What happened in Duane Lacquette’s duplex in the wee hours of Jan. 16, 2010 is the difference between sexual assault, plain and simple, and homophobic rage.
There, in the haze that followed a night of serious drinking, Shilo soldier Jason Ouimet used a UFC-style chokehold and his considerable muscle to strangle Lacquette, a fun-loving 21-year-old who once played the Métis fiddle for the Queen.
Ouimet claimed, and the court agreed Thursday when it sentenced Ouimet to five years in prison for manslaughter, that his attack on Lacquette was provoked.
Ouimet says he awoke to find a naked Lacquette performing oral sex on him and in the adrenalin-fuelled scuffle that ensued, he unwittingly killed Lacquette.
But friends and family have expressed a profound skepticism of the official version of events accepted by the courts, saying Lacquette has been unfairly painted as the aggressor in a case with anti-gay overtones.
And, with Brandon’s gay pride weekend on the horizon, the case sheds light on what it’s like to be gay in Manitoba’s second-biggest city, where the “out” community is still fairly discreet, where no gay bars exist and where many gays still pass as straight — a key theme in the Lacquette case.
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From the start, rumours and speculation swirled around Brandon’s first and only murder of 2010. But it wasn’t until Ouimet pleaded guilty to manslaughter five weeks ago that a publication ban was lifted, making public year-old pre-trial testimony that confirmed what many suspected. Some kind of sexual encounter between Ouimet and Lacquette precipitated the homicide and Lacquette’s sexual orientation might have played a role in his death.
On the night of Jan. 15, 2010, a Friday, Lacquette and a few friends went out for some drinks at the Great Western Roadhouse bar at the Canad Inns hotel, where Lacquette worked as a lounge and restaurant supervisor. At the Roadhouse, the group met up with other friends and mingled with some soldiers, including Ouimet, who was interested in one of Lacquette’s female friends.
At closing time, the very drunk group squeezed into a cab, picked up a dozen Kokanee beers and went to Lacquette’s small duplex in west Brandon to continue the party. A few more friends showed up briefly and at one point, Ouimet, a former amateur boxing champ, demonstrated some UFC moves in the living room.
It was shortly after, as the party was breaking up, that Ouimet says Lacquette propositioned him in the kitchen, offering oral sex.
“And I was like, ‘No, no thanks. I’m, y’know, kinda straight,’” Ouimet told police in an initial interview.
Ouimet then went down to the basement to see if Lacquette’s female friend, who was on the sofa sleeping or watching television to try to sober up, might want to hook up.
Instead, Ouimet passed out. The young woman awoke and tiptoed over Ouimet and upstairs to get a cab home at about 5:15 a.m.
During Thursday’s sentencing hearing in Brandon, the court heard that Ouimet then awoke a little while later to find a naked Lacquette on top of him, performing oral sex. Ouimet threw some punches to force Lacquette off him and then put Lacquette in the fatal chokehold. Ouimet, still drunk, then fled the scene.
The next night, back at a bar with some fellow soldiers, Ouimet confessed the incident, including the sexual assault, to a good friend.
At around the same time, two of Lacquette’s female friends, who worked with him at Canad Inns and had been out at the Roadhouse the night before, got worried when he failed to show up for work despite calls to his cellphone and messages via Facebook. Lacquette was almost never late for work.
The two women dropped by Lacquette’s duplex and found him lying naked, face down in the basement, covered with a comforter.
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Today, for just the second year, Brandon’s Pride committee is marching in the Travellers’ Day Parade, a part of the city’s summer fair.
It’s a far cry from Winnipeg’s more political and provocative Pride parade, which took over the downtown and The Forks last weekend. But for Brandon’s small committee, it’s a symbol of progress.
“It’s largely farm equipment and horses and us,” joked Michael Nelson, a construction worker who lives in Brandon with his partner and helped found the Pride committee three years ago.
Last year, during the Travellers’ Day parade, Nelson overheard a parade watcher lean over to her husband and say, “We’ve come so far.” That was a thrill. Other Pride committee members recall seeing a few discreet thumbs-up from parade watchers and even big hoots of support from a group of seniors.
“I was like, ‘What? In Brandon?’” said Kayla Larocque, who plans to go in drag this year and is helping to organize the main Pride events next weekend.
