If Knot Now …

A film documents the struggle of Mickie Mashburn — cop, lesbian, widow — for legal recognition

The last time I saw Mickie Mashburn in court was in May of 2003. Though no one in the local mainstream press ever called her this, she was the widow of Tampa Police Officer Lois Marrero, who was killed July 6, 2001, after a bank holdup.

Mashburn, also a Tampa police officer, exchanged wedding vows with Marrero 10 years before her death. They shared a home. They shared a career. They wore identical wedding bands. In the eyes of the Metropolitan Community Church, they were married.

But under Florida law, they were nothing more than roommates. She was forced to fight for pension benefits that would have gone to her automatically if she had been the spouse in a heterosexual couple.

That battle got almost as much publicity as the murder trial, which I covered as a criminal court reporter for the Tampa Tribune, but the civil suit's outcome went almost unnoticed. A documentary showing this weekend at the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, Tying the Knot, plus Mashburn's indomitable optimism, is now bringing her cause to a wider arena.

As the widow, Mashburn showed up every day in the 12-day criminal trial of Paula Gutierrez, the sole defendant tried for Marrero's death. Spectators gave up their seats so she could sit in the front row every day. She had the sympathy of those in the courtroom, in the newsrooms and, from what I could tell, she had the sympathy of the people in our town.

During the trial, her picture appeared in the two local dailies. Local TV stations ran video of her. She was on Court TV. When testimony revealed that Gutierrez's boyfriend, Nestor DeJesus, had shot Marrero in the neck with a MAC-11 semi-automatic handgun, the cameraman focused on Mashburn's reaction.

As the testimony became more emotional, court personnel worried about the gun Mashburn wore to court each day. A bailiff delicately broached the subject with her, and for the rest of the trial she wore civilian clothes instead of her police uniform.

Mashburn never complained about being asked to leave her gun outside the courtroom.

She was asked about DeJesus' suicide and why Gutierrez should be blamed for Marrero's death. She talked about Gutierrez being an active part in the holdup. She wanted Gutierrez to get life in prison.

During the criminal trial, I talked to Mashburn each day and often sat near her. Not once during that time did I hear her mention her battle with the city and Marrero's parents and siblings over the pension.

In fact, Mashburn often sat next to Brenda Marrero, Lois Marrero's sister, who was involved in the legal fight to get Marrero's pension.

I found it odd there wasn't a bunch of cops in uniform filling the seats to show solidarity or send jurors a message. One police officer sat next to Mashburn almost every day. A few other cops dropped in occasionally, but there just wasn't the presence of law enforcement spectators that I had seen in other cases involving violence against cops.

I spoke to one detective, who said many officers were afraid to show up because of the politics around Mashburn's attempt to get the pension benefits. At the time I didn't believe him, especially since I saw tough cops weep on the stand when they recounted seeing Marrero die. These men and women saw Marrero as one of their own. Not a lesbian cop. She was a cop. Period. They wouldn't allow a dispute over a pension to keep them away, I thought.

But after Gutierrez was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, Mashburn's fight to get the pension disappeared from the news. And when Hillsborough Circuit Judge Greg Holder ruled against Mashburn in April of this year, her case didn't get the headlines.

Now, with Tying the Knot, Mashburn's case is back in the news. The film, which screens at 8 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Tampa Theatre, documents her story and the plight of other gays and lesbians struggling to have their relationships legally recognized. Mashburn and her attorney will present a marriage workshop an hour before the film starts.

The movie shows Marrero's funeral. Police officers removed the flag from the slain police officer's coffin. Then Tampa Police Chief Bennie Holder handed the folded flag to Mashburn.

It was the last time a Tampa government official would recognize Mashburn's status as Marrero's spouse.

Marrero didn't have a will and hadn't made it clear who the pension benefits should go to if she died, said Mashburn's attorney, Karen Doering. None of that would have mattered if Marrero and Mashburn were a traditional couple — a man and a woman.

Doering argued that the city, by law, was required to ask the police officers to designate a beneficiary, but hadn't. Mashburn shouldn't be penalized because of the city's mistake.

City officials argued that without updated paperwork, the pension, worth about $200,000, should go to legal next of kin — in this case, Marrero's mother and father.

During the dispute, Marrero's family claimed she had had an affair with another woman she met on the Internet, Doering said. That wasn't true and shouldn't have come into the picture to tarnish the image of a fallen cop hero, Doering said.

"It was about them getting the money instead of Mickie," Doering said. She has appealed Judge Holder's ruling to the Florida Second District Court of Appeals.

In the meantime, Mashburn continues to stay above the fray. She doesn't complain publicly. Instead, she remains hopeful that lesbian and gay marriages will one day be recognized by the courts.

"We're going until we get the results we need for change," the optimistic Mashburn says in the movie. "Everything will be better then. It's just a slow process. But we're going to get there."

Joshua B. Good is a freelance writer living in Tampa.