In 20 years, Chicago Heights has seen more than its share of young people murdered. But one of the most talked about deaths was the killing of a lifelong Chicago Heights man whose death drew international attention.
On Saturday, his mother Dorothy Hajdys-Clausen will be in Washington, D.C., to honor his memory and rejoice in a victory earned over her son's dead body.
Allen Schindler Jr. was born Dec. 13, 1969. When Allen was still young, Dorothy and her husband divorced. Dorothy worked two jobs to support Allen and his sisters. Growing up on “The Hill,” Allen would play at Jirtle Park and bring home stray animals. Allen loved animals. He also loved his family.
And when Allen got older, he realized he loved a man.
In 1988, at 18, Allen left Chicago Heights for the first time and joined the Navy. He served as a radioman on an aircraft carrier, the USS Midway. In 1991, Petty Officer Allen was transferred to the Belleau Wood, a ship with a reputation for chaos and turmoil.
On Oct. 27, 1992, two men dressed in Navy dress blues came to Dorothy's 25th Street home and knocked on her door. They told Dorothy that Allen was assaulted by two men in Japan and killed. Dorothy said she kept waiting for answers from the Navy but they did not come. Looking back, she said, it was obvious Allen knew something about his fate.
“Allen knew he was going to die,” Dorothy said. “On his last leave he wanted to make sure he said goodbye to his sister before he went to the airport. That was something Allen never did. He gave all of his Transformers to his nephew. Nobody touched Allen’s Transformers. He kept them locked up in a big chest and nobody had a key. At the airport, he didn’t want to leave, he stayed until the last minute. He hugged and kissed me and my mom goodbye. I never saw him again.”
Unbeknownst to his family, he had told Navy officials of his homosexuality. He was awaiting a discharge when he was killed.
The day Allen’s body came home, Dorothy learned he was murdered by shipmates.
The funeral director told Dorothy and her children not to open the casket, but Dorothy’s other son Billy wanted to make sure it was Allen and that the Navy had not made a mistake.
When the casket was opened the body inside was unrecognizable.
“He had no face left,” Dorothy remembered. “His eyes where his ears should have been and his nose was smashed equal to his mouth.”
The only recognizable part of the young sailor’s body was a tattoo on his arm that read “USS Midway.” The pathologist who performed the autopsy said Allen’s eyes, lips, chin, neck and lungs were all crushed. He said the liver was pulped like a smashed tomato. The pathologist compared the damage to that of a high-speed auto accident or a low-speed aircraft accident, calling it the most severe trauma on a body he’d ever seen.
A few days after Allen was buried, a reporter from the Pacific Stars and Stripes called Dorothy and told her Allen was gay and his death was a result of homophobia.
Details emerged. Dorothy learned that while on shore leave in Sasebo, Japan, two shipmates followed him into a bathroom shortly before midnight. One was Charles Vins. The other was Terry Helvey. Helvey began to punch Allen in the face. When Allen was down, Vins watched and occasionally joined in. Helvey kept punching Allen while he was on the ground, kicking him in the head and striking him all over his body, including his crotch. After the pummeling, Helvey stepped on Allen's neck with all his weight.
Then they left Allen Schindler Jr. alone to draw his last breath.
“I didn’t understand what it meant to be gay,” said Dorothy, who didn't know the truth about her son until he was dead. “Once I understood, I then couldn’t understand why anyone could do the things that people do to gays. Especially some parents that don’t accept their own children and wish they were dead. Some of these parents are so-called Christians, but how could they even be a Christian when they can’t even accept their own children and want nothing to do with them?”
Weeks after Allen’s death, phone calls poured in from all over the country. Queer Nation rallied around her, as did the Campaign for Military Service and many more gay rights organizations.
Television cameras began showing up at Dorothy’s door for interviews. Suddenly the quiet and reserved Chicago Heights mother began to roar.
“If I stayed quiet, I would have just given up on Allen,” she said.
Months after Allen’s death, the Campaign for Military Service asked if she would sign a letter telling her story as part of a fundraiser to help lift the ban on homosexuals serving in the military.
How could she not?
Less than six months after Allen’s death, Dorothy took part in the March on Washington, where U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy honored her.
“I know more gay people now than straight people,” Dorothy said. “They are the nicest people on earth.”
Trials For All
Within a year of Allen’s murder, Dorothy flew to Japan for 21-year-old Terry Helvey’s trial.
“I sat in the courtroom and listened to the things that were done to Helvey as a child,” Dorothy said. “I sat and cried. I cried because I could not understand how his mother could allow it. Helvey was made to eat his own feces as a boy by his stepfather. He was beaten with an oar.”
Dorothy said she began to make the connections between Helvey’s hardships and the death of her son. Listening to the story behind her son’s killer led the mother to discourage the use of the death penalty.
“All these terrible things happened to him,” the mother added. “Because of all those terrible things that happened to him ... Allen is dead. That’s where hatred came in. I also didn’t want him put to death because I didn’t want his family to hurt the way I was hurting.”
Charles Vins served 78 days in a military prison. Terry Helvey was sentenced to life in prison, but has sought parole. Dorothy said she has worked hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“The Service Members Legal Defense Network has been with me since they first began,” she said. “Every year they have stood by me, especially when Terry Helvey goes to try and get parole. They have a lawyer that represents me.”
She is not alone in wanting Helvey to remain behind bars.
“In 1994, we had a petition where I had gotten 200,000 signatures of people that agree with me that Terry Helvey should stay in jail for the rest of his life,” Dorothy said. “Two years ago, they had his hearing in Illinois. I sat five feet from him, and I can’t see where he’s really sorry for what he did.”
In 1997, a movie was made about Dorothy and Allen, about his death and her struggle to get through it. It was made in support of Dorothy’s fight to lift the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy in the military.
“It was the number-one-watched movie on cable,” Dorothy said. “I got to name it. I named it Any Mother's Son, because Terry Helvey could be any mother’s son. Any mother could have a son like Allen.”
In 1998, the film won a GLADD award for Outstanding Made-for-TV movie. In 2001, Dorothy received the Barry Winchell Courage award. Yet Dorothy still had one goal in mind: to change laws regarding fairness and to see the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy lifted.
“I couldn’t understand why our country could not accept a person in the military because they were gay,” Dorothy said. “With the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell ban, it was telling them to lie. Because Allen was tired of living a lie, he ended up dead.”
A Poignant Payoff
On Dec. 22, 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 which ends the ban on gays serving openly in the military, fulfilling one of Dorothy's greatest wishes.
This Saturday, Dorothy Hajdys-Clausen will be in Washington, D.C., as a guest of the Service Members Legal Defense Network at the National Building Museum. The 19th annual National Dinner is titled “Making History, Moving Forward.” They are celebrating the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell Repeal Act.
According to the Service Members Legal Defense Network, 66,000 gay Americans are serving on active duty and more than 14,000 service members had been released under the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy since 1993.
“When President Obama signed the Repeal Act, there was a person in Korea who was shot and would have died,” Dorothy said. “One of his comrade-in-arms came to him and brought him back to where they were supposed to be, saving the guy's life. At the time, he didn’t know the soldier was gay. Later on he found out that he was gay and said, ‘That guy, is the best guy in the world. He saved my life. He was there. He did what he was supposed to do.’
"That’s what guys in the military do, they fight for each other's lives.”
After 18 years, Dorothy said, she can come home knowing Allen’s life and her fight have changed the course of history.