Police investigate homicide of same-sex marriage advocate found dead in Florida landfill

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Police were continuing to search for answers Monday after authorities found Jorge Diaz-Johnston, a plaintiff in Florida's historic same-sex marriage lawsuit and brother of a former Miami mayor, dead in a landfill.

The Tallahassee Police Department launched a homicide investigation after finding Diaz-Johnston's body on Jan. 8, several days after he was last seen.

Lt. George Creamer said Friday that the crime was not a random act of violence, WPLG-TV reported. Detectives spoke with Diaz-Johnston's roommate and husband, according to the station.

Diaz-Johnston, 54, was part of a legal battle in 2014 that ended with Miami-Dade becoming the first county in Florida to legalize same-sex marriages. Diaz-Johnston had been a doctoral student of religion at Florida State University and was the brother of Manny Diaz, chair of the Florida Democratic Party and a former mayor of Miami.

Not a random act: 'A new chapter,' a stolen car and a 'very active' Diaz-Johnston murder case

In a statement, Diaz said he was "profoundly appreciative" of the outpouring of support in the wake of his brother's death and asked for both privacy and prayers.

"My brother was such a special gift to this world whose heart and legacy will continue to live on for generations to come," he said.

In this photo from Jan. 5, 2015, couples in Miami celebrated a circuit court judge's decision to lift a legal stay that had declared a same-sex marriage ban discriminatory.
In this photo from Jan. 5, 2015, couples in Miami celebrated a circuit court judge's decision to lift a legal stay that had declared a same-sex marriage ban discriminatory.

The lawsuit began in early 2014 when Diaz-Johnston; his husband, Don; and five other same-sex couples sued the Miami-Dade County Clerk's Office after they were barred from getting marriage licenses. In June, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel announced her decision in favor of the couples. There was a temporary stay in the case, but it was lifted several months later.

A federal judge tossed the state's same-sex marriage ban in early 2015, making Florida the 36th state to allow gay couples to wed. Jorge and Don got married on March 28, 2015.

"Jorge was a crucial part of this historic lawsuit that's one of the biggest moments of the LGBTQ civil rights movement in Florida history," said Stratton Pollitzer, the longtime deputy director of Equality Florida, the state's leading gay-rights group. "It's incomprehensible to hear that one of our heroes has been taken from us."

Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, said she was heartbroken to learn of Diaz-Johnston's death, which investigators say was the result of foul play.

"Jorge and his husband Don were two of the brave plaintiffs who took on Florida’s anti-gay marriage ban and helped pave the way for marriage equality for all Floridians," she said. "Our deepest condolences Don and Jorge’s extended family."

Friend: Jorge didn't have his car with him when he went missing

Jorge was last seen Jan. 3 near his workplace, according to Tallahassee police, which issued a missing person alert Saturday morning.

A family friend wrote on Facebook that morning that Jorge was missing and that he was last seen around 3 p.m. He did not have his car with him, the friend said.

His body was discovered that afternoon in the Baker landfill in Okaloosa County. The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office reported that the body had been in trash collected by a private company around 9:30 a.m. at the landfill.

“The driver was on his way back to Okaloosa County to pick up another load when he got a call to contact law enforcement,” the sheriff's office said in a Facebook post. “OCSO investigators say the trash that goes into the waste trailer comes from a metal bay at the Baker landfill, which is accessible to any company or individual.”

On Wednesday, the body was identified, and Tallahassee police said Jorge was the victim of a homicide. Autopsy results from the State Medical Examiner's Office have not been released.

Alicia Turner, a Tallahassee police spokeswoman, said she could not release a cause of death or other details because of the open and active investigation. She also couldn't comment on whether investigators have circled in on a suspect.

Jorge remembered as kind and generous

Jorge and Don were picked from a pool of more than 1,000 candidates to be a part of the lawsuit organized by Equality Florida.

"They were so brave. It's scary to have your life and relationship be made so public, but they were so prepared," said Pollitzer, of Equality Florida. "There was such an easy, joyful affection between them that got them through everything."

Jorge Diaz-Johnston was found dead in Jackson County Saturday, sparking a homicide investigation by the Tallahassee Police Department.
Jorge Diaz-Johnston was found dead in Jackson County Saturday, sparking a homicide investigation by the Tallahassee Police Department.

Pollitzer said he'll always remember Jorge's warm presence.

"Jorge is one of those people who has a smile that lights up a room," he said. He "was always laughing, and I never saw him be anything but kind, generous and easygoing. That's why it's so hard to imagine what has happened to him."

On Wednesday, Don Diaz-Johnston updated friends and loved ones on Facebook about his husband, whom he began dating in 2013. He said he had no words that could express his loss.

"I can't stop crying as I try and write this," he wrote. "But he meant so much to all of you as he did to me. So I am fighting through the tears to share with you our loss of him."

Diaz-Johnston said funeral arrangements will be announced later. He said services would be held for family only in Miami but that there will likely be a way for loved ones to mourn virtually.

"This is all so sudden," he wrote. "So please be patient with us. I just couldn't wait any longer to share with you our profound loss."

Diaz-Johnston asked that everyone share the news of his husband's passing.

"He touched so many people with his kind and generous heart," he wrote. "It seems impossible to even fathom how to tell them all. But if you want to help, that is how you can. By sharing the best of him with each other."

Contributing: N'dea Yancey-Bragg, USA TODAY

Follow Christopher Cann on Twitter @ChrisCannFL.

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Jorge Diaz-Johnston, LGBTQ advocate, found dead in Florida landfill