July 4 seemed like a repeat. A South Salt Lake woman alleges her 2-year-old daughter and a cousin’s 4-year-old son were snatched from her home by the next-door neighbor. Only this time, she quickly found the children and the would-be kidnapper was locked up.
But the story isn’t so simple. The children were gone about 10 minutes and found in circumstances open to explanations other than a foiled kidnapping plot. Most disturbing to some in Salt Lake Valley’s gay community was the aftermath. The alleged kidnapper and his partner—a gay couple—were severely beaten by their neighbors in an attack that sent both to the hospital and left the walls of their home splattered with blood. Although police responded, no one was arrested for the attacks. At City Weekly’s press deadline, more than three weeks later, no one had been charged in the beatings.
The only official action so far has been the arrest of D.J. Bell, a well-known drag queen awaiting trial on two counts of child kidnapping and one count of burglary.
Bell’s case has riveted the attention of many in the valley’s gay community who packed his July 22 hearing at 3rd District Court sporting rainbow ribbons. Friends can’t believe Bell, described as gentle and generous, is a kidnapper. For the past seven years Bell, performing under the stage name “Lola,” has worked with several organizations raising money for causes from cancer to rape victims.
A housemate of Bell’s says the two allegedly kidnapped children simply wandered over to Bell’s house early in the morning, weary of a family party that, by dawn, had run for six hours. Bell’s friends worry that old prejudices about gays may be getting in the way of justice.
“If the mother had gone to that house and found D.J. with his wife, this would not have happened,” says Roger Kraft, Bell’s attorney. “But they jumped to the conclusion [that], since he’s gay, he must also be a child molester.”
Police and the family of the allegedly kidnapped children deny antigay bias clouds their vision. Police spokesman Gary Keller points out the South Salt Lake Police Department has a longstanding relationship with the Utah Pride Center. He says officers investigated the beatings and forwarded information to the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office. Prosecutors are reviewing possible assault charges against at least two people.
At a July 22 court hearing, Kraft told the judge he had never been more certain of a client’s innocence, calling police work that led to Bell’s arrest “a very, very narrow, one-sided investigation.” It simply doesn’t make sense, he says, that a kidnapper would snatch children from a home filled with partying adults, then take the children next door to a home where four other adults were present. “This was a hate crime,” he says.
On July 4, at 6:52 a.m., South Salt Lake Police responded to several 911 calls of a “fight in progress” on 400 East and approximately 2900 South. What happened before the fight depends on who is telling the story.
Lulu Latu, the mother of the allegedly kidnapped 2-year-old, says her family was enjoying a traditional late-night July 3 party. The children stayed inside while the adults partied in the front driveway. Bell, a neighbor to whom she had waved but never met, wandered over and “hung out” with the adults.
Around 6 a.m. Latu says she went inside to check on the children, and found two missing. Something another child said led her to believe the children were at Bell’s home. She entered through Bell’s kitchen and followed the sound of crying to an upstairs bedroom where she found the two children standing in the doorway with Bell.
Latu says there is no way the children could have got there without an adult taking them. The interior doors at her home were locked, she says, and the children couldn’t have come out the front without being noticed by partygoers. “My children don’t wander from the house,” she says.
Returning home with the children, Latu says, “I was frantic, yelling, screaming.” She told partygoers the neighbor had taken the children, “and everyone just went crazy.”
Those on the other side of the chain-link fence that separates the homes tell a different story.
Chris Swan, a housemate of Bell’s, has gathered stories from five people who were at Bell’s home that morning. He says they heard a knock on the door and Bell answering, saying something like, “It’s OK; I’ll go find your mommy.”
“The next thing they heard is the mother from next door in the house screaming,” Swan says. As she left with the children, he says, the mother threatened the household: “You just wait until my family hears … You better lock your doors and windows.”
Five to 10 minutes later, about five men broke into Bell’s house from three sides, according to Swan and Bell’s attorney. A hand punched through a front window, reaching around to unlock the door. The back door was kicked off its hinges.
Swan says Bell’s partner, a large man, went to the front room to face attackers, but was hit from behind with a television. He ended up with a concussion and staples closing gashes in his head and arm. A broken eye socket required later surgery.
Attackers caught Bell outside on the carport, Kraft says. They sliced his throat with shards of glass and tried to cut off a toe, before pulling him by his long hair and bashing his head on the concrete. Bell has lost hearing in his right ear.
The next morning, “there was blood everywhere,” Swan says.