Remembering the Backstreet Cafe Shooting, 20 years later

2020 Pride Month

ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — Joel Tucker was enjoying a night out with friends at the Backstreet Café on Salem Avenue when a man in a trench coat stood up, walked towards the door, and opened fire.

“I just saw the fire coming out of that gun, and that’s something I’ll never forget,” Tucker recalled.

Roanoke City Police responded to a report of shots fired on Sept. 22, 2000. Tuesday marks the anniversary of this shooting, and those affected by it are speaking up.

At 11:51 p.m., police arrived on-scene to find 43-year-old hairdresser Danny Overstreet already dead. A longtime friend of Overstreet and the bartender that night got to the scene just after the shooting occurred.

“Allen was crying and Danny was still on the floor, and they hadn’t covered him up yet, and I went in and got table cloths and threw over top of his body so you couldn’t see him.”

Frank Spencer said there was blood everywhere. Tucker was shot in the back that night, the bullet narrowly missing his spine.

“I got shot on Friday, I had a bullet in my back, that missed my spine by an eighth of an inch, it went to the right. I guess it must’ve hit a piece of wood in the booth, and then it stopped it from going any further.”

When Roanoke City Police approached the shooter, Ronald Gay told police that he had “come from the [expletive] bar and blew ’em away.”

Gay is said to have targeted the bar because he was ridiculed for his last name. Now, he is serving multiple life sentences for the offense.

“Danny was a sweetheart,” said Spencer. “Danny was lovable, nothing but a sweetheart.”

For 17 years, Spencer and his friend Larry Smith were close friends with Overstreet, ever since they met in the early 80s.

“Danny comes strolling in through the Trade Winds,” said Spencer, “and I said, ‘Lord have mercy. Who is this?’ And you had to, you wanted to meet him.”

They describe Overstreet as joyful and funny, from his infectious laugh, which his friends still have a recording of, to his celebrity impressions.

“I loved it when he did Phyllis Diller,” said Spencer. “He even sounded like Phyllis.”

“He’d hold that cigarette thing,” said Smith, “and go, ‘Ah hah!'”

Smith also described him as selfless and remembered stories such as when Danny would help strangers move.

“He said, ‘I’ll go with you, I’ve got a pickup truck.’ He’d never met this person before.”

“That was Danny,” added Spencer. “That was Danny.”

They still remember Danny, 20 years after his murder at the Backstreet Café. Now, they’re tasked with carrying on his memory, along with the countless gay men, and other LGBTQ people, of their generation who died young from the HIV epidemic.

“We lost a lot,” said Smith.

“And we couldn’t count them,” said Spencer. “If we sat here, we couldn’t count them. If we sat here, we couldn’t count how many we’ve lost.”

Smith flipped through a photo album, pointing out friends he’s lost over the years.

“He’s dead, that was my roommate, he’s dead, he’s passed away just the other month.”

The lifelong friends share a sense of duty to keep their stories alive.

“My life is done,” said Spencer, “Larry’s life is done, every gay man that was back in them days, their life is over with if you throw the history away of what happened in Roanoke, Virginia.”

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