Jorge Diaz-Johnston, the brother of Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz and a plaintiff in the landmark Miami-Dade County same-sex marriage lawsuit, was found dead on Saturday.
Diaz-Johnston, 54, had been missing since Jan. 3. His body was found in a trash pile at a landfill in Jackson County on Saturday around 9:30 a.m. He was last seen in the 2800 block of Remington Green Circle in Tallahassee, where Diaz-Johnston lived with his husband, Don Johnston.
His death, which was first reported by the Tallahassee Democrat, has been ruled a homicide by Tallahassee Police. Authorities have not yet released details from his autopsy regarding the manner of death.
The couple was one of six couples, and the only one from Miami, who were part of a major lawsuit filed in 2014 in Miami-Dade County challenging Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage. A county judge ruled the Florida ban unconstitutional almost a full year before the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in 2015 deciding that all states should recognize marriage licenses from same-sex couples.
“I’m excited. I’m thrilled. My phone has blown up with texts and emails of congratulations. I’m elated,” Diaz-Johnston told the Herald at the time on July 2014. “We came into this knowing it probably would go the long haul. We’re confident justice will prevail and we will go as far as we need to go.”
Manny Diaz, who was mayor of Miami from 2001 to 2009, released a statement thanking Tallahassee police, with support from Mayor John Dailey and City Manager Reese Goad, for investigating his brother’s disappearance and the circumstances.
“I am profoundly appreciative of the outpouring of support shown to me, my brother-in-law Don, and my family after the loss of my brother, Jorge Diaz-Johnston. My brother was such a special gift to this world whose heart and legacy will continue to live on for generations to come,” said Diaz.
Some of the plaintiffs in the case Diaz-Johnston was involved in were among the first gay couples to get married in Florida on Jan. 5, 2015, nearly 13 hours before the stay on same-sex marriage was lifted in the rest of the state.
Orlando Gonzales, executive director of SAVE Foundation, an LGBTQ rights organization in Miami that was also involved in the Florida lawsuit, said he was shocked to find out about Diaz-Johnston’s death. They’ve known each other since 2000, when Gonzales first moved to Miami, and Gonzales said he was always impressed by his kindness and commitment to his advocacy.
“It makes this a tremendous loss when somebody with those types of characteristics is gone way too soon and is gone in such an incredibly horrific manner,” said Gonzales. “There’s no way to, I think, make up for somebody who was on the front line in fighting for human equality.”
Gonzales added that Diaz-Johnston was instrumental in helping to do outreach in the Hispanic community for SAVE and to recruit Spanish-speaking volunteers in Miami to help in their campaigns.
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Diaz-Johnston was a religion studies doctoral student at Florida State University, something Gonzales said spoke to a personal passion and mission of Diaz-Johnston, rather than pursuing a professional obligation.
“It’s so him to want to do something to develop his thinking, his mind,” said Gonzales.
Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida and another plaintiff in the Miami-Dade lawsuit, said she was “heartbroken” to hear of Diaz-Johnston’s death.
“He and his husband Don were two of the brave plaintiffs who took on Florida’s anti-gay marriage ban and helped win marriage equality for all Floridians,” said Smith in a statement. “Our deepest condolences to Don and Jorge’s extended family.”
Tallahassee police detectives ask that anyone with information regarding the investigation, which is open and active, call the department at 850-891-4200. Tipsters can also remain anonymous by calling Crime Stoppers at 850-574-TIPS.
Miami Herald staff researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report.