W’Terrace resident known for his legal-advocacy work commits fiery suicide in P’Park

W’Terrace resident known for his legal-advocacy work commits fiery suicide in P’Park
Photo by Mark Mellone

A Windsor Terrace man burned himself to death early Saturday morning in Prospect Park, leaving behind charred remains that horrified passersby who started the weekend with a stroll in the green space.

Paramedics pronounced 60-year-old David Buckel dead when they found his body on the ground not far from a footpath near the park entrance at 10th Avenue and Prospect Park Southwest, after responding to a 911 call reporting a man on fire “rolling around in the grass” around 6:30 am, according to photographer Mark Mellone, who overheard the call on a police scanner and rushed to the scene.

Parts of Buckel’s body continued to burn for almost an hour as emergency responders attempted to shield the corpse from park-goers’ view with a white sheet, according to Mellone, who said he spent the morning warning dog walkers and other visitors about the grizzly sight when he wasn’t snapping pictures of it.

Police discovered a suicide note in a manilla folder stashed inside a grocery cart near the deceased’s corpse, which cops found just a few blocks away from his Prospect Park Southwest home, authorities said.

Buckel described his decision to take his life as a protest against humanity’s destruction of the environment in the note, which he also e-mailed to publications including the New York Times before setting himself ablaze, according to a Times report.

“Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather,” he wrote. “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”

Buckel also compared his self-immolation to similar suicides by Tibetan activists who ignited themselves in flame in protest of the region’s occupation by China, according to a New York Daily News report on the incident.

With his last breath: David Buckel, who championed gay rights as the director of the Lambda Legal Marriage Project, burned himself to death in an apparent suicide in Prospect Park on April 14.
Lambda Legal

“Many have chosen to give a life based on the view that no other action can most meaningfully address the harm they see,” his note read.

The deceased gained public recognition for his work as a civil-rights attorney and champion of LGBTQ causes at national-advocacy organization Lambda Legal, where he once spearheaded its marriage-equality initiative, according to the group’s acting director, who described Buckel’s death as “heartbreaking.”

“This is a tremendous loss for our Lambda Legal family, but also for the entire movement for social justice,” Camilla Taylor said in a statement.

Buckel’s work for Lambda Legal’s Marriage Project included presenting arguments that in 2006 led the New Jersey Supreme Court to rule that same-sex couples seeking marriage in the state deserve the same rights as their opposite-sex counterparts, Taylor said.

And before that, the attorney in 1999 successfully sued a Nebraska county sheriff for failing to protect a transgender man raped and murdered there years earlier, whose death inspired the Academy Award–winning film “Boys Don’t Cry,” according to a Gay City News report.

Buckel rededicated himself to conservation in recent years, joining the ranks of a local farm in nearby Red Hook where he “elevated community composting to an exquisite art form,” according to a leader at the growing operation, who described him as a source of inspiration for other green thumbs in a letter mourning his death.

“Our deepest condolences to his loved ones at this difficult time,” said Red Hook Community Farm’s Saara Nafici. “We will continue the work of environmental education, advocacy, and action to honor his life of service.”

Gone but not forgotten: Monday’s heavy rains did not wash away the flowers and candles mourners used to form a makeshift memorial to Buckel, foreground, at the site where he burned himself to death on Saturday.
Photo by Mark Mellone

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.