May 24 2017 11:30 AM

Friends to remember murdered friend at candlelight vigil tonight

Kevin Wirth and his friend of 16 years, Michelle Paye, drinking 'large beers' at Leo's Outpost. Wirth was murdered in his home in Lansing Sunday morning.

Courtesy photo

WEDNESDAY, May 24 — “The crab soup,” Christin Harris said with laughter.

“Yes. The crab soup,” echoed Michelle Paye. “He always had to have the crab soup.”

“And cheese bread,” Harris added.

From there, their friend Kevin Wirth would enjoy the “large beers” and eat even more food, the two women said.

This is how Harris, 25, and Paye, 28, remembered Wirth. Eating, laughing and enjoying the company of friends at his favorite Lansing hangout, Leo’s Outpost, on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Wirth, 27, was found beaten and stabbed to death in his eastside home early Sunday morning, Lansing’s seventh homicide this year.

Neely
Larkin Henry Neely Jr., 30, of Detroit was arraigned this morning on one count of felony open murder and one count of armed robbery, another felony charge. District Judge Hugh Clarke Jr. set a cash bond of $25 million for Neely if he wanted to get out on bail. Neely will appear before 54-A District Judge Frank DeLuca on June 1 for a pre-trial conference and again on June 8 for a preliminary examination.

Wirth was gay, but Lansing Police Chief Michael Yankowski said it was too early to speculate on whether his sexual orientation played a role.

Harris, Paye and other friends will gather at 8 tonight at the Nuthouse Sports Grill, 420 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing, for a candlelight vigil. The public is invited.

Both women said he was gregarious, to a fault.

“You’d get random snapchats from him with someone at the bar,” Paye said with a laugh.

“He was always posting selfies with random people,” said Harris.

Harris and Paye described Wirth as a “goofball,”“larger than life” and “not shy at all.”

“He loved to laugh and make jokes,” said Harris. “So he was just the life of the party, really, is the best way to put it. He would change the environment just by walking in the door. And in the best way possible.”

Harris met Wirth 10 years ago while the two worked in a haunted house, he as a butcher and she as his victim. Paye met him 16 years ago at a church youth group. Both said he didn’t meet strangers, only his next group of friends.

Police were tight-lipped about the investigation. They were called to his home just before 7 a.m. Sunday to respond to a burglar alarm. They found his back door open. During a scene check, officers located Wirth’s body beaten and stabbed.

Monday afternoon, Lansing Police, working with the Michigan State Police Fugitive Team and the U.S. Marshall Service, tracked the suspect to a residential neighborhood in Detroit, where he was placed under arrest.

The discovery of their friend's body coincided with both women discovering eerily prescient text messages sent by him during the early morning hours. Harris said he’d texted on Saturday night from a Starfarm concert at the Nuthouse. He was excited to have met a man in town from Detroit “for a construction job.” She asked for a picture of the stranger, and Wirth sent one.

Early Sunday morning, while Harris slept in her hotel room in Boston and Paye slept in her home in Lapeer, a series of ever-more panicked text messages were sent by Wirth. The man had come back with him to his home and had taken a picture of his identification card and “texted it to his boss,” one text message read. “Why would he do that?” he asked Harris.

His texts expressed concern for his safety. And then they stopped.

Next both women, who are listed as emergency contacts with his Xfinity security system, had missed calls from the security service about an alarm for an unclosed back door. Neither could reach Wirth by phone.

When Harris called, however, a “stranger” answered. He’d found the phone. She expressed her concerns for Wirth’s safety, believing based on his text messages he may have been robbed. That’s when the stranger delivered the message: “I hope your friend wasn't over by Pennsylvania and Kalamazoo because there was a homicide.”

“I knew,” Harris said quietly.

Why Wirth invited the man back to his home is unknown. Harris and Paye said inviting people over to play host was something Wirth enjoyed doing, “regardless of whether they were gay, straight, whatever.” Wirth was gay, but out to Lansing friends. His mother, Edwina Ward, and sister, knew he was gay as well. His father, Kurt Wirth, did not.

But experts in hate and bias crimes say the publicly available details on Wirth’s killing provide telltale signs of a possible bias motivation in the crime. Emily Dievendorf, president of the Lansing Association for Human Rights, a local LGTBQ advocacy organization, said the brutality of the killing was a key sign.

“It's a crime against a community,” said Dievendorf of bias crimes and the brutality associated with them. ”It's a crime because there's a hate of the person. Because they exist. The violence doesn't stop. And in this case we saw that.”

Harris said while a motive is unknown in the killing, she does not blame members of the LGBTQ community for being concerned that the murder may have been a bias crime.

“I hope that this is a situation that doesn’t make our LGBT community feel more unsafe than what they already probably do now,” she said. “But at the end of the day, like I said, really nobody is going to know why he did this except for him.”

Regardless of the motivation for the brutal murder, both women, and Wirth’s numerous strangers turned friends are left questioning why and mourning the “life of the party.”

“Kevin was amazing, dude,” said Paye.