WATERLOO, IA - People who knew Jason Gage say he had a rare ability to energize any room, made friends easily and would do anything for someone in need, like the time he gave a drunk stranger $46 for a taxi ride home.
The 29-year old waiter, who dreamed of one day styling hair in a big city salon, was also openly gay and, friends say, a persistent and flamboyant flirt.
Gage was found dead two weeks ago in his downtown apartment, bludgeoned with a beer bottle and stabbed in the neck with a shard of glass. Within hours, police had arrested 23-year-old Joseph Lawrence and charged him with first-degree murder.
Reports that Gage may have made sexual advances toward his alleged attacker and the outpouring of grief has many here drawing parallels to the brutal 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was lashed to a Wyoming fence, beaten and left in the cold to die.
''Parts of the equation are different, but the end result is the same,'' said Chris Thompson, one of Gage's friends. ''There seems no doubt to me that he died because of his lifestyle ... that this was a crime of hate.''
According to a police affidavit, Lawrence, who had moved from Arizona a month earlier, acknowledged striking Gage twice with a bottle in the head and stabbing him with a piece of glass.
Lawrence's fiancee, Elizabeth Hostetler, said he told her Gage had made sexual advances.
''Something physical would have had to have happened for Joey to react that way,'' Hostetler, who is six months pregnant, told The Associated Press. ''But I also know it was not a hate crime -- that it was not premeditated. I know he did not mean for any of this to happen.''
One of Matthew Shepard's attackers had claimed he snapped in a drunken rage when Shepard made a sexual advance.
Unlike other states, Iowa does not have a hate crime classification for murder. If convicted, Lawrence faces life in prison without parole.
''Murder in the first degree is murder -- there is nothing in the state higher than that,'' said Linda Myers, assistant Black Hawk County attorney, who declined to comment on details of the ongoing investigation.
Gage, originally from Oelwein, a small town about 50 miles northwest of Cedar Rapids, had lived in Chicago and Minneapolis before moving to Waterloo several years ago.
He lived downtown, waiting tables at an Italian restaurant on the ground floor of his apartment building and was a regular at nearby bars and clubs. His classes at the College of Hair Design, where he enrolled in 2003, were just a short trek across the Cedar River.
''Jason had grand plans,'' said Deb McFarland, financial aid officer at the school. ''He really had a knack with customers -- people would come in and say they wanted their hair done a certain way. Jason wasn't afraid to say 'no way' and do things his own way.''
News of his death sent ripples of grief through the community.
Police blocked off a downtown street so friends could hold a candlelight vigil outside his apartment building. A day later, his family and classmates held a late-night memorial outside the beauty school.
Hundreds attended his wake in Oelwein, and his funeral drew a crowd too big for the small funeral home.
''We're very confused and angry and frustrated,'' said Michelle Gage, Jason's older sister. ''We don't know why anyone would hurt him. He was so loving and compassionate. We hurt to our souls.''
Among his vast network of friends, efforts are under way to raise money for a scholarship fund in his name. Hundreds of T-shirts with his image and handcrafted pins have been sold. Three city churches passed collection plates for Gage at recent services. And a benefit has been scheduled next month at the city's convention center.
''It's a celebration for him, for who he was and to raise awareness about what happened and how things like this can be avoided in the future,'' said Les Akers, owner of The Times bar, where Gage often showed up at closing time just to help wipe down tables and clean up.
Hostetler, the suspect's fiancee, said Lawrence and Gage met for the first time several days before the slaying at a local bar.
Witnesses say Lawrence and Gage were together the night Gage was killed, bouncing from bar to bar, including the local gay club, ''Kings and Queens'' before heading to an after hours party.
Friends who had not heard from Gage had police check on him several days later. They found his body, sprawled on the floor.
Hostetler says her boyfriend has homosexual friends and she insists there is more to the incident than has been reported so far.
''My friends who knew Jason have told me that when he was drinking, he would hit on you if he wanted, that he didn't care if a person was straight or gay,'' she said.