A Homestead machinist was jailed overnight this week after he allegedly walked into one of the most gay-friendly bars in one of the most gay-friendly U.S. cities and announced that he wanted to hit "a fag" before slugging a man in the ear, according to witness statements.
Mitchell A. Lynch, 25, who was released Wednesday afternoon after posting $9,200 bail, denied striking anyone or uttering the gay slur. In an interview with The Citizen on Friday, the 230-pound weight-lifter said he certainly drank too much that night but that he and his friend did not start the trouble.
"When I realized the bar was not to my personal preference, we left the bar," Lynch said. "We were followed for two blocks. I was trying to leave; I didn't want to start a problem. I had too much to drink, I admit. But two blocks away we were still being harassed."
Take away the allegation that Lynch spit out a gay slur and the case is a misdemeanor battery. But police booked him under the state's hate crime enhancement, which raises the criminal complaint up to a felony.
Still, prosecutors ultimately will decide whether the case proceeds as a felony hate crime, based on further review.
"It sounds like a strong case," said State Attorney Dennis Ward, who on Friday had not read the police reports. "We evaluate each case by its merit, and by the facts."
According to reports filed by Key West police officers and a sworn affidavit, Lynch and a friend, Joshua Dellinger, entered the Bourbon St. Pub, 724 Duval St., shortly after midnight Wednesday.
By all accounts the two did not stay long. But witnesses said that Lynch and his friend kept up the anti-gay ranting outside the bar.
When Lynch and Dellinger left the bar, they were reportedly followed by patrons and bar manager Bob Oberle onto Petronia and Center streets. Oberle said Lynch struck out at other people out on the street, using epithets, and slammed his fist on a cab whose driver refused to let him in after he was told the police were en route. Oberle said that he helped hold the pair with the help of others until police arrived.
Dellinger was not arrested. Lynch, who allegedly resisted officers to the point where he was placed in two sets of handcuffs, was booked into the county jail before 2 a.m.
The alleged victim, identified as Stephen Myers, showed police his right ear, which was red and swollen. He said a man walked up to him at the bar and punched him in the ear, having called him a "faggot."
Myers was unable to identify Lynch in a photo lineup as the person who hit him. The bartender on duty that night fingered Lynch as the alleged assailant.
Myers could not be reached Friday. He came to Key West from Fort Lauderdale for a one-day trip, but it was unclear where he resides, acquaintances said.
According to the Florida Supreme Court's interpretation, for the hate crime enhancement to apply, the assailant must have shown that the crime was motivated by his prejudice against someone because of race, religion, sexual orientation or some other area protected under the law.
It is not enough, in Florida, to know that a person dislikes a group and then commits a crime.
"You walk into a gay bar and start calling people 'fags,' that's pretty simple," said Ward. "It goes to the facts of a case. We try and make a case as strong as we can, and the fact patterns are significant in each case."
Lynch said he has been living in Homestead for the past few months but is a native of Denver, N.C., a small town north of Charlotte.
"He maybe does not like gays, which we never approved of it," said his mother, Rita, reached by phone in North Carolina. "I don't want my kids to approve of that lifestyle. But they have never tried to hurt any of them. When my kids are drinking, I found they do stupid stuff. ... Alcohol is bad. Alcohol is bad for everybody. I am so distraught."
Her son said he doesn't hate anyone.
"I don't have a problem with anybody; it is their preference how they want to live," said Lynch. "The hate crime? I would like to apologize to whoever it was. I am not a hateful person. I never want to lose my job because a hate crime was put on me. I didn't go looking. That man was not hit. He was holding his ear and he kept saying I actually hit him but I did not hit him."
The trouble came to him, Lynch said, when upon hearing his Southern accent and watching him spit tobacco into a cup, a bar patron called him a redneck.
"I got hated on," he said. "I didn't understand, because when we went walking in, there was females in there. There were ladies. So we thought it was OK. But they didn't like men, either."
Dellinger said he wanted to make a criminal complaint against Oberle and the others who followed them, but that the police wouldn't allow it.
"He is probably one of the most docile creatures you would ever want to meet," Dellinger said of his friend. "It is astounding, to be honest with you. He did not punch anybody."
More police reports will be released Monday, said police spokeswoman Alyson Crean.