It was supposed to be a quick hookup. Meet the guy, have sex, go back home.
At around 5 p.m. on December 24th, 2019, in Swartz Creek, Michigan — a suburb about 20 minutes southwest of Flint — Kevin Bacon, a 25-year-old hairdresser, headed out to meet a guy he met on Grindr, the dating and hookup app for predominantly gay, bisexual, and transgender men.
Bacon was upset. He was having family problems, says Michelle Myers, a longtime friend and Bacon’s roommate. After finishing work that afternoon at the salon across from his home, he met up with his sister and mother to do their hair. He learned from them that someone he didn’t want to see was coming for dinner, according to text messages reviewed by Rolling Stone, so he decided not to go. He looked for a distraction. He went on Grindr.
Myers and other of Bacon’s friends say this wasn’t abnormal behavior for Kevin. Like many young men, he often bragged to his friends about his casual relationships. But he also used sex to escape his problems, his friends say. Among those problems, he hated being in the suburban, slow town of Swartz Creek. “You come here and there’s just so much that’s like, really outdated,” Myers says. “It just felt like we were missing out.”
Standing over six feet tall with a husky build, Bacon’s flamboyant style stood out among the droves of suburbanites — he sometimes carried a purse, and he had an eye for designer clothes. Despite only being in his mid-20s, he was already sporting a receding hairline, and would often dye it colors. “Everyone knew Kevin,” says Sarah Hope Spencer, a close friend. “He’s big, tall, and usually had something crazy going on.”
Overall, 2019 had been a torturous year, but Bacon had started to turn it around. He was planning a move to Chicago to be closer to friends, and part of a more diverse gay community. But staying on a structured spending plan was not easy for Bacon, as he constantly struggled with money. So he was stuck in Swartz Creek, at least for the time being.
When he got back to the apartment he shared with Myers that Christmas Eve, he decided to look for a date. During his time scrolling on his phone, he and his roommate discussed her plans for the evening — a game night and some drinks at a friend’s place — and he eventually found a guy who lived nearby. Bacon got ready and left in his car shortly after 5 p.m., according to his roommate. A Nest doorbell camera captured him walking out the door. He never came home.
The next day, after he missed Christmas breakfast with his family, his father called the police. For three days, friends, family, and authorities looked for Bacon. The local news stations tagged along with the search. Friends came in from Flint and other nearby towns to scout railroads, brushes, and farmland. They thought if he were dead, he would be at least in a field somewhere or out in the open.
But while people searched open fields, Kevin was underground, strung up in the basement of a stone cottage in a rural area about 20 miles out of town, with his throat slit. The alleged assailant was his date, Mark Latunski, who would quickly confess to the crime. But the details of his murder were more gruesome than his worried loved ones could imagine.
Like many suburban towns on the outskirts of tertiary cities, Swartz Creek is notable for its simplicity. People who live there often mention its small-town living with proximity to a bigger city, Flint, which is a short drive away.
Driving in, you pass through acres of farmland to reach the edge of Swartz Creek, population 5,500. The city brims over with strip malls and country-styled restaurants. A dilapidated water tower bearing the city’s name is worn from the rain and snow. Miller Road, the city’s main drag, parallels a 33-mile tributary to the south, also named Swartz Creek. The waterway edges along the city, landscaping the backyards of ranch homes set against long gravel driveways. Small duplexes with tiny, manicured lawns become more prominent as it gets closer to the city’s main center.
A couple miles more, passing the dollar stores, dive bars, and strip malls, and you come to a large mall, The Genesee Commons, which housed the JC Penney where Bacon had started as a receptionist, working his way up to hair stylist.
The job was a calling to him. In high school, he tested out new hairdos on his girlfriends. And though he gave a valiant effort, they sometimes felt trepidation when Bacon got experimental. Still, he became experienced enough where he sometimes did a friend’s son’s hair, and eventually his roommate. It wasn’t what his father, Karl, a packaging engineer, wanted him to pursue, according to Kevin’s friends. Kevin told them Karl expected him to go into a technical trade, and forego the pie-in-the-sky sentimentalities of being a famous hairdresser. (Karl and other members of Bacon’s family did not return phone calls or emails for this story.)
