When I started this blog in December, one of my initial posts was “The Face of Hate,” which showed a couple of pictures from the first murder trial I ever photographed, the sensational double homicide trial of William Robert Tyack, a Bakersfield, California, tire shop owner who shot and killed his two gay neighbors in a Kern County mountain community. The blog had no followers at the time and was receiving virtually no readership – thank you everybody for changing that! – so the post has been largely unseen.
I recently took another journey through the massive collection of images from the 1980s that I have loosely assembled in a giant file cabinet down at The Bakersfield Californian, and found another set of images from the Tyack trial and I’m sharing them here. All but one of them are previously unpublished, and I hope you will find them as fascinating as I do for their historical value.
On April 20, 1982, I was assigned with reporter Michael Trihey to go to Glennville, California, a predominantly second home and vacation home mountain community about 30 miles northeast of Bakersfield. I was a 23-year-old rookie, just seven months into my photojournalism career. I knew that the Tyack trial was a big one, but I didn’t know that I was going to photograph something that virtually no photojournalist working nowadays will ever get to photograph; something rare even for the 1980s and something that I can’t ever imagine even being photographed again, especially with the unrestricted access I had that day. You’ll see what I’m talking about when you look at the pictures.
But I need to start by giving you a little background on the murders of Jack Blankenship and Sidney Moses Wooster and the trial of his killer, William Robert Tyack. It all comes from the extensive media coverage and trial testimony. Tyack was the owner of a Bakersfield tire shop who became angered that two homosexual men, Blankenship, 38, of Big Bear City and Wooster, 26, of Los Angeles, had become his neighbors in Glennville. According to testimony presented by the prosecution, he had openly expressed his anger and stated that if given a chance to kill the men, he would. In August, 1981, Tyack encountered Blankenship and Wooster on one of the isolated roads outside Glennville, and they engaged in a confrontation. The incident ended with Tyack shooting Blankenship once in the chest, and Wooster four times, including twice in the back. Both men died at the scene.
(In 2011, a man name Tom who identified himself as Wooster’s older brother engaged in a lengthy online discussion on the “Adventist Today” web site titled “God Loves Gays and So Should We.” Here’s what Tom wrote about Sidney Wooster’s murder during a particularly heated exchange: ” My younger brother, Sidney was murdered in Bakersfield, CA in August of 1981 along with his boss Jack Blankenship on a dirt road, at about 21:30 hrs., and yes I’ve got the 8 X 10 color glossy’s of the scene – and I can see the path where my brother crawled while the 4 bullets bleed his life out of him. Ok, the murderer, William Robert Tyack shot and killed his boss Jack – as they were going out to talk to a man about listing his property with the realestate firm. Mr. Tyack said: “I aimed to kill those 2 gay guys.” —- How dare you tell me I don’t know anything!!!! Mr. Tyack spent a few days in a half-way house, So would you like a little of my rage directed at YOU????” Here’s the link to the entire Adventist exchange.)
In one of the most closely-followed trials of its time and one that still resonates and is referenced today as violent crimes against LBGTQ (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender and Queer) people remain a major social issue, Tyack, 42, was acquitted in the killing of Blankenship and convicted of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter against Wooster. The case would reinforce a national impression of Bakersfield and Kern County being a place where violence against gays is tolerated, but many courtroom observers pointed out that the verdict was likely more a result of defense attorney Timothy Lemucchi “out-lawyering” prosecutor Joe Beckett, whose slow and plodding courtroom style may have caused him to lose the attention of the jury.
Today, violence against the LBGTQ community is still an important social issue in America, and the Tyack case and trial almost always surfaces as a reminder of what many believe is a tolerance in society of such crime. According to this BuzzFeed article detailing a report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, while overall violent crime against LBGTQ people decreased in the past year, homicides rose. And a pair of newer, clearly defined targets have seen in increase in violence: gays and lesbians of color and transgender people.
On that day in April, 1982, I had no idea at the time that I would photograph one of the most remarkable scenes of my career. The trial of William Robert Tyack was being moved to the location of the murders of Jack Blankenship and Sidney Wooster. Bakersfield Californian reporter Michael Trihey and I joined the caravan of court officials, police, defendant Tyack, the jurors and, remarkably, just a few other media members, to the scene outside Glennville. My access was unhindered and unrestricted. I was free to shoot everything, including the jurors (something completely unheard of today), and it wasn’t until I found and looked at these images a few days ago that I realized what a remarkable piece of history had been filed away in that metal cabinet for the past 33 years. Other than the first picture, which will follow this paragraph, all of the pictures from the day the William Robert Tyack trial moved to the murder scene, have never before been seen.
Prosecutor Joe Beckett spent more than 40 years with the Kern County District Attorney’s office. He died at age 77 in 2010. Defense attorney Timothy Lemucchi is regarded as one of Kern County’s best criminal defense attorneys, and is still practicing law. As a point of disclosure, I should say that I did not know Lemucchi when I covered this trial, or at any point in my photojournalism career, but we have become friendly in recent years and I have provided paid commercial photography services to both he and his wife. William Robert Tyack is still alive, and according to Whitney Weddell, the best known LBGTQ rights advocate and activist in the ultra-conservative Kern County, is still selling tires. She points out that the murders of Jack Blankenship and Sidney Moses Wooster and the Tyack trial are what brought her out of the closet and are the reason why she became a gay rights activist. In 1999, Tyack was arrested and faced revocation of his parole after a Fish and Game warden found him in possession of a gun. A subsequent search of his house disclosed several guns in safes and other locations on his property, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. He was charged with five counts of being an ex-felon in possession of firearms. He faced a possible life prison term under California’s “three strikes law.” According to Kern County court records, he pled guilty to one count and the other four counts were dismissed in the “furtherance of justice.” He was sentenced to one year in jail and served 14 days. He was fined $200 and was placed on three years probation.
Note: Some identifications of the individuals at the Glennville scene were provided by former deputies, reporters and court officials. If any are in error and need clarification, please contact me via comment and I will correct them.