Pride committee chair Kenneth Jackson jokes that Brandon only got cappuccinos in the mid-’90s, so progress on gay rights is bound to be equally slow.
But he said things are better than they were. All three high schools have gay-straight alliance clubs. Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst will be at next weekend’s Pride events and except for the occasional stare when gay couples hold hands or slow-dance at socials, none of the committee members have experienced violence or threats.
Still, the politics of the Lacquette case appear to have baffled Brandon’s small gay community. Most said they were not familiar with it, didn’t know Lacquette personally and had little insight into the case’s wider implications.
Pride activists agreed there are still a frustratingly large number of gay people who pass as straight — no different than in many smaller centres. That was a key theme in the Lacquette case, too.
During the pre-trial hearings, it was suggested that Lacquette occasionally hooked up with straight men who had earlier shown an interest in Lacquette’s female friends. Friends acknowledged that occasionally seemingly straight men would message Lacquette or appear to be flirting with his female friends only to go home with Lacquette at the end of the night.
A male acquaintance testified that, after a night of drinking at the Roadhouse a week before Lacquette’s death, Lacquette and a female friend returned to the man’s house to continue the party. When the three crashed for the night, Lacquette twice attempted to get into bed with the man and even placed a hand on the man’s leg before being kicked out of the room.
During the hearing, that same witness agreed that he was nervous about seeing his name in the paper in connection with an unwanted gay sexual encounter, highlighting the deep unease that still confronts gays and lesbians.
“Not only that, but as far as my career and my profession goes and my line of work, I think it would ... I don’t want it to reflect badly in the integrity of the company that I work for and as far as my name in business,” said the witness.
In an attempt to cajole a confession from Ouimet, a Brandon police officer repeatedly said he’d have a “fight or flight” reaction if a gay man offered him oral sex as Lacquette did. In a two-hour statement to police that was later deemed inadmissible, Ouimet said over and over that he had no problem with gays, that he’d been propositioned before when he worked as a bouncer but shrugged it off.
“There’s gay guys in the army, man. I live with them,” Ouimet told police. “So they don’t bother me.”
Some of Lacquette’s friends have speculated that the sexual encounter began as consensual or that Lacquette made non-physical overtures that angered Ouimet in a classic case of gay panic. They say Lacquette, at 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, would have been aware of the risks of coming on to a soldier twice his size.
“I knew Duane very well, and I just can’t see him doing something like that,” said friend Carlie Smart of the sexual-assault allegations.
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Thursday’s sentencing brought little comfort to Lacquette’s large and tight-knit family, many of whom sobbed during the hearing, passing around Kleenex and huddling together as Lacquette’s parents, younger sister and grandmother used their victim impact statements to highlight the Lacquette they knew — hard-working, soft-hearted, fun-loving and the kind of kid who called his mother and grandmother every day.
Not only has the Lacquette family had to deal with public details of Lacquette’s sex life, they’ve had to grapple with allegations Lacquette, known as Jon-Jon to his family, was in part responsible for his own death.
“Jon-Jon was put on trial right from Day 1,” said his uncle, Eugene Lacquette, following Thursday’s sentencing. “They don’t know Jon-Jon.”
Crown prosecutor Jim Ross acknowledged the process had been “intensely painful” for the Lacquette family. But he said the timeline testimony and the physical evidence, including blood splatters on the couch and on Lacquette’s inside-out jeans, supports Ouimet’s version of events: a short burst of violence fuelled by shock.
As Court of Queen’s Bench Justice John Menzies noted Thursday, the death is also a tragedy for Ouimet.
He had no previous record, a promising military career, earned kudos for his work fighting last year’s flood and recently got married and became a stepfather.
Friends and family submitted character references, testifying to Ouimet’s clear-headedness, his work ethic and his sense of fairness.
Ouimet quit drinking almost immediately after the homicide and in a short statement to the Lacquettes, expressed profound regret about his actions. Lawyers said he sought a plea deal years ago, in part to spare Lacquette’s family from court hearings.
The court and especially Ouimet’s defence lawyers, agree Lacquette was killed in part because he assaulted Ouimet, not because he was gay.
“That’s not what this was about,” said defence lawyer Roberta Campbell. “This was a reaction to an unlawful touching, an unwanted touching. People are entitled to their integrity.”
» Winnipeg Free Press
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 9, 2012