Second chance: Life after 17 years in prison

At 10am on 5 May 2014

I walked out the door of Mid-State Correctional Facility in Marcy, New York, after having served 17 years in prison for the killing and dismemberment of a friend and drug dealer, Angel Melendez. It was a senseless and horrific crime that, whether or not warranted, drew an exorbitant amount of attention from the media and even Hollywood – where a barrage of books, documentaries and a full-length film featuring Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin and titled Party Monster – turned an already sensational crime into something of an urban legend.

Although I participated in most of the resulting media onslaught, granting interviews, talking to writers and film directors, I’ve always been ambivalent about the attention and notoriety surrounding my story. On the one hand, I couldn’t seem to help it: I’m addicted, in a way, to being seen and talked about. It’s something innate, my family says, stemming from an inner craving to be noticed by my father, who left the family when I was five and was never really a part of my life. There’s probably a bit of truth to this…

Before committing my crime, I was directing four of the largest nightclubs in NYC: Limelight, USA, Palladium and Tunnel, garnering quite a bit of publicity – this time, thankfully, for the right reasons – and every time I was mentioned in a magazine or newspaper, I sent the clipping to my father. I wanted to show, prove to him, that despite being a gay college dropout, I was successful in some way.

So yeah, one could say that I crave attention.

On the other hand, what I was doing in my early years in NYC wasn’t without merit. I was spearheading a nationwide, colourful yet subversive youth movement called the Club Kids, whose zany antics – dancing on tables and running around Manhattan dressed in diapers or even naked – outrageous, in-your-face style that often included painting our bodies, covering our genitals in feathers and wearing sky-high platform shoes, and fuck-the-rules mentality made us the darlings of 90s media, where we were featured in newspapers, on magazine covers and day-time talk shows including Geraldo and Joan Rivers. Being a Club Kid usually meant coming from a small town where being creative or ‘different’ was frowned upon, and acting weird, or gay, or just not fitting in with the crowd could mean being picked on, bullied, or even physically hurt. The Club Kids provided a refuge, a place where your uniqueness was not only tolerated, but celebrated. Love yourself! Be yourself! You were now part of a family.

Along with the success and notoriety of the Club Kids came, unfortunately, massive amounts of drugs, often given to us for free at clubs and parties, either in NYC or many times in other cities around the world where we were flown in to provide colour, excitement and a bit of ‘naughtiness’. Though in hindsight most of our bad behaviour was relatively innocent, and in the beginning, at least, none of us were really ‘addicted’ to drugs, it wasn’t long before the temptation and easy accessibility turned many Club Kids, including myself, into full-blown junkies.

The recklessness and flamboyance of the Club Kids soon aroused the attention of the authorities. By 1995, after a crackdown on nightlife instituted by then Mayor Giuliani, the Drug Enforcement Agency was actively investigating NYC Clubland and specifically in our clubs, which were labelled by the authorities as ‘drug supermarkets’. At the time, it was not uncommon to walk through Limelight at one of our cheekily-named Emergency Room events and have an employee dressed as a doctor hand you a ‘prescription’ for cocaine, Xanax or ketamine, which a guest could then trade in for a single dose of the real thing at a makeshift ‘doctor’s office’ in the VIP room. Traipsing through another of our clubs, the super luxurious, almost unbelievably huge Tunnel, meant passing zonked-out Club Kids, unconscious after having ingested a cocktail of drugs including heroin and the powerful, hypnotic Rohypnol, or even stepping over a group of immobile, zombified revellers who were either too high on downers to move or even passed out cold, on the floor.

New York City had never before seen such decadence, not even at degenerate (however fabulous!) nightspots like Studio 54. Friends, and even I myself, overdosed on several occasions. Going out was no longer fun, but a kind of twisted ritual of waking up at 5pm then getting fucked up for the next 24 to 48 hours before passing out and doing it all over again.

© Wayne Moraghan

© Wayne Moraghan

As for the club scene, it was the beginning of the end.

By late 1995, the Drug Enforcement Agency was repeatedly threatening our clubs with closure for not doing enough to curb drug use and sales. In fact, we were paying drug dealers hundreds of dollars a night to host events. Not street dealers, but mostly small-timers, Club Kids and drag queens who sold, more often than not, to have a good time and support their own habit.

One of these dealers was Angel Melendez, a 25-year-old Club Kid from New Jersey who often spent time in my apartment with other Club Kids in exchange for supplying drugs. He wasn’t a bad guy, but we sort of looked down on him because he was part of the scene at Webster Hall, a rival club that we considered uncool.

