It’s not overstating things to say that Jamie was a connector in Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ community and the entire community felt her loss. 

By Jody DiPerna 

I don’t remember who called to tell me, in February of 2002, that Jamie Stickle was dead, that she had been killed, but I do remember that the ground underfoot felt off-kilter. Much of the LGBTQ community couldn’t get our balance without her, and the death of this huge presence in gay Pittsburgh was heavy on everyone I knew.

I don’t want to insert myself into a story that isn’t mine, except to say that Jamie and I were friends. It was hard not to be friends with Jamie.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, LGBTQ life in Pittsburgh largely revolved around the city’s many gay bars. The community built in those spaces was tight and everybody knew Jamie, who tended bar at several downtown establishments. One of my closest friends worked as a barback for many years alongside Jamie at Images. Later, she worked at Sidekicks, just about a block down Liberty Avenue from Images. It’s not overstating things to say that Jamie was a connector in Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ community and the entire community felt her loss.

I try always to think of Jamie as I knew her best — audacious, funny and open — but it is also important to understand what happened on the night of February 8, 2002. Around 4:00 a.m., the Pittsburgh fire department was called to a car fire not far from the Heinz Plant. The car was an inferno, so hot that the tires melted. Once the fire was out, firefighters realized there was a body in the car. It was Jamie Stickle and it was her car.

In 2002, the gay community had seen enough death — everybody knew somebody who died during the height of the AIDS crisis and Jamie herself raised money tirelessly for HIV and AIDS research. But a death like Jamie’s? It was impossible to reorient in a world where such a horrible death was possible.

The case remains unsolved to this day, and in the 22 years since Jamie’s death, I’ve hoped for resolution or, at least, a fresh investigation. A podcasting team has been digging in, hoping to move the case forward and maybe find some answers. This week “The Girl with the Same Name” podcast will air its first episode investigating Jamie Stickle’s death.

The host is also named Jaime Stickle. It’s a strange circumstance, but it is how Jaime Stickle (the podcast host) was introduced to the story of Jamie Stickle (my friend). I spoke with Stickle and her partner and show editor Jason Beeber in advance of the first episode dropping. [For the purposes of this story, the podcast host will be referred to as ‘Stickle’ and my friend will always be ‘Jamie.’]

Stickle said that once she heard Jamie’s story, she would Google Jamie and the story never changed. She wanted it to change.

“I was waiting for an update, waiting for — new evidence in the case or the case has been solved, but it was that same article. It never, ever changed,” she said. “That really, really  bothered me.”

One of the strangest things about the case is that Jamie’s manner of death was categorized as “undetermined,” rather than a homicide, by the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office (now the  Medical Examiner’s office.) This has been a real problem for the investigation and for the peace of mind of Jamie’s family and friends.

At the scene, blood was found on the door of the car and on the door to Jamie’s apartment, about 20 feet from where the car was parked. The contents of her purse were strewn about. Those circumstances, as well as the manner of death, are, to put it mildly, suspicious. Stickle and Beeber spoke with former County Coroner Cyril Wecht at length. He indicated to them that the autopsy report left out critical information, at a minimum.

On February 6, 2012, as the tenth anniversary of Jamie’s death approached, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a story in which Karl Williams of the Medical Examiner’s Office said, “Once you rule a death undetermined, it tends to stay that way forever …”

Stickle says that one of their main goals with the podcast is to change the determination of Jamie’s death to homicide.

“We are determined to do that. We’re hoping that the story and the rallying around of both the press and the community will interest the police enough to reopen the file and take a closer look,” Stickle said.

In the immediate aftermath of Jamie’s death, many of the people closest to Jamie were advocating on her behalf and organized “United for Jamie” to raise reward money for any actionable tips. They were frustrated by the lack of movement on the case. I remember hearing from many people that they felt the case wasn’t important to the police — because of class and sexuality, Jamie wasn’t significant to the investigative powers that be. Stickle and Beeber have felt that, too, through their more than 170 hours of interviews and extensive review of records, documents and news stories.

“The bottom line was, she wasn’t important enough for someone to go back and do it right. That’s why we’ve done this particular story — because yes, she was. She was,” Stickle said.

There have been roadblocks, as there are with any investigation. The bureaucracy of Pennsylvania and Allegheny County can be difficult to navigate, as evidenced by Brittany Hailer’s court battle to obtain a single autopsy report which worked its way to Commonwealth Court and was eventually decided in favor of Hailer.

On top of that, there is the status of the case within the Pittsburgh Police Department.

“Officially, it’s not ‘officially closed,’” Stickle said. “They made it an inactive case after six months. They had no leads. And so at six months that was it.”

Basically, the case has been at this spot since that time, which is not to say that Jamie is forgotten. Her family, especially her sister Julie, is in constant touch with Stickle and Beeber and Jamie’s friends have never let her memory die.

You can see Jamie’s old North Side apartment at the corner of Chesbro and Saw Mill Streets from the bike trail sandwiched between River Avenue and the Allegheny River. I think of her every time I pass it. It makes me remember Jamie behind the bar. Inevitably, she would say something over the top outrageous and would likely call somebody she knew and loved a jagoff, with a big laugh behind it. If it was your first time into one of the bars where she worked, she made you feel you belonged as much as the regulars. It was her great gift.

She put people at ease because she always seemed so at ease with herself.

Jamie was quintessentially Pittsburgh — warm, but also brash and direct, with an urge to tease as much as anything. She had boldness and great style. She was profane without being crude. She would hold court behind the bar and it was a glorious thing to see her serving drinks, working the crowd, the night punctuated by her rambunctious laugh as she made the bar feel like a special place and you got the golden ticket.

She was also serious about fundraising and used her position in the LGBTQ community to work as an outspoken advocate and boots-on-the-ground philanthropist. Jamie raised money for the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force, the Mon Valley AIDS Task Force, Shepherd Wellness, and breast cancer research. She was able to reach a lot of people because she knew a lot of people. I wish I knew how much money she raised. I know it was a lot and I know that she was dogged in her efforts, never giving up on making a change.

A fresh investigation into the death of this bright light in the community is much needed and the team behind “The Girl with the Same Name” say that they are prepared for a marathon, if need be.

“We definitely made a promise that we would finish what we started and we’re not going to let people down. I can say that much. That’s not who we are,” Stickle said.

Photo courtesy of Mara Rago

This article has been republished by the generosity of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism

Jody DiPerna lives, reports and writes from her home in Pittsburgh. She is an award winning
journalist and one of the founders of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Currently,
she is researching a book about the importance of reading, writing and literary life in Appalachia for West Virginia University Press. She conducted one of her finest interviews in a rural laundromat.