So, Bacon started out by going to local Baker College — he had gotten into his dream school, Eastern Michigan University, but he couldn’t afford the $200 housing deposit, his friends say. But even during college, Myers says that Bacon was always fond of doing hair. So, she says, he dropped out and got his cosmetology license.
Even then, however, he was frustrated with the low pay. One time, he disappeared to the state’s upper peninsula, telling his friends he was going there to work — they didn’t know what the job was, only that it paid well. But he came back nine days later, saying he was bored by the rural area. Among other things, he said, the dating scene for gay men was basically non-existent.
Eventually, Bacon went back to school, this time at the University of Michigan-Flint, working hair gigs on the side, and even holding down a brief stint at the college’s Center for Gender and Sexuality in 2019. He seemed to be working toward a future he could be proud of.
But he had a troubled side, too. According to his friends, Bacon had a history of depression and body-image issues, sometimes spiraling to the point of causing self-harm. He would eat his emotions, alternating between starving himself and binging, or cut himself on his legs and arms. And he was triggered into dangerous situations. Myers, his roommate, remembers going to see A Star Is Born in October 2018. She says he was “out of it” after watching the hanging scene. The next day, he overdosed on pills and had to get his stomach pumped, according to text messages between her and Bacon’s mother. A month later, according to Myers, his mother took him back to the hospital after he said he didn’t feel safe.
In November 2019, Bacon cut himself so many times that “you couldn’t see his skin,” Myers recalls. Two weeks later, he again checked himself into a psychiatric treatment center.
Part of the way he dealt with his depression was by finding new partners online. “Kevin’s biggest thing was he just always wanted to feel loved and he never felt accepted by, you know, men and things like that,” Woodley says. “And I think that’s probably why he was always on the dating apps and, you know, Tinder and stuff like that.”
But Bacon’s emotional life was complicated even more by his relationships. His friends say the men he dated often psychologically abused him. His roommate describes one man who aggressively accused Bacon of cheating. Another man seemed to just be using Kevin for rides. The two men were examples of “projects,” Myers says, adding that Bacon often attracted broken men in hopes of fixing them.
These failed relationships pushed him deeper into depression, says Kimberly Nguyen, who became close with Bacon when they worked together at the U of M-Flint’s Center for Gender and Sexuality in 2019, but later moved to Chicago. “He was losing himself because he also had things that he was struggling with,” she says.
When Bacon visited Nguyen in Chicago, the two partied in the city’s gay district, Boys Town, and Bacon vowed to move to the city. But after returning back to Swartz Creek, he again struggled to manage his finances, slipped into a state of depression, and went searching online for another person he could love and fix.
Vanessa Woodley, a longtime friend, describes seeing him at his lowest in late 2019, after a relationship had ended. Twice that fall, she says, she had to drive him to a psychiatric hospital. “It’s hard seeing your friend like that,” she says. “He was really upset about [the relationship] … he just wanted so desperately to not feel like that.”
Maybe it was the gory details of the case that drew media attention, or his famous name that made it such a compelling story. The murder drew international headlines — the Washington Post, The Daily Beast, the UK’s Daily Mail — and it didn’t take long for local outlets to find out that there might have been signs this was coming. Bacon was the third man, it turned out, who’d allegedly been attacked by Latunksi. (Latunski’s attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)
On October 10th, 2019, James Carlsen, 48, called 911, claiming that he’d been kidnapped and awoken in the basement. “I met this guy,” Carlsen said on the phone, exasperated. “I’m bi. He’s cute. He hit on me. I don’t know, we went out to the car and talked. We went to the store, had a soda. I woke up in the basement.”
Carlsen told the operator he’d been chained up, and freed himself using a butcher knife to cut off the leather strap that bound his wrists. He escaped the house — butcher knife in hand — and stole his captor’s car keys before running down Tyrell Road, a three-mile stretch that runs parallel to Interstate 69.
“I’ve never ever had anything like this happen,” he told the operator after he ran. “I don’t know if he drugged me. All is know is, I ended up locked up in the fucking basement, OK? Chained in the basement.” Within 10 minutes, troopers arrived to find Carlsen on the side of the road. Carlsen told officers the man was a stranger. He declined to press charges.
