By Mike Anglin
In the wee hours of the morning of February 23, 1989, Dale Wesley Biddy broke into the offices of the AIDS Resource Center at 3920 Cedar Springs Road, stole some computer equipment, then (in what he later described as a “last minute decision”) lit two highway flares, set them in two separate stacks of paper and departed. His basic intention was to fence those stolen items through a fake company he created in order to utilize a computer "sales billboard" network. This was not his first crime.
The fire grew in intensity, consuming not only the AIDS Resource Center and Dallas Gay Alliance offices but also the clothing store next door named “Union Jack” and the popular country/western dance bar Round-Up Saloon.
“The fire went to five or six alarms very quickly – one of the largest fires in Dallas history at that time,” explains William Waybourn, who was president of the Dallas Gay alliance at the time. “The fire department suspected arson from the very beginning and Bill Hunt, John Thomas and I were all considered suspects and held for lengthy questioning by the arson investigators.”
Bruce Monroe remembers that morning of February 23 well. In his oral history interview for The Dallas Way, he was asked about it:
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R. ALLEN: How much of the building burned up?
BRUCE MONROE: All of it. I remember getting a phone call about 5:30 in the morning. It was William: ‘We had a fire.’ Bill Hunt and I were roommates, so we got up and could see the flames from our house on Mission St. We drove over and watched . . .
J. ROGERS: Now, just for the record, this was the building at Cedar Springs at Throckmorton, right?
BRUCE MONROE: Right. Where people would recognize the clothing store, Union Jack, was. We were next door to the Roundup on one side and Union Jack on the other. And the fire burned down all of it by that afternoon. When we went inside, we noticed the computers were gone. So the prevailing thought had been that the fire started at the Roundup, in their liquor closet. But when we noticed the computers were gone, we realized it was arson.
R. ALLEN: Did they ever catch the person that set the fire?
BRUCE MONROE: Yes. Several months later we got a call from someone asking if we were the Dallas Gay Alliance, and we said yes, and he said “We just bought a computer from someone and turned it on, and the computer's welcome screen said “Welcome to the Dallas Gay Alliance.”
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Tim York was a general contractor who had been hired by DGA to build and finish out the new “Food Pantry” behind the AIDS Resource Center office spaces. He had been concerned about the potential for future fires when he took on the project. The existing stores along Cedar Springs had no ‘insulating’ fire walls separating them from each other.
“I felt I had adequately and properly installed firewalls protecting the food pantry area ... and all other code requirements (fire dampers in air ducts, fire-rated doors, etc.) effectively separating the food pantry, in the rear of the building, from the rest of the office spaces. The construction project went well. I fondly remember how Bill Nelson and Terry Tebedo would regularly come by the site to visit and check out construction progress on the pantry.”
York remembers that morning well: “I seldom watched morning TV, but I had been sleepless the night before and therefore had it on when the news broke about the fire. I realized it was us, and subsequently half a city block, that was burning. I got sick to my stomach rushing in to the site that morning. The first person I saw was our electrician, who had also seen the morning news, and we were scared to death it could have been a construction-related fire. I was relieved somewhat that it was not, but ultimately kinda wished it had been our fault! Strange but true ... ARC was woefully underinsured for fire damage and took a huge financial loss. On the other hand, I had a half-million dollar insurance policy on that job, which would have helped rebuild ARC."
"Anyway," recalls York, "I rushed to the chief fire marshal on the site and started pleading my case – asking him to let me go in as soon as it was safe, which he let me do. I found my way through the smoky, soaked and charred interior to the fire wall separating the pantry and ARC and cautiously opened its door. I remember being choked up on smoke and raw emotion as I peered into the darkened pantry. The fire wall had held! We had a little smoke in there, and that was it. Our pantry was saved. I was so thankful. That little pantry was, and is still, the most important thing I’ve ever built.”
Waybourn recalls that, as the fire trucks and hoses were still blocking Cedar Springs struggling to contain the fire, he and John Thomas conferred a couple of doors down in the back of Crossroads Market trying to assess the situation and determine what first steps must be taken to recover from the devastating losses obviously being sustained. The decision was made to open the food pantry at 10:00 AM, as usual, and to put the AIDS Resource Center back "on line" as quickly as possible. As the day unfolded, all of that actually came about.
"The fire illuminated the resiliency of our community and its collective ability to respond to adversity and tragedy," says Waybourn in looking back at the amazingly rapid rebound from the fire.
Jess Gilbert, the owner of The Bronx restaurant across the street, immediately offered the use of a vacant storefront space which he owned in that same block (where the Nelson-Tebedo clinic is today). Waybourn recalls that to speed the same-day reopening, "George McDaniel arranged for a tractor-trailer to deliver office furniture to the newly acquired space much nicer than we had before. Karen Estes called her friends at the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and they showed up and installed new phone lines and a phone system superior to the old one destroyed in the fire. Computers, new and used, were quickly donated by members of the public, and volunteers quickly networked them in the new office. Important papers were retrieved from the Center's water-soaked and smoke-damaged filing cabinets, were then brought over to the new office location, and volunteers showed up with their hair dryers to help salvage as many of them as possible. Considering that this was pre-Internet, communication was primarily conducted via telephone (not cell phones), so it was quite remarkable that so much was accomplished in that one day. Certainly, it was a Phoenix arising from the ashes," Waybourn observes.
