Metro Weekly

Dog Park Shooter Charged with Hate Crime in Gay Man’s Murder

Gerald Radford faces hate crime charges in gay man's slaying, despite his initial claim that that he was acting in self-defense.

John Walter Lay – Photo: Justice4Walt, via Facebook

A Florida man has been charged with second-degree murder more than a month after fatally shooting a gay man whom he had allegedly previously harassed

Gerald Declan Radford, 65, shot 52-year-old John Walter “Walt” Lay on February 2 at the West Dog Park in Tampa, Florida, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

Radford called 9-1-1 and told dispatchers that he had been in a “scuffle” with Lay when he pulled out his gun and shot him.

Initially, Radford had claimed self-defense, invoking Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, under which a person is allowed to use deadly force if they reasonably believe doing so will prevent their imminent death or bodily harm. He claimed to have shot Lay following a “scuffle” at the dog park. 

No witnesses were present to confirm Radford’s account, but the Hillsborough County Sherrif’s Office said they did not have enough evidence to suggest that Radford’s claim of self-defense was untrue, according to USA Today.

According to Tampa Bay ABC affiliate WFTS, Radford also allegedly sent a text hours after the shooting showing a cut and bruise on his face, writing, “Walt attacked me at the park and I had to defend myself.”

However, after Radford was not arrested or charged with any crime, friends and acquaintances of Lay came forward to report that they had previously heard Radford use bigoted slurs toward Lay, and threaten to harm him due to his sexual orientation.

During their investigation, police discovered that Lay had created a cell phone video 24 hours before his death telling his friends that Radford had told him “You’re gonna die.”

Some of Lay’s friends even spoke to People magazine, sharing their own accounts of how Radford often targeted and harassed Lay on numerous occasions.

“Walt [Lay] never instigated anything at all,” Samantha Hitchcock told the magazine, noting Radford had hurled homophobic slurs toward her and Lay numerous times. “He always walked away. He would say, ‘Leave me alone.’ He was just that type of person.”

Kim Wolfey, who received the video from Lay talking about his encounter with Radford on the day before his death, said she believed the murder was premeditated.

On March 8, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Radford. He faces a charge of second-degree murder with a hate crime enhancement.

In a statement released at the time of Radford’s arrest, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister praised detectives for pursuing the case and not just accepting Radford’s claim of self-defense at face value. 

“After analyzing the evidence, it was clear that this man acted from hatred within his heart,” Chronister said. “A hatred that will not be tolerated within our strong and diverse community. … We hope the arrest brings some peace to the family of a man taken from us too soon.”

We should all be able to enjoy a day at the dog park without the fear of gunfire,” State Attorney Suzy Lopez said in a statement. “This victim also deserved to live free from fear and discrimination based on his sexual orientation. The evidence shows the defendant’s actions were motivated by hate, and he will be held accountable.”

Lopez’s office also acknowledged the criticisms it had received for not charging Radford immediately after the shooting, noting that it can be “difficult” to refute a “Stand Your Ground” claim in a case where there were no other witnesses. However, the office also credited those who came forth with evidence and testimony regarding Radford’s ongoing hostility toward Lay.

Following the announcement of the charges against Radford, Lay’s family told People, “We’re thankful for the thorough investigation and are excited we will hopefully see justice for Walt.”

On March 18, Judge Caroline Tesche Arkin ruled that based on the new evidence presented by prosecutors — including forensic evidence showing that the bullet trajectory during Lay’s autopsy did not align with Radford’s account of the shooting — Radford should be denied bail, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

Radford will remain in custody at the Orient Road Jail as he awaits trial. 

If found guilty of the charge of second-degree murder, Radford could face up to life in prison. If a jury finds him guilty on a lesser charge of manslaughter with a weapon, he could be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison, which could subsequently be adjusted to life in prison under the hate crime enhancement.

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