The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He was a champion of LGBTQ rights in Florida. Police are investigating how his body ended up in a landfill.

The body of Jorge Diaz-Johnston was recovered from a Florida landfill on Jan. 8. (WPLG)
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July 25, 2014, was a day of celebration for Jorge Diaz and Don Johnston, romantic partners and plaintiffs in a lawsuit that sought to legalize same-sex marriage in Miami-Dade County. A judge had just ruled in their favor, priming Miami-Dade to become Florida’s first county to allow same-sex couples to marry.

“I’m excited. I’m thrilled. My phone has blown up with texts and emails of congratulations. I’m elated,” Diaz, the younger brother of Miami’s former mayor, Manny Diaz, told the Miami Herald at the time.

In the nearly eight years since, Diaz married Johnston, moved to Tallahassee and took a job at a law firm. But on Jan. 8, his body turned up at a landfill about 87 miles from where he lived. The Tallahassee Police Department is investigating the death as a homicide, and detectives do not believe it was a “random act,” department spokeswoman Alicia Turner told the Tallahassee Democrat.

“No one is ruled out as a suspect,” Turner told The Washington Post in an interview. “Everyone who came in contact with [Diaz] would be considered a suspect.”

The 54-year-old, who went by the surname Diaz-Johnston after his marriage, was last seen alive on Jan. 3 near his workplace in Tallahassee, according to the Democrat. Don Diaz-Johnston reported his husband missing in the late hours of Jan. 7, after Jorge’s co-workers said he had not shown up to the office, Turner told The Post. Jorge Diaz-Johnston’s body was found the next morning.

Police are investigating how and why the body arrived at the landfill. Turner said police are looking into the possibility that a garbage truck collected the body in Okaloosa County, about 160 miles west of Tallahassee, and transported it east to the Jackson County landfill, where the body was first discovered, as the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office reported in a news release.

Roy Wasson, Don’s lawyer, told The Post that Don and Jorge were not living together at the time of Jorge’s disappearance. Jorge Diaz-Johnston had moved into a new apartment in October and started a new job, the Democrat reported. In text messages with his landlord reviewed by the Democrat, Diaz-Johnston described it as a “new chapter” in his life, although in mid-December a stranger stole and crashed his Mercedes-Benz, according to the text messages.

News of Diaz-Johnston’s death brought an outpouring of grief from LGBTQ advocates, who highlighted the role he played in furthering gay rights in the state.

“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,” Stratton Pollitzer, the deputy director of Equality Florida, a prominent LGBTQ group, told the Democrat. “It’s incomprehensible to hear that one of our heroes has been taken from us.”

Jorge Diaz and Don Johnston made up one of six same-sex couples chosen out of more than 1,000 to be plaintiffs in a marriage equality lawsuit filed in January 2014. It alleged that Florida’s 2008 ban on same-sex marriage violated the U.S. Constitution, the Miami Herald reported.

At the time, Diaz and Johnston had been dating for about a year and wanted to marry in Florida, Diaz told the Herald when the couple filed the lawsuit.

“Once we got engaged, we were thinking about where to get married and what our next step would be,” he said. “Both of us were really disappointed that we couldn’t get married here, since we were born and raised here and we have a lot of ties to the community.”

About six months later, Circuit Judge Sarah Zabel ruled in favor of the six couples, saying that the same-sex marriage ban “serves only to hurt, to discriminate, to deprive same-sex couples and their families of equal dignity, to label and treat them as second-class citizens, and to deem them unworthy of participation in one of the fundamental institutions of our society,” the Herald reported.

The couples in the Miami-Dade lawsuit were allowed to marry about six months later, the Herald reported. A federal judge’s ruling in a separate case would allow same-sex couples throughout the state to marry the next day, Jan. 6, 2015, the New York Times reported. Diaz and Johnston married in March 2015, according to Miami-Dade County records.

Cathy Pareto and Karla Arguello were among the plaintiffs to sue alongside Diaz and Johnston in Miami-Dade. They told the Democrat they were shocked by the news of Diaz-Johnston’s death.

“It’s an unspeakable tragedy,” Pareto said. “He was such a sweet man, very calm demeanor, always levelheaded and positive. I can’t comprehend who would ever hurt this poor man.”

In a Facebook post last week, Don Diaz-Johnston called his husband’s death a “profound loss.”

“He touched so many people with his kind and generous heart,” he wrote.

Manny Diaz, the chair of the Florida Democratic Party and Miami’s mayor from 2001 to 2009, in a statement on Twitter thanked local law enforcement for working “tirelessly to locate and investigate the circumstances surrounding my brother’s disappearance.”

“My brother was such a special gift to this world whose heart and legacy will continue to live on for generations to come,” Diaz added.

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