“His life was cut short” — Highland Park honors the memory and legacy of a gay man murdered more than 30 years ago

Bobby Brown, c.1982-83 | Courtesy Ruth Riley

A ceremony will be held on Thursday, Feb. 1 to name the intersection of Figueroa Street and Avenue 41  in honor of Bobby Brown, who was fatally shot 34 years ago after leaving a nearby gay bar. Writer Helin Jung interviewed Brown’s sisters and boyfriend to find out more about the man who is being honored.


HIGHLAND PARK — Of Julie Zison’s four siblings, her favorite was always her older brother Bobby.

Bobby was kind and well liked. “When he walked in a room, the whole vibe changed,” she said recently, recalling decades-old memories of her brother.

Then, in November 1983, at the age of 24, Robert Anthony Brown was shot and killed near The Bon Mot, a gay bar  that once operated near Figueroa Street and Avenue 41. His death and what some claim was police indifference to the crime prompted the formation of the Uptown Gay and Lesbian Alliance. The same intersection near the murder scene will be renamed the Bobby Brown Uptown Gay and Lesbian Alliance Square.

Brown’s murder had faded from public view over the decades until the alliance approached city officials about honoring his memory. The man who was arrested in connection with Brown’s murder, Thomas Adam Cabuto, was granted parole last November (the LAPD is asking the state parole board to reconsider its decision).

While Brown’s death may have been forgotten by the public, Zison and her sister, Ruth Riley, still talk about their brother regularly more than three decades after his death. But what remains are fragments, bleary bits of memory where a whole person used to be.

Ruth, 56, was two years younger than Bobby and still misses him acutely. “I have had dreams, even here it is 34 years later, that I have found out my brother is alive and he’s been hiding from us,” she said.

Bobby told Ruth everything, including that he liked other boys. That was when he was only 11 or 12-years-old. “Bobby didn’t care,” Ruth said. “Bobby was definitely one of those people that was, ‘you’re going to like me the way I am or you’re not going to like me at all.’”

Figueroa and Avenue 41 would be named in honor of Bobby Brown and the gay support group formed after his death

Apart from their father, who the sisters say was aggressively homophobic toward Bobby, the family accepted him as gay and welcomed his boyfriends, usually much older and wealthier men.

His last long-term boyfriend was Joel Ketzbeck, who was 17 years Bobby’s senior. They met at The Bon Mot on Figueroa when Bobby sent Ketzbeck a beer. They had what Ketzbeck characterized as an on-off relationship — “in straight terms” —that lasted two years until Bobby’s death.

“I don’t think he had a mean bone in his body,” said Ketzbeck, now 75. “He was one of those that could light up a room and get along with everybody there.”

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Being as social as he was, Bobby liked to frequent The Bon Mot and Tykes, another former bar on the same block. He and Ketzbeck were together at The Bon Mot the night of his death. Bobby stayed behind at the bar after Ketzbeck went home. Bobby was attacked and robbed outside the bar, but got away and returned to the bar to call police and Ketzbeck. When police arrived on the scene, officers reportedly did not pursue an investigation. Then, as Bobby left the bar with a friend, he was shot in the chest by one of the robbers who had attacked him earlier that night.

“His life was cut short very young,” Ruth said. “He never got to go out there and find out what his potential was. Have his own family.”

After Bobby’s death, the Brown family became more fractured. Their father’s alcoholism had rendered him legally blind by 1983, and he died in 1984. Their mother’s health started to deteriorate as well.

“Every time something shitty happens in the family, I think, ‘You know this wouldn’t have happened if Bobby was still here,'” Julie said. “Bobby was the center of the family. He was always the driving force.”

Bobby’s memory kept the Brown family connected to Ketzbeck, who is still in regular contact with Ruth. And Ruth, who for the last 30 years has been in a relationship with a woman, has recently become more active in the Uptown Gay and Lesbian Alliance while they work to preserve her brother’s legacy.

For Bobby, who wasn’t much of an activist for gay rights while he was alive, the impact his death had on the community would have been unexpected. “I think he would be dumbfounded about it that he made such an impact,” Ketzbeck said.

But Ruth thinks Bobby—always so comfortable being the center of attention—would have loved it.

“He’s probably up there going, ‘Woo hoo!'”

The dedication ceremony will be held at 10 am on Thursday, Feb. 1 at Figueroa Street and Avenue 41.

Helin Jung is a freelance writer in LA

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