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Arrest Made In Murder Of Richmond LGBTQ Activist Bruce Garnett

Garnett's pioneering work establishing the Richmond Gay Rights Association made him a prominent figurehead in the local LGBTQ community of the 70s and 80s.

Marilyn Drew Necci | August 7, 2018

On Monday, Chesterfield County Police announced that they had arrested and charged a man in connection with the death of Richmond LGBTQ activist Bruce Garnett. Garnett, who was found dead in April 2017, was a huge loss for the local community; his pioneering work in LGBTQ rights activism made him an early figurehead for the LGBTQ community in the Richmond area.

Police arrested and charged James M. Wheeler, 56, of Stuart’s Draft, VA on Saturday, August 4. He was charged with second-degree murder, and is currently being held without bond at Middle River Regional Jail in Staunton, VA. According to a statement released by Chesterfield County Police Monday, Wheeler was known to Garnett.

James M. Wheeler. Photo via Chesterfield County Police

Garnett’s death was originally discovered when police visited his home in April 2017 after reports that he hadn’t been seen for several weeks. After receiving no response, police entered the home and found Garnett deceased. He’d been stabbed and killed, and it appeared he had been dead for some time.

This was a blow to the local LGBTQ community; Garnett’s activism in the 70s and 80s had helped make him a central figure in LGBTQ rights struggles in the city. “He had a great interest in getting public officials to do things,” local activist Beth Marschak told GayRVA in a 2017 interview.

Garnett started the Richmond Gay Rights Association in 1978 to lobby state legislators in favor of LGBTQ rights, and worked again with Marschak as part of the Richmond Coalition For Lesbian and Gay Rights. Describing her work with Garnett in attempting to get LGBTQ-inclusive language into a Richmond Human Rights Commission proposal, she emphasized the groundbreaking nature of Garnett’s work. “It was the first time there had been serious public dialogue about this issue,” she said.

Diversity Richmond executive director Bill Harrison also shared fond memories of Bruce Garnett’s activism, calling him “an unsung hero” of Richmond’s LGBTQ community. Harrison told GayRVA in 2017 about Garnett confronting singer and anti-LGBTQ activist Anita Bryant at her appearance at University of Richmond in the 70s. “Bruce attended the event and greeted her by identifying himself as a homosexual,” Harrison told GayRVA in 2017. “Security wanted to remove him, but he stayed.”