Debbie Harris always believed in keeping her private life private. Low key. That was her word. Her world revolved around work, her kids, and her partner, Kerry Fadely. She was gay, but it wasn't something she thought about. She didn't want to be part of a cause.
Then a shooting at the Millennium Alaskan Hotel in 2011 took Fadely's life and changed all that. Harris has spent the last two years trying to recover. She's also become an activist. She is a plaintiff in a worker's compensation lawsuit against the state that has reached the Alaska Supreme Court. If she is successful, the state will have to extend benefits to the partners of gay people who are killed on the job. Harris has spoken around the country about the issue, because, she says, she has to do something. If good can come out of the what happened to Fadely, she told me recently over coffee, maybe the staggering loss will make sense.
A normal brunch
The last normal day Harris remembers was October 29, 2011. That day began with brunch with Fadely at their house near Lake Hood. Harris and Fadely had been together 14 years, through good times and rough times. They'd exchanged rings on a beach in Homer in 2006, but were never married in a state where gay marriage is legal.
"This was our home," she said. "It wasn't recognized here, it wasn't going to make a difference."
Harris and Fadely were in their 50s, with three grown children between them. That last morning was one of their good times. They drank mochas and talked about buying a house in Wasilla, Harris said. Maybe, they joked, they could be neighbors with Sarah Palin.
Both women worked in the hospitality industry. Fadely was the food and beverage manager at the Millennium. That morning she mentioned that one of her employees, a man she knew as Victor Flores, had become hostile and was causing problems. She'd been documenting his behavior for her superiors, she said. She'd just had a few days off. She was hoping he would soon be fired.
After brunch, Fadely got ready for work. On her way out the door, she paused where Harris was sitting.
"She bent down and she gave me a kiss and I can't even explain it," Harris said. "I remember looking back at her ... I remember mentally going, "wow."
"I love you," Fadely told her.
"I love you, too," Harris said.
Harris said she was going to make an apple pie. When Fadely got home, they decided, they would watch The Late Show.
Harris' afternoon was spent shopping and baking. Around dinner time, a neighbor knocked at the door. Something was going on at the Millennium, the neighbor said. Police were everywhere. Fear washed over Harris. She put on her coat and got in her truck.
Emergency vehicles swarmed the hotel. Harris parked and ran toward the building. A police officer yelled at her to stay back.
"I told him my partner was in there and I needed to know what was going on," she said.
Another onlooker, she still can't figure who he was, told her that Kerry had been shot. And then her mind went numb.
A police officer walked her over to a patrol car. They sat inside and the officer told her that Kerry was dead. Months later, she saw clips of herself after that from the television news. She looks stunned. She never noticed the cameras even though they were just feet away.
Victor Flores, who was later discovered to be Javier Martinez, a felon who had been deported to Dominican Republic and returned illegally to the United States, was soon arrested and charged in the shooting. He had been fired, police said, and had come to the hotel armed with a gun to seek revenge. He found Fadely in the hotel dining room and shot her.
What happened after the shooting is a cautionary tale for gay couples living in Alaska, where gay marriage is banned by a constitutional amendment.
Kerry Fadely was always close to her family in Oregon, but they never accepted Harris. Fadely had no will.
"You know you think that tomorrow that you can take care of it," Harris said. "There just wasn't a tomorrow."
A married spouse in Alaska is considered next-of-kin even if there is no will, but a gay partner has no more rights than a stranger. As family began to arrive to make plans for the funeral, it became clear that Harris was a part of Fadely's life they didn't want to recognize.
Both Fadely and Harris had been married to men and started families before they met. Harris said Fadely's ex-husband informed her soon after her partner's death that she would not be involved in planning her funeral. Harris was permitted to go to the funeral home to see Fadely's body for 30 minutes, she said. She could attend her service, but she wasn't invited to speak or sit with family members. Fadely was cremated. Her ashes were taken out of state. Harris was not mentioned in her obituary. It was like she was invisible.
Harris said she could have had a confrontation with the family, but she didn't want to disrespect Fadely's parents. Fadely loved them, Harris said. Everybody was already hurting enough.
Two weeks after Fadely's death, Harris arrived to the home where they had shared mochas that last day, and found Fadely's family members packing it up. The lease had been in Fadely's name. The way they split up expenses, Harris paid groceries and some utilities, they shared some credit cards, but Fadely paid the rent. They had separate checking accounts. The rent money was in Fadely's account. There was nothing Harris could do.
"I basically ended up putting my stuff in a suitcase and getting in my car and leaving," she said.
"Her clothes were in a pile in the garage they were going to give away. It was barely even two weeks."
Two weeks to the day after Fadely was shot, Harris found herself camped out with her suitcase in her grandson's bedroom, sleeping under his Spiderman comforter.
She hadn't thought about what was going to happen to her without Fadely. She was on Fadely's health insurance, but that was going to end. A married partner of someone killed on the job is entitled to survivor's benefits through worker's compensation. But Fadely didn't qualify, because the rings they exchanged in Homer didn't mean anything in the eyes of the state.
"All of a sudden you're just like everything is gone overnight," she said.
Guilty on federal charges
Martinez -- "Victor Flores" -- was convicted in June on federal charges of identity theft, entering the country illegally, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He had previously been deported from the United States after a conviction for felony drug trafficking, according to the U.S. Attorney's office. His trial for murder charges in state court is scheduled for the fall. He will be sentenced on the federal charges after that.
Lambda Legal, a national organization that litigates gay civil rights case, took Harris's worker's compensation case. The Alaska Supreme Court is expected to consider it early next year.
Harris has not had a permanent place to live since the murder. Instead, she's worked seasonally at hotels and stays with family and friends. It hasn't felt right to make a home without Fadely in it, she said. She doesn't have her partner's ashes or a formal place to mourn, but she walks around Lake Hood, taking the route they used to walk together, where she can see the patio at the Millennium across the water.
"That's where my heart lies... helping Alaska understand that love is love," she said. "Love is just love."
Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.