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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 2, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 48
Danny Vega's unsolved murder grips communities
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Danny Vega's unsolved murder grips communities

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

On November 15, around 7:30-8:00 p.m., Rainier Valley resident Danny Vega was walking in the 4200 block of South Othello street in Seattle. The 58-year-old man was assaulted and robbed by three black teenagers. Twelve days later, Vega died at Harborview Medical Center.

Those are the nuts and bolts of the case. That is what Seattle Police Department homicide detectives say they are working with to solve the seemingly unsolvable savage beating of a man who died before officers could question him. That is what is on the surface of this mess.

But to find the truth, you must sometimes go beneath the surface of things. Members of the LGBT community say Danny Vega was more than just an openly out and flamboyant Gay man. Family and friends maintain he was much, much more than just a nice guy. And members of the Filipino community - throughout the entire city - say that when Danny passed away November 27 after he was robbed and beaten by three young men, Seattle lost an icon.

Danny Vega's murder must be solved. The streets must be cleansed of this violence. Justice must be served.

Recognizing that the public, as well as Danny's friends and family, were left with more questions than answers, three days after the famed hairdresser died, Seattle police released a video and photo images of three 'people of interest' and publicly declared they will do everything within their power to catch the man's killers.

Seattle Police Chief John Diaz is asking anyone with leads to call homicide detectives at (206) 233-5000. Diaz has said SPD is 'aggressively investigating' the case. Crime Stoppers of Puget Sound are willing to pay up to $1,000, cash, for any information leading to the arrest and charge of anyone involved in this homicide. (call 1-800-222-TIPS).

The video and still photos released November 30 came from a surveillance camera near the scene of the crime, though police did not disclose the precise location.

News of Vega's death reached the highest levels of local government. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn appeared with top police officials at the Filipino Community of Seattle Center for a public meeting Wednesday night at the request of the family of Vega and the Seattle Police Department Filipino Advisory Council. Members of the LGBT community as well as the City of Seattle LGBT Commission were in the crowd, which swelled to more than 300.

'We grieve with you,' McGinn said. 'This is a horrifying and tragic loss, and it is the highest priority of our Police Department to solve this crime with your help.'

A number of SPD officials spoke, along with members of Danny's family - but the real reason for the meeting came during the Q&A part of the evening. Right off the bat, this question was posed: 'Why isn't the Seattle Police Department investigating this as a hate crime?'

Diaz answered, 'Clearly this is something we're going to be pursuing.'

But for some in the room, that answer is simply not good enough.

'DANNY WAS TARGETED BECAUSE HE WAS GAY'
Local drag entertainer Aleksa Manila, who once competed with Vega in a drag pageant, learned of her friend's death and felt compelled to write Mayor McGinn. She told the mayor that she was happy to learn that SPD were open to the idea that, in future investigation, they might find Vega's attack and subsequent murder to have been motivated by hate.

'With tragedies like this, people often search for imminent answers,' she wrote to McGinn. 'However, when LGBTQ individuals hear the police do not have evidence that it is a hate crime, it adds another layer of pain, of ignorance, of injustice. Unfortunately, I can not put into words - this indescribable feeling in one's heart when an openly Gay man, well loved and adored, gets beat up to unrecognizable features and violently attacked to unconsciousness. This is beyond theft of his personal property. I cannot fathom how three young men felt the urge to beat up a 58-year-old man. Danny was a gentle and kind soul.'

'I understand there are legal protocols to be followed,' she continued, 'but one can not deny when a significant number of people and various groups, who respected and loved Danny - and continue to do so - are crying out for justice because what happened to Danny Vega was a violent and vicious hate crime.'

Vega's housemate and friend of over 20 years, James Saarenas, said outright to Seattle Gay News, 'Danny was targeted because he was Gay.'

James, a friend of Vega since they immigrated to the U.S. in 1982, said the police don't seem to get it - what happened to Danny was motivated by hate.

'Danny had mentioned to me before that he had been harassed by local teens in the neighborhood,' James told SGN. 'You had to know Danny to understand just how openly Gay he was. He was flamboyant and very feminine & even more feminine than any female I know.'

From Vega's laugh to the way he walked, James said, there was 'no question to anyone that he was visibly Gay.'

According to James, anti-Gay sentiment has crept into the neighborhoods of Rainier Valley due to gang violence.

