leo koury
leo koury

The Strange Tale of Leo Koury, the ‘Godfather of Richmond, Virginia’s Gay Community’

In the early days of gay bars, it wasn’t uncommon for gay bars to be owned by organized crime — the mob. After all, if there’s something people want that’s illegal (or otherwise “improper”) criminals will profit. And, as any consultant will tell you, the more organized you are, the more successful you’ll be. We have prohibition to thank for the rise of the mob in the United States. But can mobsters change? That’s the question raised by the bizarre story of Leo Koury.

Who was Leo Koury?

Though he’d go on to own a number of gay bars in Richmond, Virginia, Koury himself was straight. He was married with four children. Still, he called himself the Godfather of Richmond’s gay community. But how did he get it start?

Koury’s family ran restaurants; he worked at them for a number of years, which is how he earned his money. He used that money to start buying gay bars in the early 1970s. At the time, men could be turned away from straight bars for being gay — or just assumed gay. By providing a place for these men to go, he made a  lot of money.

Richmond’s gay community generally liked Koury. Bill Harrison of Diversity Richmond told WTVR:

The community, I think, looked at Leo as a friend, because he provided us with the safe place for the community to gather. Back in those days we didn’t have the organizations and the foundations that we have today. So the bars were the main focus of the gay community.

 

Leo Koury was not a saint

Let’s not get too busy praising Koury. Though he did provide gay bars where queer men could gather, he also drastically overcharged his patrons. Koury had a monopoly of gay bars in Richmond that lasted for most of the 1970s. His monopoly ended in 1978 when he was charged with murder, racketeering and other offenses that happened at his gay bars.

The murder happened at one of his old bars, The Male Box (formerly Smitty’s) in 1977. The year before, Koury gave Smitty’s to a relative who renamed it. But Koury ended up wanting it back — so a co-conspirator of Koury’s fired a shotgun into the crowd at the bar. Albert Thomas was killed and two others were injured.

The motive only came out later. The gay community was terrified, thinking the shooting was a brutal homophobic attack.

 

Leo Koury goes on the lam

Though he was charged with murder by a grand jury, Koury hadn’t yet been arrested. Before that could happen, he left Richmond. Running landed Koury on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List in 1979.

Rumors swirled. He was said to have gone to South America with $1 million in cash. However, the truth was more mundane. Koury moved to San Diego and changed his name to William Franklin Biddle.

“Biddle” lived alone and seemed to be broke. He worked as a part-time convenience store clerk. In June of 1991, he died in a San Diego hospital from a brain hemorrhage. While trying to find “Biddle’s” family, a case worker got a tip that “Biddle” had $25,000 in a safe deposit box and maybe he should run “Biddle’s” fingerprints. The case worker did so, only to discover “Biddle” was actually Leo Koury.

But Koury had seemingly turned over a new leaf. People who knew him as Biddle said he was a devout Catholic who was fluent in both Spanish and Arabic. He would frequently help people who needed it — usually by lending or giving away money.

As the FBI found out Koury had finally been located — as a corpse — they closed his case. Koury had spent 12 years on the FBI’s Most Wanted List — longer than anyone else.

 

Featured photo courtesy of WTVR