Killer in infamous 1999 murder of gay Alabama man stabbed to death in prison

Killer in 1999 Murder of Gay Man Stabbed to Death in Prison

One of two men serving life sentences for the brutal 1999 murder of a gay Alabama man has himself been fatally stabbed, just days after the anniversary of the crime that put him in prison.

Steven Eric Mullins, 45, was found unresponsive about 6 p.m. Tuesday in a housing area at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Alabama Department of Corrections officials said Monday. According to WBRC in Birmingham, Mullins was airlifted to a hospital with multiple stab wounds.

He died two days later, the news station said.

Department of Corrections spokesman Bob Horton said in a statement to the media that investigators are filing capital murder charges against another inmate, Christopher Scott Jones. According to DOC records, Jones, 50, has served 10 years of a 25-year prison sentence in a multiple-murder case out of Shelby County.

Jones, one of six people accused in the Aug. 17, 2008, killings of five men at an apartment complex, was given a plea deal in 2011, reported. Investigators alleged the quintuple homicide was a murder-for-hire carried out over $450,000 in missing drug cartel money, the news site reported.

Prior to Mullins' slaying, Jones was eligible to be considered for parole in August 2023, the DOC website says.

Mullins was 25 years old on Feb. 19, 1999, when he and Charles Monroe Butler Jr., then 21, beat Billy Jack Gaither, 39, of Sylacauga, with an ax handle, stabbed him and slit his throat before throwing his body atop a pile of old tires and setting him on fire. Both Mullins and Butler were from Fayetteville, a community about 10 miles from Sylacauga, which is near the Talladega National Forest.

According to a PBS Frontline special on Gaither's death, the men alleged that Gaither had made sexual advances toward them. Mullins said Gaither had come on to him a week prior, but Butler claimed the older man made lewd suggestions the night of the killing.

Though Mullins said Gaither's sexuality was the reason for the murder, Frontline reported that several witnesses at trial testified that Mullins himself had engaged in homosexual activity and may have had a prior relationship with Gaither.

Gaither's sister, Kathy Gaither, also told Frontline that her brother told her about two young men from Fayetteville who "wanted to do things" that he didn't feel comfortable with. She said she believes those men were Mullins and Butler.

Butler, who went to police first to confess, told investigators he had never heard of Gaither prior to the night of the killing, when he said Mullins found him at a local bar and asked him to take a ride into the woods with him and Gaither. He denied knowledge of what was to come.

Steven Eric Mullins, 25, and Charles Monroe Butler Jr., 21, are pictured in their mugshots following the brutal Feb. 19, 1999, murder of 39-year-old Billy Jack Gaither in Sylacauga, Alabama. Mullins, now 45, was stabbed to death Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville. A fellow inmate, Christopher Scott Jones, 50, is accused of killing Mullins.

Credit: AP Photos

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Credit: AP Photos

Butler said Gaither started "talking (gay) stuff," which he said set off a violent reaction. According to the initial confession Butler gave police, he said he watched as Mullins beat Gaither to death.

"Billy Jack started talking about some gay issues, wanting to have a threesome, or whatever," Butler told Frontline in a jailhouse interview. "Tempers flared up. Steve jumped on him and cut his throat there."

A "threesome" was one of the things Gaither previously told his sister the two men from Fayetteville sought, Kathy Gaither told Frontline. The siblings' brother, Ricky Gaither, also said in an interview that their brother was too careful to proposition anyone for sex.

"They may come up and talk to Billy, because Billy wouldn't approach anybody that didn't approach him. He didn't push himself on people," Ricky Gaither told Frontline.

In his own Frontline interview, Butler admitted kicking Billy Jack Gaither as Mullins beat him.

"I'd been drinking a lot whiskey, and just didn't have no understanding," Butler said. "I didn't even know the man, for him to be hitting on me. Tempers just flared. It's like he didn't have no respect."

Butler admitted that he would not have considered it disrespect if a woman had come on to him. He also admitted that Gaither never grabbed him or touched him.

He told the Frontline interviewer that Gaither didn't deserve what he did to him.

“Well, sir, I don’t think I needed to kick him. I don’t reckon he deserved that,” Butler said.

Charles Monroe Butler Jr., now 41, is pictured in an undated photo from the Alabama Department of Corrections. Butler is serving a life sentence for the brutal Feb. 19, 1999, murder of Billy Jack Gaither in Sylacauga. Butler, then 21, and his accomplice, Steven Eric Mullins, 25, killed Gaither, 39, because he was gay. Mullins was fatally stabbed Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, by another inmate at the St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville.

Credit: Alabama Department of Corrections

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Credit: Alabama Department of Corrections

Butler, now 41, is being held at the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility near Bessemer, according to prison records.

Mullins, who Frontline described as a former skinhead, told police he decided the night of Gaither's murder that Billy Jack "didn't need to live any longer."

Editor’s note: The following account of Billy Jack Gaither’s death is graphic in nature. 

Mullins contradicted Butler's claims that he didn't know Gaither was going to die that night, saying they talked about the plan prior to taking Gaither to a boat launch in the area. According to Mullins' confession to Sylacauga police investigators, which was obtained by Frontline, Butler got out of the vehicle to urinate at the boat launch.

"Me and Billy Jack was standing at the back (of the vehicle) and Billy Jack was watching him when he was taking a leak and I grabbed Billy Jack and threw him on the ground, cut his throat, and uh, he was just sitting, he was knelt on his hands and knees," Mullins told investigators. "I told Charlsey (Butler's nickname) to open the, to pop the trunk and he went around and popped the trunk and Billy Jack tried to get up. I stabbed him twice in the rib cage and told him to stay where he was. Charlsey popped the trunk I told Billy Jack to get in the car. He did. We shut the trunk."

After leaving the boat launch, Mullins and Butler went and got two tires, a gallon of kerosene, a box of matches and an ax handle. They drove Gaither to a creek, where Butler started lighting the kerosene-doused tires while Mullins pulled Gaither from the trunk.

The badly wounded Gaither tried once more to save his own life, knocking Mullins into the creek and trying to escape in the car.

"I told Billy Jack that he couldn't go nowhere or anywhere 'cause … I had the keys, and I grabbed him by his pants legs and drug him away from the car and got the ax handle, which was leaned up against the door of the car, and started beating him with it," Mullins said.

Mullins said he continued beating Gaither while Butler used a shirt to wipe blood out of the car where Gaither had sat as he tried to flee.

"When I gave out of energy and couldn't do it anymore, um, the fire got to going and the tires started burning real well and I drug him into the flame and, uh, we stood there for a few minutes and then we left," he told investigators.

Gaither's remains were found the following day on the bank of a creek the New York Times reported in 1999 was often used for baptisms by local churches.

Mullins and Butler were ultimately sentenced to life without probation or parole. According to an article commemorating the 20th anniversary of Gaither's murder last month, the victim's family asked that his killers' lives be spared the death penalty.

“I can’t see taking another human being’s life, no matter what,” Gaither’s father, Marion Hughes Gaither, said at the time.

Billy Jack Gaither’s death, which took place just four months after that of Matthew Shepard in Laramie Wyoming, helped spur a national conversation about hate crimes against the LGBTQ community. Members of that community from throughout Alabama remember Gaither and other hate crime victims at an annual vigil on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery.

The vigil began the year Gaither was killed. One of the highlights is the presentation of the Billy Jack Gaither Humanitarian Award.

Gaither's murder has also prompted state lawmakers to attempt multiple times over the years to have sexual orientation and gender identity added to the state's hate crime law, WSFA in Montgomery reported. Twenty years later, the law has not changed.