In March 1995, we got word the DEA was coming to our clubs on a specific Saturday to arrest 30 or so drug dealers. They were going to threaten them with jail time unless they turned state’s evidence and testified that we were allowing them to sell drugs at Limelight, Tunnel and our other clubs. My job was to call and tell them not to show up and to explain why. But Angel ended up coming that night anyway, arriving at around 2am.

There was a scene when, on my instructions, the doormen turned Angel away. He’d shown up with friends from out of town and wanted to show them the club. ‘Are you at least going to pay me for the night?’ he grumbled. He’d accumulated several nights’ wages that were kept in envelopes with his name on them, in the safe. Again, though, we wouldn’t let him in because of the threat of a DEA raid. ‘It’s for your own good,’ I said. High on tranquillisers and alcohol, Angel left, angry and embarrassed.

A few hours later, Angel showed up at my place in Midtown, the apartment I was given as part of my salary at Limelight. ‘I want my money,’ he demanded, still woozy from the pills. ‘Take me now to pick it up.’ My mind was shot as I was coming off a four-day drug binge on Special K, heroin, crystal meth and Rohypnol.

What happened next was a senseless shoving match which resulted in the much documented crime I referred to earlier. You can look it up – it’s still all anyone seems to want to ask about, although something I wish I never have to speak about again. But I feel that if I didn’t, people would judge me further still – as though I felt it didn’t matter.

At the time, we were more concerned about going to hell, than jail. In order to alleviate the guilt, I confessed to friends. But I did so in a manipulative, matter-of-fact way so they would think I was making it up. ‘Freez and I killed him,’ we told friends at a dinner party who were asking where Angel had been all this time.

I spoke with the Manhattan DA in August, 1996, as rumours were going around Clubland linking Freez and I to the crime. But the authorities believed it was some kind of twisted media hoax, and didn’t take it seriously.

In a halfhearted attempt to get sober, I checked into rehab in Denver, Colorado. But soon my friends and drug dealers were flying from NYC to bring me cocaine, Special K and crystal meth. Because of the amounts of drugs I was using, I wasn’t cognitive, alive enough to fully comprehend what I’d done. The drugs kept me from having to face the truth. But I was afraid to stop using. I feared having to face the horrendous thing we’d done.

That spring, Angel’s remains washed up on the shores of Staten Island, and by December, the police arrested me in a New Jersey motel room I was staying at with my boyfriend, Brian.

But even in prison, I continued using drugs. Continued running, masking my problems.

I was punished severely for my drug use in prison. Every time my urine tested positive for opiates, I would receive 12 months of solitary confinement – the typical punishment for getting high. One particular institution called Southport, an entire facility of solitary confinement, was particularly barbaric. Inmates at Southport, many in single, solitary rooms for years at a time, resorted to throwing urine and faeces at prison guards when they were served their meals. All night long you would hear other inmates banging their heads against metal toilets or even the floor. Losing their minds, really, from the intense and long-standing isolation. But even this wasn’t enough to force me to stop using. In fact, the way I rationalised it at the time, now I had all the more reason to get high.

It wasn’t until March, 2009 – a full 12 years later – that I decided finally that enough was enough. I had committed a senseless, unforgivable act while on drugs. To continue getting high while in prison was to say, ‘I don’t care about what I did.’ The thought seemed so obscene, so disgusting to me, I decided then and there that no matter how painful it would be, I simply had to stop. Maybe the pain of the withdrawal would actually be cathartic. Make me feel better about myself for facing reality for once, rather than covering and taking the easy way out with drugs.

Which brings me to where I am today.

As part of the plea agreement I signed, I’m not to attempt contact with Angel’s family. I know that there’s nothing I could say, nothing I could do to ever bring them any closure. They’ll have to suffer with their loss for the rest of their lives, and for that, I will be eternally sorry.

Meanwhile, three weeks ago, I was released after spending 17 years in prison. Picked up in a van driven by friends and taken back to Manhattan, where I’m lucky enough to have been given a second chance. I have never felt so fortunate and grateful for anything in my entire life.

I’m determined to not take any of it for granted. To try and give back now, to speak out and help other young people who are in the same situation I was: feeling hopeless, addicted to drugs and not knowing where to turn. My hope is that by telling my story, I will be able to make a difference in some young person’s life. Perhaps hearing it from a person like myself who has actually been there, who has actually lived the life and isn’t just some random counsellor, might make my story resonate. All I know is that some good has to come of this. I have caused untold devastation and destruction in many people’s lives, and now it is time for me to give back.

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