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Rainbow's End

Steve Rider
Christopher Gardner

Stormy Confrontation: When Steve Rider's gay partner committed suicide earlier this year, authorities banned Rider from their shared home.

Outdated next-of-kin laws deny rights to longtime gay partners

By Ami Chen Mills

THE LOVERS MET in standard Silicon Valley style, on a local bulletin board service called Trex. It was Aug. 4, 1994, and a few days later, Santa Clara resident Steve Rider found himself face to face with John Korntveld, the man he would escort to his death.

"I was fascinated by him from the beginning. I saw in him this tremendous, gentle kindness," Rider says from across a table at a First Street cafe. "I know that I'll never meet another person like him."

Rider, 47, appears fragile behind the sturdy wooden table. He is slight of build, with unruly locks which sneak out from under a blue baseball cap emblazoned with the word "Pride" in gold letters.

Despite 12 years of Catholic school in Coatesville, Pa., Rider says he's always been gay--although he married a woman and stayed married for 11 years, hoping to prove that he wasn't.

Death Do Us Part

IN JANUARY OF 1995, Korntveld, who suffered chronic depression, was hospitalized for suicidal tendencies. After Korntveld got out of the hospital, the two men tighted their bonds. In February, in a private ceremony the men called "Ring Day," Korntveld and Rider commited themselves to each other in the living room of Korntveld's Sunnyvale apartment. They exchanged customized rainbow rings.

A few months later, the two men found a mobile home in Casa Del Lago park and moved in together. Although Korntveld purchased the mobile home, Rider agreed to pay the steep lease on Lot 409, a monthly "dirt payment" that amounted to $650. For nearly a year, the two men shared a life that included contact with Rider's three children. Korntveld--who was childless and estranged from his own family--was happy to hear news of Rider's sons and daughter, and praised Rider as an excellent father. Both men were computer fiends who would sit side by side logging onto bulletin boards and surfing the net. Rider's company offered the men domestic-partner benefits and the pair signed Kaiser's affadavit of domestic partnership for health insurance.

Then, last Feb. 1, Korntveld asked Rider to move out. Puzzled and hurt, Rider moved into the guest room and then spent one uncomfortable night trying to sleep in his car. On the third night, he stayed with a friend. On Feb. 9, Rider found an apartment in San Jose. But he could not celebrate; he intuitively felt that something was wrong. He went to the mobile home to talk to Korntveld and collect some belongings.

When he arrived, around 5pm, there was no answer and all doors were locked--from the inside. Rider went to a neighbor's home to call police. The police found Korntveld lying on his bed, a nearby wastebasket containing empty Prozac and Amitryptyline bottles. On a glass tray on Korntveld's desk, the coroner's investigation report lists: "8 different kinds of capsules and tablets, 3 were identified as Advil, Prozac and Zoloft. A [sic] empty beer bottle and a half empty bottle of spring water" were found alongside. An autopsy report would later identify six different drugs in Korntveld's bloodstream.

"It was his self-fulfilling prophecy," Rider says. "He always said no doctor, no one, could help him and he proved that to be true."

Survivor Discrimination

'THE POLICE could not have been more compassionate. Every single officer who was there worked with me and tried to comfort me," Rider says. "But that changed when the coroner got there."

Investigator Norman Sanders from the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner's office arrived on the scene, according to the investigation report, at 7pm. According to the coroner's office, Sanders is a semi-retired investigator who was called in to help on Feb. 9.

According to Rider, investigator Sanders strolled in--ignoring him--and took control of what he called a crime scene: "His reason, he said, was: 'Suicide is a felony,' " Rider recounts. Sanders entered the home and proceeded to investigate while Rider sat outside. Finally, Rider decided to gather some of his belongings and leave. "I made it clear that I would like to get some of my things. I especially wanted my computer--it is the way that I communicate with the outside world."

Sanders would not allow Rider to take his computer or the boxes Korntveld had packed for him. Sanders finally agreed to let him take a futon and some clothing. Before Rider left, Sanders sealed the entire house and told him he would not be allowed inside unless he had the permission of Korntveld's next-of-kin or the public administrator.

Rider says Sanders treated him like a stranger in the very mobile home for which he had paid $650 in February rent. "He kept warning me that he could have me arrested. And I wasn't in his home."