Just two weeks before Vega was attacked, James told SGN, 'I was in our front yard watering the lawn when an African-American teen came up to the fence with his fists clenched and said to me, 'Fuck you, bitch. You faggot. I'm gonna kick your ass.'

James said he was frightened by the incident and was glad 'that there was a fence between us because I really thought he was going to come after me.'

That's when James said he noticed something peculiar. Vega had recently installed a sign on their fence advertising his hair salon. 'The young man yelling at me thought I was Danny,' he said.

Shaken, James said he asked Vega about the young male and what he thought about the whole thing. 'I was really worried. We have three exchange students living with us and I didn't want them, or Danny, to experience this hate,' James told SGN. 'I asked him if these teens were threatening and bothering him and I also asked if he would take down the sign.'

Vega admitted that, yes, these teens had bothered him before, but shrugged it off saying, 'Just don't mind them. They're just a bunch of kids.'

James says that when he pleaded with his friend to be careful on his twice-daily walks (one in the morning and one at night), he said Vega responded confidently, 'I'll be OK. I've been doing it for 20 years.'

Weeks later, James' fears came true.

In the early evening of November 15, James was watching TV at the home he shared with Vega and the exchange students. That's when James says he faintly heard someone calling, 'James & open the door.'

Then he heard a knock. It was Vega.

When James opened the door, he had the porch light off. He could see that Vega was shaking but couldn't see the extent of his injuries.

'Danny muttered, 'Am I upstairs or downstairs?' and I said, 'What are you saying? You are home,' said James.

Vega told James, 'I got jumped by three black guys.'

'He just kept repeating that and 'Am I dreaming?' over and over,' said James. 'He said it again, 'When I was walking three African-American high school kids jumped me from behind. They beat me with their fists and legs.'

Vega confessed to James that he'd lost consciousness and that, after waking up and walking home, he couldn't breathe well and had chest pains.

What James remembers most is that it was freezing and Danny, covered in blood, was wearing only a white T-shirt.

'These guys took his sweater, jacket, cell phone, and keys,' said James. 'This was no simple robbery. This wasn't just an attack. This was hate.'

James says he called 911 and the fire department arrived. But not one police officer questioned Vega. In fact, James says that while Vega was in the hospital - for over three hours before he entered surgery - not one police officer questioned him about what happened. Later that night, Vega slipped into a coma - and he would never wake up. The only known witness would die before the police could question him.

The police have relied on information provided to them by Vega's family and James. They are pleading that anyone who might know anything about what happened should give them a call immediately.

'It hurts me to think of Danny, beaten and bloody, walking back home,' said James. 'Every step must have felt like a mile walk. He was all alone even though there were other people around & nobody helped him.'

THE PHONE CALL
At 2 a.m., James decided to call his friend's cell phone. The phone was brazenly answered by, James assumes, Vega's attackers, who said 'What's up? Who is this?' Then, he said, they belched into the phone and held the receiver up to a speaker that was blasting rap music.

James hung up and immediately called the police.

'I spoke with an Officer J. Hudley, who had given me his card earlier,' James told SGN. 'I asked him if they could trace the call. He told me that was against procedure.'

'I was scared because the attackers were on the loose and they had taken Danny's keys,' recalled James. 'I asked if we could have surveillance protection from the police. Again, he said no and said to call 911 if I felt I was in danger.'

Worrying about his friend, who lay dying in the hospital, the three foreign exchange students, and himself, James could not sleep.

'IT WILL NEVER BRING BACK MY BROTHER'
'I really hope they find these bastards,' James said. 'What happened to him was very bad. They took Danny from us, and now we can only live with the memory of him.'

James says Vega was the Gene Juarez of the Filipino community. 'He did all the hair and makeup for every major Filipino event. He was a part of so many people's family.'

According to James, his friend never held any 'grudge or animosity towards anyone.'

'He had no enemies and never meant to harm anyone,' he continued. 'We need to clean up this area. We need to clean up these neighborhoods. Nobody deserves to get beat to death - especially Danny.'

The victim's sister, Valentina Vega, agrees. Even if Danny's assailants are found and punished, she said, 'It will never bring back my brother's life. My brother was such a precious person to us, and to most of you - all of you. He was a very loving person and he didn't deserve what happened.'

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