30 years after Terry Dorff murder in Fargo, former boyfriend and friends recall risks faced by gay community
In this latest installment of The Vault, a look at the brutal killing of "brilliant" computer programmer Terry Dorff in 1991, which still leaves many questions unanswered.
FARGO — Gerry Even last saw his former boyfriend Terry Dorff alive 30 years ago at a gay dance in a hotel that's since been torn down.
He remembers Dorff on the anniversary of his murder, and sometimes in between.
“I can't put it aside ... but I’ve tried really hard to not dwell on it,” Even said.
The woman who found Dorff’s body that day takes a similar approach.
Jill O’Donnell reflects annually on the family friend and downstairs tenant, lost in a brutal attack.
“I think of how sad it was, and that he's not here,” O’Donnell said. “He was a great person.”
On April 8, 1991, Terry Dorff, 32, a highly regarded computer programmer, was killed after inviting two men he’d met at a downtown adult bookstore to his Bluemont Lakes apartment.
Dorff, who was gay, was known as a quiet, introspective person.
Mark Chekola, 75, a gay activist at the time, said Dorff was also not careless. “Terry would not have easily gotten into a situation of danger,” Chekola said.
But the encounter indeed became violent, with Dorff tied up and hit on the head with a rock. Initially, Fargo police said there was no reason to believe Dorff was killed because of his sexual orientation.
Chekola, a since-retired philosophy professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead, said a number of gay people worried that Dorff’s killing was hate-motivated.
Reginald Tweed and David Sumner were both charged with theft and murder in connection with Dorff's death. Tweed was found guilty but Sumner, tried later, was acquitted after Tweed decided not to testify against him.
Tweed was released on parole Nov. 1, 2016, after serving 25 years of a life sentence at the North Dakota State Penitentiary. He’ll be supervised for the rest of his life, a prison system spokesperson said.
Tweed lives in Garrison, N.D., and did not respond to interview requests from The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. Attempts to reach Sumner were unsuccessful.
Even, age 55, of Fargo, recently re-established contact with O’Donnell, 61, now living in a Seattle suburb, over their common bond of long-ago grief.
“I was so excited to reconnect with him,” O’Donnell said.
He was 'just brilliant'
Dorff was a California native who moved to Fargo in 1983 and soon became known for his computer programming expertise. Though technology was a primary interest, he was featured in a May 1987 story in The Forum as a devotee of transcendental meditation.
Dorff was also a member of the high-IQ Mensa society, open to people who score at the 98th percentile or higher on a standardized intelligence test. “He was just brilliant. He always had a solution to something,” O’Donnell said.
About six months before his death, The Forum published a story about a new partnership between Dorff and businessman Michael O’Donnell (Jill's then husband) to develop and market a new software program for national distribution.
To keep costs low for the startup company, Dorff agreed to forgo a salary to live rent-free in the O’Donnells home. His Doberman pinscher named Roger joined him.
It was around the time of the business announcement that Dorff and Even met and began dating. The gay dances they attended were held monthly at the old Regency Inn in Moorhead, where the Courtyard by Marriott now stands just north of Interstate 94.
The dances were often packed, Even said, drawing people from all over the region. It was one place gays and lesbians could socialize at the time without fear of being shamed or outed.
“Very different environment than it is now. People didn't use last names. Oftentimes they used made up names,” Even said.
Dorff would work a shift at the dance entrance, collecting the cover charge.
“I don't recall having been introduced …. We just found each other,” Even said.
A possible suspect
Even lived in Wahpeton, N.D., an hour’s drive south, but traveled to Fargo almost every weekend to get together with Dorff. The couple stopped seeing each other in mid-March of 1991, Even said, after Dorff became interested in someone else.
The early morning of April 8, when Dorff was killed, Even said he had an unsettling dream.
“The two of us were dancing and he stopped ... looked at me and said, ‘I never wanted it to happen this way.’ And that was the end of it,” Even said.
That night, after he got home from work, Even turned on the evening news to hear about a suspicious death in a townhouse in Bluemont Lakes. Though the house number had been blurred out in the video because the victim hadn’t been identified, Even had a sinking feeling.
He recognized the decorative cream can Jill O’Donnell kept on the front porch of her home at 2534 26th Ave. S.W., and the news report said a body was found in the basement. “I just knew right away it was Terry,” he said.
