Randy Gamel says residents watched in lawn chairs as suspicious fire destroyed home.
By Sean Murphy
OKLAHOMA CITY — When Randy Gamel and his husband were looking for a retirement home, a six-bedroom fixer upper in the tiny western Oklahoma town of Hitchcock caught their eye.
They bought it in 2014, and Gamel moved to the quiet community from Fort Worth to start upgrades. He set out to make himself a part of the agricultural community of a little more than 100 residents. He befriended neighbors, took an interest in town politics and soon became the town clerk.
But it wasn’t long before Gamel began feuding with longtime locals over how the town should be run. Many town leaders and employees are related, and Gamel says he has a reputation for speaking up, vociferously, when he sees a problem. The local sheriff from the nearby county seat of Watonga was soon being called to the town routinely to settle disputes involving Gamel and other townsfolk.
Tension erupted in flames in May when a suspicious fire ripped through Gamel’s home, burning the two-story structure to the ground.
Gamel, 59, suggests in a federal lawsuit filed this week in Oklahoma City that community leaders tried to force him out because he was gay and because he and his partner brought a black child into the nearly all-white town. Others, including a sheriff’s official named in the lawsuit, say it was Gamel’s behavior, not homophobia or racism, that led to problems. A criminal investigation into the fire is pending.
The civil rights lawsuit names Blaine County Sheriff Tony Almaguer, Undersheriff David Robertson and seven residents of Hitchcock, alleging that they conspired to drive him from his town office and denied him equal protection under the law. The lawsuit lays out allegations of death threats against Gamel and his son, physical assaults, an anti-gay sign posted in town and local law enforcement refusing to take any action. When the fire broke out, Gamel said firefighters from the volunteer force with whom he had feuded dragged their feet and that some townspeople sat in lawn chairs to watch it burn.
“I think once I became clerk, and they found out they had a queer clerk with a black kid running the city, it just drove them crazy and they couldn’t take it. They tried everything to get me to quit. Once the house was burned … I just couldn’t put my son through any more of it,” said Gamel, who now lives in El Paso.
Gamel acknowledges that before moving to Oklahoma, his criticism of staff and teachers at his son’s Fort Worth elementary school became so heated that district officials prohibited him last year from visiting the school.
Phone messages left Friday for the fire chief, mayor and several defendants were not immediately returned. But Robertson, the undersheriff, strongly disputed Gamel’s allegations. He said the feuds were real, but described Gamel as a “bully” who sought to impose his will on the town and was constantly alleging wrongdoing by town officers.
“I got to know him very well from all the complaints and allegations that he made, and I cannot find one person who made any racist statements against his child or against him for being a homosexual,” Robertson said. “We don’t take too kindly to being called racist and homophobic, because we’re not.”
Robertson said separate investigations into the fire are being conducted by his office, an insurance company and the state fire marshal’s office, but that Gamel’s story about the blaze is inconsistent with the evidence. Gamel claims he heard a window break and that the fire started in the garage, but Robertson said evidence suggests it started in the living quarters while Gamel was the only one in the home.
No charges have been filed in connection with the fire, and Gamel says any suggestion he is involved is outrageous.
“We lost everything from 27 years,” said Gamel. “Everything that we had is gone.”