That stolen computer's "welcome screen" ended up fingering the perpetrator.
Biddy was 26, gay, living in Carrollton, and was a recent parolee from the Texas prison system where he had served time for credit card fraud and passing bad checks. When the Dallas Gay Alliance confirmed to the unwitting purchaser that the computer he was describing was, indeed, the property of DGA, the purchaser turned it over to the Farmers Branch police department, identifying the seller. The police then contacted Biddy by phone and asked him to come in for a police interview concerning his possible connection to a recent fire on Cedar Springs Road in Dallas. The Farmers Branch police turned the stolen items over to the Dallas Police Department to assist in their investigation of a long list of unsolved arson cases.
So the gig was basically up. “I decided then and there that I was going to cooperate fully,” Biddy later told the Dallas Voice.
Realizing that his personal freedom was soon to end, Biddy walked into the offices of the Dallas Voice on May 31, 1989, to confess to setting the fire at the AIDS Resource Center on February 23, and to answer any questions they might have before he was formally arrested. He also handed them his letter of apology, to be shared with the community he had damaged so shockingly:
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31 May 1989
While it may be considered absurd or ludicrous for someone like me, whom has done the things I have done to write a letter to an editor of a periodical to make a public apology for things which will not be forgotten anytime soon; I would ask in all sincerity that you please print this letter as an open letter to the readers of your publication, in order that the truth be known.
It is not now, nor never has been my intention to place any discomfort or hardship on any individual, let alone an entire community. I have done many things in the past few years and in the very recent past which I cannot justify, nor explain. It is not my intention to explain them herein, but to make a unilateral apology to those of whom I have hurt in one fashion or another. I do not offer this letter in hopes of absolution, nor special treatment; but in order to make an official apology for my actions which have hurt so many, and to make the truth known to those whom I have hurt or affected in an adverse manor [sic].
To further explain, I am directly responsible for the fire which destroyed the Dallas Gay Alliance, AIDS Resource Center, Roundup Saloon, and Union Jack. These actions were not in defiance of any activities or beliefs of any organization or group of people, nor were they in retaliation for any past actions of any group or individual. I make no excuses, nor ask for pity. I have no justification for my actions and wish only to make a public apology to those whom I have hurt, directly and indirectly, by my acts of greed and stupidity.
The acts which I have committed have hurt so many, and the realization of this fact is painful in itself, let alone the punishment which will follow in the very near future.
Of the cruelties and violence which the GAY SOCIETY, as a whole, suffers; independent blows of hardship are the worst and most cruel. I realize this now, and find it impossible to face even friends and acquaintances, with what I have done.
In closing, I wish only to reemphasize my sincerity and apologizing to those whom I have hurt. There will come a day, when I can co-exist with others in society without the fear of hurting those around me, but for now, I must pay the piper for the deeds I have done.
I am not asking forgiveness, only acceptance of my apology. Forgiveness may never come, and I am not worthy of it.
Sincerely – with strong regrets:
Dale Wesley Biddy
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As Biddy’s identity became known and people began to put the whole story together, a certain irony emerged. As it turned out, Bruce Monroe remembered Biddy, who had been, for a short time, a volunteer with the Dallas Gay Alliance, helping Bruce with the publishing and distribution of its printed newsletter, Dialogue. Biddy admitted to the Dallas Voice that his volunteer position lasted long enough for him to get a good idea of the computer equipment kept in those offices.
“I immediately didn’t like him,” remembers Monroe, so he was told that “I didn’t want his help any more.”
Biddy did not ask for forgiveness, nor was it freely offered to him at that point in time. The consequential loss to those in need was far too great.
“It’s very hard for me not to be bitter,” said William Waybourn after Biddy came forward, “He committed a crime that has caused far reaching consequences that he will never even know about . . . I’m angry. I’m glad they caught this man and hope he never again sees the light of day.”
At least Biddy’s confession had served one positive purpose. It laid to rest the gossip being spread in some shadowy corners that the leadership of DGA had been behind the fire for financial reasons … an allegation that never actually made sense due to the low level of insurance the organization had on its property. The net loss from the fire, after minimal insurance, was at least $70,000, and potentially $100,000.
Biddy told the Dallas Voice that he had been so guilt-ridden, when he learned of the fire’s spread to nearby businesses, that he personally attempted to help when the Roundup moved to a new temporary location on Maple Avenue and Throckmorton. He even claimed to have purchased some landscaping plants and installed them along the wall of the Roundup’s patio, a claim corroborated by Roundup staff.
Time mellows all memories, even those of great loss and set-back. The fire that rocked a community is something remembered only by those of us who were part of that community in 1989. William Waybourn and Bruce Monroe still chat about it when they get together, and Tim York tells me that he still looks back on his pantry-that-refused-to-burn with special fondness: “I will always remember the feeling of having found something, one little thing, that I was a part of that seemed to help in what we thought of as a helpless situation. Seeing our indigent and gravely ill brothers finding nutritious food in that pantry changed me. I suppose I had found a way to not feel so victimized by the AIDS crisis. In a way, the fire helped me adapt and survive the horror of that era. I would routinely stop by, over the next 20 or so years, just to see the pantry in operation, just to see our people being tended to so lovingly and so deservingly. And I paid one last visit to that little pantry just before it closed and moved to its new location.”