February 22, 2020 is the 30th anniversary of a truly horrifying night in Wilmington history. Talana Kreeger was brutally raped and killed by a long-haul trucker, who had found his way to the Park View Grill, a gay bar on Carolina Beach Road, (situated where The Dubliner is currently), where Kreeger was a patron. Filmmaker Tab Ballis has produced and directed a documentary of the events that occurred in “Park View.” More so, the documentary explores the lasting impact these events have had on our community. Ballis will debut it at The Church of the Good Shepherd on the anniversary as an opportunity for healing and, for some, maybe a sense of closure.
The nature of the crime is one of nightmares. On February 22, 1990, the perpetrator manually disemboweled Kreeger and left her to bleed to death in the woods on a cold night. Kreeger worked as a carpenter in the film industry and built a life with friends who cared about her. But once her body was discovered, her story took a back seat to that of her murderer.
Ballis points out how the media reported almost nothing about Talana Kreeger and her life. Instead, they focused on the murderer. “He was humanized,” Ballis says. “We learned about his life and witnesses on the stand called him a lovable teddy bear, and the StarNews printed it as if that was useful information!”
For 15 years Ballis has researched, filmed and edited the documentary. When he began planning the screening, the venue was an obvious choice: It would be at The Church of the Good Shepard. “The significance is that back in 1990, when this horrible murder happened, that faith community was the only house of worship in town that would agree to host a funeral of Talana Kreeger. The friends who mourned her were turned down by many other churches.”
They weren’t just turned down; in one instance a church that had agreed to host her funeral actually rescinded the offer when Kreeger’s identity as a lesbian and the victim of a hate crime became known. In the wake of the horrific crime, it was an additional slap in the face to deny Kreeger’s life recognition and dignity. As the late Frank Harr put it, “We wanted to have a place where we could marry you and bury you.”
“So a group of people got together and formed what became St. Judes,” notes Reverend John McLaughlin of St. Judes Metropolitan Community Church. The Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) movement started in California in 1968, to specifically provide an inclusive ministry to LGBTQ people. Ballis observes in some ways it is a story of three churches: The Good Shepard, The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and now St. Jude’s MCC Church. “[St. Jude’s] did not have a place to meet for the first year or two,” McLaughlin tells. “So that’s where the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship comes in. Something a lot of people call ‘Church In the Box,’ where you box up everything you need to have a church service, go somewhere else, unpack it at church and pack it back up. That’s what the Unitarian Universalist fellowship did for St. Jude’s before we had a place to meet.”
Eventually, they moved into the little white church down on Castle Street. Then in the early 2000s the old Odd Fellows’ Hall became the new home of St. Judes’. Up until Hurricane Florence, a bench inscribed in Talana Kreeger’s name graced the memorial garden.
Local guitar guru Laura McLean, who was an acquaintance of Kreeger’s, wrote the soundtrack for the film. “I have really been sitting in meditation with this music,” the singer-songwriter says. “I tried to let Talana guide me in spirit, and do what she would want. . . . I am honored to be entrusted with this project.”
The soundtrack includes the haunting song “Left for Dead,” which McLean says she wanted to recreate a sense of starkness of the night. McLean will perform it live at the screening, too.
“This event is for the people who lived the story, who knew Talana Kreeger, who suffered through the event,” Ballis says. “It’s for them. Her case deserved a lot more attention than it got then.”
Ballis notes that two of the interviews in the film are with researchers who work with media coverage of hate crimes. It reveals how crimes against lesbians are drastically under-reported. “Not because they don’t happen, but because violence against women is so commonplace that law enforcement doesn’t bother to inquire about the sexuality of the victims,” Ballis says.
Three years after Kreeger’s death, the beating of Crae Pridgen in front of Mickey Ratz nightclub would make national news. “LGBTQ hate crimes against men tend to be more reported, and there tends to be more information,” according to Ballis.
In 1998 the case surrounding the death of Matthew Shepard would make national headlines, with the picture of Matthew Shepard tied to a split rail fence in Wyoming. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t forget it.
“The big difference between the case of covering Matthew Shepard and Talana Kreeger is that Shepard’s parents were not going to allow their son to die anonymously,” Ballis tells. “So the only reason most of us ever heard of that case is because his parents made damn well sure that we knew about it. Sadly, Talana didn’t have family in her life that would do that.”
Like many LGBTQ youth, when Kreeger came out as a lesbian, she was ostracized. It is only in the last year Ballis has had contact with one of her family members.
“She’s a younger cousin, and she discovered the film online and is very supportive,” Ballis says. “She sent us these amazing childhood photos of Talana and has given us permission to use them.”
They are invaluable as a visual tool for humanizing Kreeger and making her a real person, not just a victim.
Reverend McLaughlin points out this kind of trauma isn’t new to the LGBTQ community. Yet, it still didn’t make it easy. “I think LGBTQ people who knew of it were so traumatized that they couldn’t or wouldn’t speak of it,” McLaughlin tells.
“I think that’s another reason it has taken 15 years to do this film,” Ballis adds, “especially for an older white straight guy to talk to people and to say: ‘I want to hear your story.’ It has taken a while to gain their trust. That trust means a lot to me.”
There are many people who would have abandoned a project of this magnitude long before now. For Ballis, whose day job is a licensed clinical social worker at Insight Wellness Services and part-time faculty in the Social Work Department at UNCW, that wasn’t really an option.
Over the years he has had a lot of collaborators: Ingrid Jungerman, Shawn Llewallen, Mario Marchioni and Tony Morin among them. People’s lives and careers shifted and changed, but Ballis pushed forth on the project. “They ended up going to NY or LA and I was sort of left to continue the story,” he says. ‘I felt that someone damn well needed to tell her story.”
He wants to tell Kreeger’s story from witness accounts as a tool for social change. Ballis points to the 2010 film “Gen Silent,” gaining popularity in the LGBTQ community. “[Filmmaker Stu Maddux] brought the film to college campuses and community organizations for years,” he says. “That film is actually the reason why we have a SAGE chapter in this town now. Some of us saw that film and said, ‘Gosh, we need one of those here.’”
Founded in 1978, SAGE is a national advocacy and resource organization of LGBTQ elders. Starting with the late Robert West, cofounder of Working Films, Ballis has sought direction and assistance from the locally-based organization. Working Films utilizes film to create social change.
Ballis also reached out to The Frank Harr Foundation, a local LGBTQ advocacy group founded in memory of the late Frank Harr. They’re sponsoring the screening.
“The Frank Harr Foundation seeks to educate the community at large on issues affecting LGBTQ persons, in order to reduce and eventually eliminate the fear and hatred of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender and queer persons in our society,” board president Virginia Hager explains. “All too often homophobic hatred and bigotry results in vicious assaults and murder of LGBTQ persons, and ‘Park View’ is an important educational tool that sheds much-needed light on such hate crimes.”
Ballis is confident about the benefit the film will have in our local community, despite the cost it may have on others having to relive it. “I know when I have talked to people who retell this story, it has been painful,” Ballis acknowledges. As a social worker and a mental health therapist, he believes the only way we will be released from trauma is to express it in some kind of safe space. Though the event on the 22 may be harder for some than for others, he has arranged for designated people wearing purple ribbons to be available to offer comfort. Space will be available if people need to step out and take care of themselves as well.
“It is not up to me to determine if this is safe for everyone who lived it,” Ballis says. “I hope in the long run it will result in more healing than harm.”