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.

About dennis

Dennis Milam Bensie grew up in Robinson, Illinois where his interest in the arts began in high school participating in various community theatre productions. Bensie’s first book, Shorn: Toys to Men was nominated for the Stonewall Book Award, sponsored by the American Library Association. It was also a pick in the International gay magazine The Advocate as “One of the Best Overlooked Books of 2011″. His short stories have been published by Bay Laurel, Everyday Fiction, Fuck Fiction, and This ZIne WIll Change Your Life. He has been a feature contributor for The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. One Gay American is his second book with Coffeetown Press. Dennis lives in Seattle with his three dogs.
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7 Responses to Crab Orchard Lake

  1. Jeff Riggon says:

    My partner and I live in Cabondale. I think you would feel plenty safe in Carbondale today. We do! You should come back to visit someday.

    • dennis says:

      That is great to hear, Jeff. I would love to come back to visit Carbondale. I am sure it had changed quite a bit. Is there a gay bar in C’dale now?

  2. Jeff Riggon says:

    Yes, there is one that is well-established (Club Traz). There is also a “straight bar” which hosts a drag-show and other GLBT events about once a month. We own a home in Carbondale, there is a lesbian couple across the street and another gay couple down the street. In short, it is a perfectly fine place for GLBT people to live now. Is it perfect? No. But, it seems it is better that it was when you were in school here. We have people such as yourself to thank for paving the way!

  3. Dennis says:

    That is wonderful to hear! Despite the homophobia, my time is Carbondale was very special. I sort of started the journey to becoming who I really was there. It was a time of experimenting and stepping outside of the box. I really do want to come back and see the campus and the town someday.

  4. J. Aft says:

    If you haven’t already come across it, you might find this little Carbondale history video interesting:

    • dennis says:

      I have seen it and I love it! Very telling. There is also a book called THE RITA NITZ STORY: A LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE which talks about the case from the standpoint of the wife of the convicted killer of Michael Miley.

  5. Marilyn Miley Clifton says:

    Mike’s twin is Mark, not Matthew.

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