Metro Weekly

Gay activist who challenged Florida’s same-sex marriage ban found dead in landfill

Police are investigating Jorge Diaz-Johnston's death as a homicide, but have no evidence indicating his murder was a hate crime.

Jorge Diaz-Johnston – Photo: Facebook.

One of the plaintiffs involved in the case to legalize marriage equality in Florida was found dead in a landfill more than an hour from his home last weekend.

Jorge Diaz-Johnston, 54, along with his husband, Don Diaz-Johnston, and six other same-sex couples, sued the Miami-Dade County Clerk’s Office in 2014 for denying them marriage licenses, which led to a circuit judge’s ruling declaring Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional the following year. Later in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court found that all state bans prohibiting same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.

Diaz-Johnston went missing on Jan. 3, the day he was last seen at his house in Tallahassee, Florida. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, a family friend posted a message to Facebook alerting people that Diaz-Johnston was missing and hadn’t been seen since around 3 p.m. The friend said Diaz-Johnston did not have his car with him.

Police in Tallahassee has posted missing person posters across the city and the surrounding areas, but no leads developed until police in Jackson County, more than 80 miles away from Diaz-Johnston’s home, found a body in a landfill near Campbellton, Florida, on the morning of Jan. 8. 

Jackson County authorities said they believed his body had ended up at the landfill after being picked up with trash from the Baker landfill, in Okaloosa County, more than 150 miles away from Diaz-Johnston’s home. It still remains unclear how Diaz-Johnston ended up more than two hours away from his home, even before his body was transported from the Okaloosa dump site to the Campbellton landfill.

On Sunday, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office wrote in a Facebook post that the trash surround Diaz-Johnston’s body was collected by a private company, and came from “a metal bay at the Baker landfill, which is accessible to any company or individual,” according to the Tallahassee Democrat.

Alicia Turner, a spokesperson for Tallahassee police, told The Daily Beast that police suspect foul play in the case and are investigating the death as a possible homicide. An autopsy of the body has been completed, but the details of that, including the cause and manner of death, have not yet been made public.

When asked about the potential motive or whether there was any evidence of a hate crime, Turner said police do not have evidence to suggest that Johnston-Diaz’s death was linked to his activism, but the investigation is ongoing.

“We’re looking into all avenues of what happened so that we can bring justice to the family in this case and the victim,” she said.

Thus far, no suspects have been publicly identified in the case.

Don Diaz-Johnston shared the news of his husband’s death in a Facebook post, saying that his husband had “touched so many people with his kind and generous heart.”

“I can’t stop crying as I try and write this. But he meant so much to all of you as he did to me. So I am fighting through the tears to share with you our loss of him,” he wrote. “This is all so sudden.”

Diaz-Johnston was the brother of Manny Diaz, the current Florida Democratic Party chair and former mayor of Miami. Diaz released a statement thanking Tallahassee police, with support from Mayor John Dailey and City Manager Reese Goad, for investigating his brother’s disappearance and the circumstances surrounding his death.

“I am profoundly appreciative of the outpouring of support shown to me, my brother-in-law Don, and my family after the loss of my brother, Jorge Diaz-Johnston. My brother was such a special gift to this world whose heart and legacy will continue to live on for generations to come,” Diaz said in a statement asking for “privacy and continued prayers.”

Nadine Smith, the executive director of Equality Florida and one of Diaz-Johnston’s co-plaintiffs, said she was “heartbroken” to learn of his death. 

“He and his husband Don were two of the brave plaintiffs who took on Florida’s anti-gay marriage ban and helped win marriage equality for all Floridians,” Smith said in a statement. “Our deepest condolences to Don and Jorge’s extended family.”

Tallahassee police are asking anyone with information related to the investigation to call the department at 850-891-4200. People can also submit anonymous tips by calling Crime Stoppers at 850-574-TIPS.

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