Andrew Dys

Saga of alleged Rock Hill gay-bashing comes to a strange end

There was no rally for gay rights, or outrage over a gay man being beaten up in an alleged hate crime.

In a courtroom at the Moss Justice Center Monday, there was just a 21-year-old Rock Hill man who was beaten unconscious in April 2011 outside a Rock Hill convenience store – a beating that was captured on videotape and went viral online.

But Joshua Esskew was not in court as the victim of that horrible crime. On Monday, he was the defendant. Again.

There were no defendants in court Monday who had knocked the stuffing out of Esskew in a thrashing that sparked a national debate about gay-bashing. Those guys, on video hurting someone so badly, had their day in court months ago.

Esskew, in that beating outside the Spot store at Cherry Road and Heckle Boulevard, was kicked and punched by so many hands and feet after first getting smashed over the head with a beer bottle.

By the time he showed up in court Monday, though, he had been in jail for 209 days. He was there to plead guilty to obtaining prescription drugs by fraud.

He said nothing other than, “Yes, sir,” to the judge, several times.

In December 2011, Esskew walked into a CVS pharmacy, just down the street from where he was beaten, and tried to buy hydrocodone, a narcotic painkiller, according to prosecutor Teasa Weaver. A check was declined, and Esskew pocketed the pills and took off.

That came just weeks after Esskew stole a credit card from the purse of a worker in a downtown Rock Hill church, then bought stuff at a store with the card. He pleaded guilty to that charge months ago, was put on probation, which was revoked after he did not report several times.

So for about seven months, Esskew had been in jail.

Assistant York County public defender Ashley Anderson told Circuit Court Judge Michael Nettles that Esskew had “struggled with substance abuse” but “wants to get his life back on track.”

There was no mention in court Monday of Esskew being beaten so badly or the resulting publicity.

So now Joshua Esskew is a twice-convicted felon, but convictions do not change the fact that Esskew took a brutal thrashing that early morning of April 9, 2011. The video was circulated by law enforcement to try to catch the culprits. Police at the time called the beating “vicious.”

It is horrifying and sickening to watch Esskew get hit with a beer bottle that shattered across his skull. Esskew fought back, but others attackers joined in, punching, kicking and leaving him in a heap on the concrete.

Afterward Esskew told The Herald several times that he was attacked because he was gay. He claimed he “walked gay,” so he was targeted and beaten. He had a black eye, scrapes and bruises, bleeding on the brain, a concussion.

Groups that lobby against hate crimes, including many gay rights groups, came to Esskew’s defense. He talked to gay rights groups around the nation.

Angry voices rose from people who either support gay rights or were just upset when this young man was pummeled – regardless of his sexual preferences.

A York County lawmaker re-introduced a bill to make hate crimes against gays illegal in South Carolina. Esskew’s case seemed like momentum that the cause needed.

After all, Esskew was a victim of a terrible crime and he had the guts to speak out and demand justice not just for himself, but for so many who are beaten and bullied for being gay or just different.

Then Esskew disappeared. Turned out, he disappeared into jail because he kept getting arrested.

No more interviews or TV cameras. The proposed legislation died.

“Nothing happened, it just died,” said state Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, its sponsor. He has not decided whether to re-introduce the bill in 2013.

A federal probe into whether the assault on Esskew was a violation of federal hate crime laws produced no charges.

Local prosecutors never could prove that Esskew was attacked because he was gay, according to the 16th Circuit Solicitor’s Office.

So the cases against the five attackers from York – charged with beating Esskew to such an extent that conviction could carry 20 years – were dispensed with quietly.

The pleadings happened amid thousands of cases that pass through the court system without fanfare. No activists screaming for justice, no TV cameras, no news conferences.

Just like Monday, when Esskew’s guilty plea was one of eight other guilty pleas for crimes ranging from drug possession to shoplifting, the only audience family members and bailiffs.

Esskew’s attackers – all of whom had extensive previous criminal records for drugs and violence – were:

• Bobby Wilson, 32, who hit Esskew with the bottle at the beginning of the melee, pleaded guilty in February to second-degree assault and battery. He was sentenced to time served after spending 287 days in jail, court records show.

• Cortezio Laquise Douglas, 22, one of the other men who rushed and hit Esskew, pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and battery and was sentenced to time served, 67 days. He has since been charged with criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature, court records show, and has been in jail since June, awaiting trial.

• Darenco Markie Wilmore, 22, pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and battery after spending just one day in jail after his arrest in Esskew’s beating. He was charged with burglary, weapons and other charges in November 2011, records show.

Charges against Lajames Mitchell and Lortarius Anthony Duncan, both 23, were dismissed, according to prosecutors and court records.

Mitchell was arrested by York Police less than a month ago on armed robbery, weapons and other charges; and a charge of criminal domestic violence just last week, court and jail records show. He is free on bond.

Duncan was arrested in July on drug charges and later released on bond.

So Esskew was in the same York County jail since March – for at least some stretches – with the same men who had assaulted him.

But that was before Monday. Judge Nettles agreed that 209 days in jail was enough time served for stealing painkillers. He gave the young man who struggled with substance abuse and was pummeled in a fight another chance at life.

“Thank God,” Jennifer Esskew said after her son’s hearing. “Maybe now he can be left alone. This has been horrible for everybody.”

She believes the beating her son took back in 2011 could be blamed for a lot of the trouble he got into afterward.

The beating, 18 months earlier, was never mentioned Monday in court.

But Joshua Esskew will always be that young man who was beaten so badly in a crime caught on videotape, a crime that he says happened because he was gay.