According to another investigator at the coroner's office, "loved ones" and residents of the same house as the deceased, in most suicide cases, are "allowed to go back into the house that day."

"Actually, they are free to walk around the house" during the investigation, she says. And, although investigators prefer to seal the suicide location to protect the mental health of friends and family members, "they could stay [in the room] if they want to. It's up to them." Apparently, Sanders had heard from police that Rider and the deceased were lovers and had broken up. In his report he describes Rider as "a roommate 'partner.' "

Rider called the coroner's office on Feb. 11 to tell what he knew of Korntveld's next-of-kin and ask again if he might gather his possessions. The investigator who took his call, Joseph Davis, told Rider he could collect his possessions. Rider rented a truck and went to Casa Del Lago with a friend. The door to the house was sealed with an official coroner's sticker that read "Illegal to tear or mutilate."

"So I carefully peeled the seal off, went in, took most of my stuff out and then carefully re-sealed the house," Rider admits. But he did not retrieve all of his belongings at once. In the meantime, Korntveld's estranged family went to the mobile home to go through Korntveld's things. When Rider arrived next, he found some of his belongings in the garbage.

I Prefer 'Faggot'

RIDER FILED a complaint on Feb. 14 with the county Human Relations Commission against Sanders, and was invited to a mediation session in March. Session proceedings are confidential, but Rider says he was not pleased with Sanders' response to his complaints in mediation. "I achieved emotional satisfaction in voicing my complaints, but on a political level, I would like to see that this does not happen to other people."

Norman Sanders, reached at
the Medical Examiner-Coroner's Office on April 11, says the case was resolved--and ended--with the Human Relations Commission in mediation.

"I had to attend a Santa Clara County Human Relations meeting with him, so if you want any more information, get ahold of them," he says, and hangs up. During a second attempt to reach a spokesperson at the coroner's office, Sanders gets on the line again. "This is a private thing before Mr. Rider and myself," he says, obviously upset. "You let that homosexual say what he wants, but if you slander me, I'll get you where it hurts. What is this S.O.B. going to you for? You call the Human Relations--and don't call the coroner's office again."

To these comments, Rider responds calmly, "I feel vindicated by the fact that he revealed what I had suspected. He had never actually said an explicitly homophobic thing before. He was very careful. ... By the way, let him know that I prefer the term 'faggot.' "

According to Maria Dupras, director of the EOD, county policy--which applies to both hiring and "the way [county employees] behave," she says--states "no person shall be discriminated against ... on the basis of race, religious creed, color, sex ... or sexual orientation." Further, the county is committed to hiring "persons who are able to provide culturally sensitive services to the diverse population of Santa Clara County."

Preventive Measures

CHARLIE NEWMAN, a 25-year veteran at the coroner's office, says investigators deal with domestic partnership situations regularly. In this case, Newman points out that Korntveld had a legal wife who was living in the Philippines when he died. And, although Newman grants that investigator Sanders is "no 1960s Haight-Ashbury liberal," he says Sanders was legally constrained by next-of-kin laws.

Newman was disturbed when he heard about the case, and recounts his own related story. In 1982 he was called to a home in Cupertino where a man with AIDS had died. The dead man's 10-year, live-in partner was there when Newman arrived. The man had cared for the deceased during the last, and worst, three years of his life. "This guy was changing diapers, wiping drool, feeding, cleaning. It was one of the most loving relationships I had ever seen."

According to law, however, Newman was forced to call immediate next of kin first. In this case, it was the deceased's mother, who had not seen or spoken with her son in the ten years that he had lived with his lover. "The mother was angry that the partner was still in the house and said, 'I don't want him touching my son.' "

Newman was technically bound to honor the mother's wishes. Still, Newman says, "I told him to go in and spend some time with the body." The investigator was sure the heartbroken survivor would not be invited to the funeral.

"We are faced with heartbreaking situations all the time, where there's a legitimate partner and all the property and decisions get handed to, like, a third cousin or something." While Newman urges gay and lesbian couples to draft power-of-attorney orders and wills, he says that gays, like straights, often fail to do these things.

Newman plans to speak as a private citizen at the next Human Relations Commission hearing on domestic partners May 28. "At least with domestic partnership, we might have some kind of latitude in these situations, so that we could treat people like human beings."

Casa del Lago Mobilehome Park was the subject of a Feb. 22 Metro cover story.

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From the May 9-15, 1996 issue of Metro

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