Soon a fuller version of his story came to light when, in June 2020, he filed a federal lawsuit against Latunski: in it, Carlsen claimed that he had taken a bus from New York to Michigan explicitly to have sex with Latunski. But when he got there, “Latunski would end up chaining him down in his basement and holding him captive,” the court complaint reads.
Six weeks after Carlsen’s run-in with Latunski, on the afternoon of November 25th, a 29-year-old man ran out of the same home and called 9-1-1. He escaped wearing a leather kilt that belonged to Latunski, and Latunski chased after him. “I’m trying to get away from some creepy guy; he had me tied up in his basement,” the man told the operator, according to an audio recording released by the county. (His name was redacted from the call and records.) “He’s after me.”
Soon after, he ran to a neighbor’s home, pleading with them in the 9-1-1 audio to give him an address he could give to the police.
A state trooper showed up at the neighbor’s house, but once again no charges were filed. (The state police spokesperson later told the local papers that Latunski was only chasing the man because the leather kilt was expensive.) Again, despite the frantic calls of a man complaining of being chained and held captive, police played down the seriousness, and said that nobody wanted officers involved.
State police officials say there was nothing they could do at the time of either incident, because the two men chose not to press charges. They believe that’s because the victims wanted to keep the events of those nights secret. “Nobody wanted the police there. Nobody wanted to file charges,” former Michigan State Police Lt. David Kaiser said in January 2020. “A lot of times people have a professional life and personal life. They don’t want to intertwine the two. Their personal life is very secret, very protected.” (Kaiser has since retired, but a representative for the department confirmed the official position has not changed.)
Carlsen’s lawyer, Jon Marko, takes issue with this explanation. “That’s just not true, OK?” he says. “You don’t call the police unless you need the police and you want them there.”
Marko, who has represented clients who have brought lawsuits against Michigan law-enforcement agencies, says that officers dropped Carlsen off at a gas station with no money or way to get back home, and didn’t inquire any further into what happened. He suggested that had his client not been a gay man, the situation would have been treated differently.
“There should have been further investigation, there should have been further follow up,” he says. “Just some basic police work, and some basic follow up, I think, could have changed this whole situation. And Mr. Bacon might be alive.” Bacon’s friends agree. “How come [Latunski] wasn’t questioned then? Is it because it’s just gay guys doing stuff in a basement?” Myers asks. She brings up a point a friend made to her after Bacon’s death: “What would have happened if a girl was chained in the basement and ran out of there? Even if she said don’t worry about it, [maybe] the police would have investigated it more.”
In some cases, where people live together or are in an intimate relationship, the state can file charges on their own. But that wouldn’t necessarily happen with people who just met on a casual hookup, says Trish Gerard, a prosecutor for Wayne County who handles domestic violence cases. “The legislature went to great lengths to define a dating relationship,” she says, adding that a hookup or casual meeting from an app, as was the case for Carlsen and the unnamed man, wouldn’t have triggered the police to force an investigation or arrest.
In cases of stranger assault such as this, however, police have the ability to persuade victims to make a complaint, according to Shiawassee County Prosecutor Scott Koerner. “[Police should] investigate to the extent they are able, but there is a limit to how much the police can do without a complaining witness,” says Koerner. “There is also a place for the police to balance and respect the wishes of a crime victim against society’s interest in pursuing criminals. One of the ways the police can do that is persuasion; trying to convince the complaining witness to cooperate with the investigation.”
But even if police had launched an investigation, there are those who say that it may not have made a difference, because assault cases — especially those with reluctant witnesses — are difficult to prosecute, and often result in little jail time. Though in Michigan assault convictions can carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine, without complaining witnesses, convictions become less likely.
“There will always be that argument that if we had just done it here, right, in that first case, then we wouldn’t have the third case, which makes a lot of problematic assumptions,” says Leigh Goodmark, who teaches the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. “Part of the assumption that’s being made there is that if there had been an arrest, there would have been a prosecution. And if there had been a prosecution, there would have been a conviction. And if there had been a conviction, there would have been incarceration, and there would have been incarceration for enough time that he would not have interacted with the other men that he interacted with.” But it’s impossible to know what would have happened if Latunski been arrested sooner.
