An openly gay college professor and author with ties to the Philadelphia area was found dead in the kitchen of his Indiana home, the victim of murder.
A friend found Don Belton’s body at his house in Bloomington, Ind., Dec. 28. He had been stabbed at least five times in his back and torso.
Police that night arrested 26-year-old Michael Griffin, who confessed to the murder and alleged that Belton, 53, had sexually assaulted him.
According to the affidavit, Griffin told police that Belton, an English professor at Indiana University and a former professor at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, made sexual advances toward him twice while the two were intoxicated at a party on Christmas Day, although no details about the nature of the encounters were provided.
Griffin, a former Marine who has a young child with his girlfriend, told police he went to the professor’s home Dec. 27 to confront him about the alleged incidents and said Belton “did not show or express any type of feeling that what had taken place was a mistake.” A scuffle ensued during which, Griffin told police, he “stabbed [Belton] until he quit moving” and then changed into a set of spare clothes in his girlfriend’s truck, which he drove to Belton’s home. According to the report, Griffin then ran errands and deposited the soiled garments in a Dumpster, which police said had already been emptied when they searched it.
Griffin’s girlfriend contacted police the day after the murder to report that her boyfriend may have been involved. Police recovered a 10-inch knife believed to be the murder weapon at the scene and also obtained Belton’s journal, in which he wrote about an individual named Michael that he was “very happy” had entered his life.
Police also found an index card in Belton’s home containing a phone number, e-mail address and directions to a house next to the word “Griffin,” which they determined was contact information for the defendant.
During his Dec. 30 arraignment, Griffin pleaded not guilty and was denied bail.
Several-hundred IU students, faculty and staff and Bloomington residents gathered in the town for a candlelight vigil New Year’s Day to remember the popular professor.
Belton was born and raised in Philadelphia and attended Strawberry Mansion High School. He grew up in North Philadelphia but, before leaving the city, had lived in the Germantown section. He graduated from Bennington College in 1981 and received his master’s degree from Hollis College the following year.
Belton had written for Newsweek, The Advocate and The Philadelphia Inquirer, penned the novel “Almost Midnight” in 1986, had his short stories included in several publications and edited the 1997 anthology “Speak My Name: Black Men on Masculinity and the American Dream.”
Local storyteller and author Linda Goss said she met Belton several years ago at one of his favorite hangouts, Point of Destination Café in Germantown, and the two became fast friends. She said Belton, whose writing projects took him around the world, frequented Giovanni’s Room while he was in Philadelphia and traveled in literary circles with such writers as James Baldwin, Melvon Dixon and Randall Kenan.
Belton served as an adjunct and later a full-time professor in Temple’s English Department from 2002-06 and was also a part-time professor at Penn. Two years ago, he moved out of the city to take a position at Shippensburg University and, in the fall of 2008, moved to Bloomington to become an associate professor of English at IU.
“Don Belton’s friends, colleagues and students in the English Department are shocked and terribly saddened by the news of his death,” said Jonathan Elmer, chair of the IU Department of English. “His great talents as a writer, his extraordinary generosity to his students and his warmth of personality were gifts to us all. We will miss him terribly.”
Goss said she and Belton often attended cultural events in the city or met at the café or his apartment, and said his intellect was impressive and always apparent.
“He was such a great conversationalist,” Goss said. “He could talk about food, travel, literary writers, about how people don’t read like they used to, about great films, politics — he would just be able to talk for hours about a variety of things he was passionate about, and I think that’s really rare. He had so much to offer his students and I learned so much from him just from hanging out together and talking.”
Goss said Belton often discussed the intersection of homophobia and racism and shared stories of his own experiences with intolerance.
“He talked a lot about how many African Americans who’ve been raised in Christianity are taught to really condemn homosexuality and that really hurt him because he believed in God, he was a very spiritual person. When he came out with his book, some people in his family really turned against him and tried to turn his mother against him, but she wouldn’t do it. He wasn’t ashamed of who he was and what he was. He was always analyzing being a gay black man in America and confronted racism and homophobia head on.”
John-Derrick Johnson, an English professor at Temple who knew Belton, said he possessed an unmatched and unusual courage.
He recounted that one weekend Belton was headed to his campus office when he came upon a group of teens attempting to rob another boy.
“Don interceded with the most unusual tactic I’ve ever heard anyone use: He told the would-be robbers, ‘Why are you doing this to him? You’re only going to end up in jail. I care about you, and I don’t want to see you go to jail,’” Johnson said. “The young robbers must have been as stunned as I was to hear such a plea because they let their victim go free. But that was Don — his courage was subtle and steady and calm. He told me that as he and the potential robbery victim left the scene he was trembling; I guess Don’s natural instinct to do right and help a stranger in distress was stronger than any fear for his own safety. He was brave, a very brave gay man.”
Goss said the last time she saw Belton in person was during a trip the two took before he left for Shippensburg to a park in West Philadelphia that honors those who have been lost to violence.
“We went there and walked around and just both cried and Don was singing ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand.’ And that was the last time that I saw him,” she said. “He had so much potential and I’m so saddened at his loss, and I feel that the world should be saddened.”
Goss said Belton recently told her that he’d met someone, but she was unsure if he was referring to Griffin.
She added that she doesn’t believe Griffin’s claims about the alleged sexual assault, saying Belton was a “gentle” person opposed to violence.
“He was actually a kind of cautious, fearful person,” she said. “He was not violent, and we used to often talk about the issue of hate in our society and how damaging it is when people won’t accept others for who they are.”
A memorial service will be held Jan. 15 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Bloomington. Goss said Belton’s friends and former colleagues in Philadelphia are planning a local memorial.
Friends of Belton have set up a blog, www.justicefordonbelton.com, with information about his life and death.
Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].