Even immediately drove to Fargo and the crime scene, telling police there that he knew who lived in the basement. As a former boyfriend of Dorff, “I knew I would be considered a suspect,” he said.
Police interviewed him several times, asking personal questions about sexual activities due to the appearance of the crime scene. “The initial interview was ... adversarial, very accusatory, very raw,” Even said.
His parents, siblings and co-workers didn’t know at the time he was gay. His biggest fear, he said, was that his name would end up in the newspaper or on the TV news.
This is the first time he’s speaking out publicly about his sexuality and the crime that’s impacted him for over 30 years.
No second guessing
A set of car keys left at the crime scene was the clue that led police away from other suspects and to Tweed and Sumner, who lived together in north Moorhead.
The men were believed to be married to women but possibly separated from their wives, according to a Forum story. Tweed’s wife turned him in.
She called police after recognizing his keychain with its spark plug lighter and Camel cigarette flashlight, shown to the news media a few days after the killing.
Reginald Elbert Tweed, then 23, and David Allan Sumner, then 22, were arrested for the murder of Terry Dorff and for stealing his car.
At that point police changed course on a possible motive, saying the murder was likely the result of a pickup gone bad or gay-bashing. In the weeks that followed, details of what happened came to light.
The three men met late Sunday, April 7, 1991, at the Adult Book & Cinema X store at 417 NP Ave., where Romantix now sits.
Earlier, Tweed and Sumner had drank beer and whiskey. Tweed was so drunk, he hit the bookstore with his car, he testified.
When the men went back to Dorff’s apartment, Jill O’Donnell said they made a loud entrance just after 3 a.m. by laughing and playing music.
She was four months pregnant and alone with her 3-year-old son. Her then-husband was in California to pitch the software program he and Dorff were developing.
O’Donnell testified she soon heard moaning and thought Dorff was having sex, but there was fighting as well — all details she no longer wishes to discuss.
At some point, the men locked Dorff’s dog in a small room. Later, after hearing someone leave, O’Donnell went to the front door to see a man outside in the dark who turned and left after seeing her.
O’Donnell was rattled, but climbed back in bed. She went to work a few hours later, thinking Dorff was sleeping off a wild night.
She used to second guess her response, but no more.
“There were so many ifs, ands and buts. Should have I done this, should have I done that? But the answer always came out the same: Had you reacted any different, you wouldn't be here today, and neither would your son,” O’Donnell said.
A gold, antique box
O’Donnell returned home from her job at a local hair salon that afternoon and got a phone call just before 4 p.m. from Dorff’s secretary. He hadn’t shown up for work, and police said they’d found his vehicle abandoned and partially burned, possibly an attempt to destroy evidence.
It was then O’Donnell went to the basement to discover the murder scene.
Dorff’s body was facedown on his waterbed, and his hands and feet were tied up with speaker wire, bound together behind his back, according to court testimony.
His mouth was tightly gagged with a torn shirt and his head bloodied by a 17-pound rock, which Dorff had brought with him from California to use as a doorstop.
His cause of death was ruled as asphyxiation and blood loss from blunt-force injuries to the head, according to a medical examiner.
The autopsy report revealed Dorff’s body was clad in only a long-sleeved white shirt and a ring on his right hand embossed with the word Jesus. The report did not say whether there was any evidence of sexual contact.
Tweed testified that he acted in self-defense after Dorff came out of a room naked from the waist down and grabbed Tweed’s crotch.
Both he and Sumner punched Dorff and hit him in the head with the rock, Tweed testified, but did not intend to kill him.
Neither Even nor Chekola buy into Tweed’s self-defense claim.
Even said Dorff was too emotionally intelligent to misread the intent of others in that kind of situation.
There were people in the local gay community, Chekola said, who would have been helpful in the investigation but were too scared to come forward. Today’s environment is different, he said.
Tweed took the fall for everything with his conviction — a decision he tried, unsuccessfully, to appeal multiple times, even to the North Dakota Supreme Court.
Sumner’s trial ended with an acquittal a few months later, after Tweed, the prosecution’s star witness, refused to testify and incriminate Sumner in Dorff’s death.
O’Donnell chooses to remember Dorff with a memento — a gold, antique box with peacock feathers left behind by family members who packed up his belongings after his murder.
She keeps it on a table in her living room.
“People look at the box … it's like, ‘That's Terry right there,’” she said.
Even has come to terms with not knowing what really happened that early morning.
“I never will know,” he said. "I never will."