When officers arrived at Latunski’s home late at night on December 27th, he answered the door in a leather kilt, according to the Lansing State Journal. He did not appear nervous, according to the local newspaper, allowing authorities to search the house. When police found Bacon’s body, lifeless and strung up in the basement, Latunski quickly admitted to the crime. After being read his rights, he said he planned to use Bacon’s blood and bones to fertilize plants on his property; he hoped to use his muscles for jerky. (In fact, the Journal wrote, the Postal Service would intercept a package — a dehydrator — just days after the murder.) For the time being, Latunski had fried and eaten his testicles. He was charged with two felonies: homicide and mutilation of a dead body. Initially, he said his name was Wilk Olykos Vilkas. He later claimed he was really Edgar Thomas Hill from the Thomas Clan of Wales, but he’d changed his name to Mark Latunski for his own protection.
Long before being arrested for allegedly murdering and cannibalizing a young man, Latunski, a father of four, appeared to live a normal and productive life. After graduating from college in 1991, according to the Des Moines Register, he interned for Dow Chemical, and four years later earned a master’s degree in chemistry from Iowa State. The Register reported that his ex-wife, whom he married in 2001, told a divorce-court judge he had earned a good living — over $100,000 a year for a time. But his mental health began to slip. He received diagnoses on two occasions, in 2010 and 2012. He was determined to have “severe, recurrent, and chronic major depression with psychotic features, adjustment disorder with depression and anxiety with paranoid schizophrenia, and borderline personality traits,” according to court records reviewed by the Register. He and his wife split in 2013. According to reports of his divorce, his ex-wife claimed that he refused to take medication, and when he was off it, he would act erratic — watching torture films, and even threatening to get rid of his children’s animals.
In a request for mental evaluation, his attorney cited this slip from reality. “The Defendant is so overwhelmingly fixated on a conspiracy theory involving multiple nations/countries and involved in multiple trust accounts,” he wrote in the request for the forensic evaluation.
Initially, Latunski claimed that Bacon had asked him to end his life, and that he’d slit his throat as part of that agreement. But according to the Lansing Journal, the evidence showed that he took precautions to protect himself: police recovered messages from Bacon’s phone asking his date to confirm to him that he would be safe. Latunski’s lawyer, Douglas Corwin, later tried to add a charge of assisted suicide, to assert this claim; the judge denied his request.
In January 2020, Corwin entered an insanity plea for Latunski; that February, a judge ruled he was incapable of standing trial. But that October, the court reversed the decision, saying he was able to start trial proceedings. His trial is set to begin in July 2021; he is facing life in prison.
Though Myers is not looking for someone to blame for her friend’s death, she often wonders what could have been done to help Bacon that night, or at least make sure he was still around today.
Since Bacon disappeared, there have been at least two other known cases where men died after meeting other men on hookup apps, including one in Berlin, where a teacher allegedly cannibalized his date after meeting him on Grindr. And that’s Myers’ biggest takeaway from all this: how do people stay safe in an age where a hookup is as anonymous as it is quick to find?
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Grindr said that people at the company, “were heartbroken and horrified to hear about this terrible tragedy, and share our condolences with Mr. Bacon’s family and friends. While for privacy reasons we do not offer public comment on individual user accounts or our direct interactions with law enforcement, we remain fully committed to working with law enforcement any time we are contacted as part of an investigation.”
Myers sees app safety as a place to start, a way to save others from meeting their murderer online.“There are things that could be done with location finding,” she says, referencing the possibility that phone app creators can build in safety nets for their users, as Tinder did in a partnership with Noonlight. “But the way this happened, I don’t know what could‘ve been done.”
In December, family and friends of Bacon’s went to Flint Rock to paint a mural in his honor. They had done the same thing a year before, with a colorful rainbow and a portrait of Bacon with his trademark purple hair. This year, it was simpler: Just his name.
But Myers and Woodley, Kevin’s friend who drove him to the hospital, stayed home. Woodley’s sister gave her a painted portrait of Bacon, while Myers celebrated him quietly after being diagnosed with Covid-19 in mid-December.
Myers says she doesn’t forget the week she gathered scores of people to go and search for her vivacious, loving, and compassionate friend, where they all went in hoping for the best and experiencing the worst. “I’m still getting flashbacks to last year when we were out searching,” she says. “Christmas will always feel weird, but hopefully it will get better.”