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Refuge sting jury: 'Not guilty'
Federal charges rejected in first trial over summer arrests; defendant insists he wasn't 'cruising'

By Eric Fleischauer 340-2435

Did they chastise the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or evaluate witness credibility?

Lawyers may debate the issue for years, but a Decatur federal jury debated only 20 minutes Monday to find a Huntsville man not guilty of engaging in sexual contact without consent or permission at Wheeler Wildlife Refuge.

The defendant, Anthony Gentry, 59, of Huntsville, said his hand contacted the mid-section of an undercover federal agent, but the contact was accidental. The undercover agent, Savannah, Ga.-based Refuge Officer Greg Blanks, said Gentry grabbed his crotch for personal arousal and to express a desire for more sexual contact.

Gentry said he was walking his dog, Lulu Belle, on the Beaverdam Boardwalk Trail in Limestone County, near Interstate 565. Blanks initiated conversation. After Blanks initiated conversation, Gentry said, Lulu lunged from his arms.

In the process of trying to restrain the small dog, Gentry said, he accidentally touched Blanks.

Blanks testified that Gentry stared at Blanks' crotch and after one sentence of conversation grabbed Blanks' crotch. Blanks said, in other operations aimed at complaints of sexual misconduct in wildlife refuge parks, he has been similarly grabbed by other offenders more than 15 times.

"The actual touching," Blanks said, "is a sexual arousal for the person doing the touching and a nonverbal communication (proposing) further sexual contact."

In a case where the sole defense was that the touching was accidental, Gentry's lawyer, Bruce Gardner of Huntsville, started things off with a surprise. As he was asking prospective jurors questions to determine their fitness to decide the case, he minced no words.

"My client is admittedly a homosexual, gay man," Gardner said.

His client, thin and balding, with a beard and moustache going white and a U.S. flag pin on his blazer's lapel, a red tie falling short of his waistline, stared unsmilingly at the jury as his lawyer spoke.

U.S. District Judge Scott Coogler hit the homosexuality issue head-on as well.

"I understand that mainstream religion considers
homosexuality a sin, but it's also mainstream religious belief, as I understand it, that it's the act that is a sin, not the person," Coogler said. "You're not here to decide whether someone is or is not homosexual."

When asked if they adhered to a faith that considered the practice of homosexuality a sin, most of the 40-plus prospective jurors raised their hands in the affirmative.

Asked if their faith would prevent them from judging the case fairly, none raised their hands. As finally approved, the jury, including two alternates, included seven men and seven women.

The first witness, called by Assistant U.S. Attorney David Estes, was Blanks.

Blanks, in his 30s, wore a dark suit, a close-cropped beard and a U.S. flag lapel pin. He testified he participated in the "detail" — not a "sting," he stressed — at Beaverdam Boardwalk and a refuge site in Morgan County from July 20 to July 23.

Blanks said he remained stationary throughout his July 23 encounter with Gentry. He said Gentry approached him on the trail walking a small dog. After the dog defecated on the trail, Blanks said he commented to Gentry, "I hope no one steps in that." Per Blanks, Gentry proceeded to approach him and grab his crotch.

Gentry said Blanks was mistaken. Blanks initiated a conversation, Gentry said, and then followed Gentry down the trail. Blanks made several other comments. The problem came after Gentry made contact with Blanks.

"He said, 'I'm from Florida. I've never been here before.' While we were talking, I was putting my dog down. She leaped out of my arms," Gentry said.

"Then she began to move in the direction of the officer. ... I was caught off balance. My hand brushed the officer."

Gentry said that he considers his homosexuality a private matter.

"I was not 'cruising,' " Gentry said. "I was not looking for a sexual partner. I went there with the intent of walking my dog and enjoying the day."

Lurid testimony

Gentry did not offer it, but the one-day trial was complete with lurid testimony. The United States offered the testimony of another defendant from the Wheeler sting operation, Timothy Gentle of Hackleburg. Gentle — bald, very thin and tentative on the stand — said he had visited Wheeler more than 30 times, always for the purpose of soliciting sex from another male. He said he had discovered Wheeler as a destination "from friends and the Internet. ... There's a Web site that has locations listed for places to go cruising for a homosexual male partner."

More than 30 times, Gentle said, he has either grabbed another man's genitals, or been grabbed, at Wheeler.

Gentle pleaded guilty to a charge involving Blanks in the expectation of receiving a prosecutorial recommendation for a sentence that did not include prison time.

Asked how he knew when a sexual advance would be welcome, Gentle said, "It depends on if you are attracted to him or not. If you make eye contact. ... I assume they are (interested) if they are just standing there by themselves," Gentle said. "I just look at them or touch them first."

Several jurors shook their heads and chuckled when Gentle left the stand.

During cross-examination, Estes asked Gentry if he thought Blanks was good-looking.

'Attractive man'

"Did I find him good looking? He is an attractive man, yes," Gentry said.

In a 10-minute closing argument, prosecutor Estes said the case was not about whether Gentry was homosexual.

"This has to do with going to the Motel 6 instead of the Wheeler Refuge," Estes said.

While his client's testimony was that the physical contact was accidental, Gardner's closing hinted at entrapment.

"As described by Officer Blanks, and I guess buttressed by that freak (Gentle) they brought in as a witness," Gardner said, "there's always some kind of signal, some kind of communication between gay people that lets him know it's OK."

"Mr. Gentle may see every man on the path as a potential sexual liaison, but my client is not him," Gardner said in his closing argument.

After the verdict, Gardner said he introduced the homosexuality issue because he figured the jury would suspect it.

"I thought it was going to be very apparent based on the way my client looked, the way he talked," Gardner said. "I thought it was better to embrace the facts."

Other defendants

Gentry's victory may have major consequences for the many other defendants charged in the four-day sting operation. Among those defendants are Gradson Tanner, a suspended minister at Salem United Methodist Church in Hartselle, and prominent Huntsville attorney Gary Huckaby, 68, former president of the Alabama State Bar Association. Their trials are scheduled in February.

"If that's what they're going to base all 33 trials on," said Gardner, "the government has problems."

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