here in 1942--he's been mayor five terms, only one man ever tried to run against him--Medford has busted out from a town of 11,500 to more than 55,000.

Five years ago, Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill left the increasingly uneasy atmosphere of Colorado Springs, Colo., where people objected to their lesbian lifestyle, to live in a small town where merchants in the stores would know who they were and they'd see faces they knew on the street when they went outside.

It worked. The two women started a successful property management business and got elected to the board of their church. They gave lectures at the schools on lesbian lifestyles and appeared on TV on behalf of local gay rights causes. They bought an old Craftsman-style house and fixed it up, cooked elaborate Mexican meals from scratch, became a pair of doting grandmas to Ellis' 3-year-old granddaughter.

They slipped into a friendly network of gay men and lesbians from places like Los Angeles and San Francisco who had found that, like much of the rest of America, they wanted a safe and comfortable place in which to grow old.

Veterans of urban violence sadly will find little to shock in the finale to their story: The bodies of the two women were found earlier this month in the back of Ellis' pickup, their hands and feet bound together with duct tape, each shot twice in the head. But in Medford, a postcard town suddenly forced to examine its own underbelly, there is much about the past weeks that has shaken what it imagined about itself.

Although Robert James Acremant--the 27-year-old suspect arrested Dec. 13 in the case--reportedly said he shot the women during a robbery attempt, gay rights organizations throughout the country have demanded a fuller explanation. And Medford itself has had to come to terms with a growing intolerance toward homosexuality.

The deaths of Ellis, 53, and Abdill, 42, come at a time when Oregon has narrowly defeated two statewide ballot measures prohibiting special legal protections for homosexuals--and conservative groups have launched new campaigns in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Medford and surrounding Jackson County are among the jurisdictions that approved local anti-gay rights ordinances in 1993, although the measures have since been tied up in court.

Nationally, gay rights organizations say the move to limit legal protections for homosexuals has led to a surge in violence against gay men and lesbians. Anti-gay murders have nearly doubled in the years since such initiatives emerged in Oregon, Colorado, Idaho and Maine, and a total of 151 anti-gay murders were reported nationally from 1992 to 1994, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

"Although a suspect has been apprehended, much to the relief of all who knew the couple, we as a community have many unanswered questions and persistent concerns," the task force said in a statement Thursday. "Like many in the Medford community, our concerns and suspicions about the motives of this crime cannot be fully assuaged until we understand the connection between anti-gay prejudice and the risk of hate crimes against gay people."

The case of Ellis and Abdill has prompted gay organizations to demand a Justice Department inquiry into the link between hate crimes and anti-gay ballot initiatives, and it also has drawn a flood of financial contributions from around the country into Medford, where the couple's friends are hoping to build a gay community center.

At a memorial service for the two women last week, Lausmann declared Medford a hate-free city, and city leaders have launched a series of meetings with the community to determine what that will mean and how it can be implemented. Flags around the city were flown at half-staff last week.

"Whatever happens, this case will have had a lasting effect," Lausmann said in an interview. "There's been a very slowly growing groundswell of this kind of thing [intolerance]. But this case has brought a lot of understanding between the gay community and the straight community. There was so much sorrow and revulsion over this thing that it's just not going to go away."

*

Ellis and Abdill met in Colorado, where Ellis was working as an obstetrical nurse and Abdill got a job in the same doctor's office. Ellis was divorced, with two children, but the two women realized that the bond of friendship between them was growing into something more, and they committed to each other as lifetime partners.

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