Crab Orchard Lake

Southern Illinois University in Carbondale
The 1980’s

There were three places where gay men would meet when I was in college: a local gay bar called Mainstreet East, a cruisy restroom in the basement of the campus library, and four parking lots along Crab Orchard Lake just outside of Carbondale. The parking lots were known as the “big parking lot,” Vaseline Alley, Little Tahiti and Big Tahiti. All of these places could be dangerous. Southern Illinois was not a gay friendly place at the time.

A grisly murder shook Carbondale’s gay community the last semester of my senior year. On April 9, 1988, twenty-three year old Michael Miley’s decapitated body was found in the trunk of his burnt out 1972 Chevy Impala at an underdeveloped area of Crab Orchard Lake known as Rocky Comfort.

I didn’t personally know Michael Miley or his twin brother, Matthew, but I certainly remember seeing them around the bar and the lake. Photos of Michael on the television and in the newspaper scared me because he was so normal looking. The brothers were short and skinny; well dressed. There was nothing threatening or unusual about either of the Miley brothers. It was hard to grasp that someone in rural Illinois could murder and decapitate such a man.

The thought was that someone wanted to clean up the lake; get rid of the fags. An example was being made of Michael Miley.

The most popular, but disputed, version of the actual murder was that Michael Miley was verbally harassed by a local man named Richard Nitz at Crab Orchard Lake on the evening of April 6, 1988. Nitz had a reputation for hating gay men and harassing them. Miley allegedly followed Nitz to his nearby home and confronted him. A not so trustworthy eyewitness claims she saw Nitz assault Miley with a baseball bat in his driveway rendering him unconscious. Richard Nitz’s wife, Nita, helped him load Miley’s body into the trunk of his car and the two drove the victim’s car back to the lake where Nitz shot Michael Miley in the head, then decapitated him. His head and the gun that supposedly was used to kill Miley have never been found.

Richard Nitz had established what was known around the lake as a “Trog Club”–a group whose purpose was to harass homosexual men. His wife, Nita, was a “Trogette.”

The facts of the murder are not clear. Without a head or a murder weapon it was hard to know what really happened. It seemed unlikely to some that Michael Miley would follow Nitz to his house to confront him. He was a shy and non-confrontational type of guy. There are other versions of the story that have floated around for years. The location of the murder and what the real weapon used to kill the man have all been argued.

Nitz and his wife went on a spending spree with Miley’s credit card the weekend after the murder linking them to the crime. Both of the Nitz’s got hefty prison sentences. Nita was convicted for assisting her husband with the disposal of the body.

There was a monster living amongst us …in rural Illinois. A killer who specifically hated gay men. Someone filled with enough rage to cut a man’s head off. Even though I didn’t know Michael Miley, it was hard to imagine being so close to such a horrible thing.

The last five months I lived in Carbondale were filled with emotion. I was getting ready to graduate and start my life, yet the newspapers and TV reports following the murder of Michael Miley made me feel guilty. He hadn’t done anything that I hadn’t done. We were the same age and were probably similar in many ways. How did the Universe decide to take him away and not me?

Carbondale wasn’t the last not-so-gay-friendly-place I lived. The quest to be seen and find love as a gay man put me in a lot of dangerous situations in my youth. It seems absurd to me now that I did such things when all I was looking for was acceptance and companionship. Has it gotten better for gay people since the 1980’s?

I haven’t set foot in Carbondale since 1989. I had a wonderful experience at SIU-C, but I don’t miss worrying about my safety. My hope is that the pockets of America like where I grew up are becoming more tolerant –more safe– for the LGBT community.

Rest in peace, Michael Miley.

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