Jorge Diaz-Johnston, whose body was found in a Jackson County landfill days after he went missing from his home in Tallahassee, was a plaintiff in a historic lawsuit that ended with Miami-Dade becoming the first county in the state to legalize same-sex marriage.
Diaz-Johnston, a recent doctoral student at Florida State University and the brother of Manny Diaz, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, disappeared on Jan. 3.
His body was discovered Saturday at the regional landfill in rural Campbellton, not far from the Alabama state line. Investigators with the Tallahassee Police Department have said he was the victim of foul play, though they haven’t disclosed how he was killed.
Manny Diaz, a former mayor of Miami, issued a statement Thursday saying he was "profoundly appreciative" of the outpouring of support in the wake of his brother's death and asked for both privacy and prayers.
"My brother was such a special gift to this world whose heart and legacy will continue to live on for generations to come," he said.
Jorge, 54, and his husband, Don Diaz-Johnston, were among six same-sex couples who applied for marriage licenses on the same day in early 2014 in Miami — a step they all took to give them standing to sue the clerk of court — but were denied.
Their litigation led the following year to the legalization of gay marriage in the county. A ruling that quickly followed from a federal judge ended Florida’s ban on gay marriage.
"Jorge was a crucial part of this historic lawsuit that's one of the biggest moments of the LGBTQ civil rights movement in Florida history," said Stratton Pollitzer, the longtime deputy director of Equality Florida, the state's leading gay-rights group. "It's incomprehensible to hear that one of our heroes has been taken from us."
Cathy Pareto and her wife Karla Arguello, who were the first of the couples to get a marriage license and among the first to wed, were shocked by the news. They attended Jorge and Don’s wedding in early 2015 at a park in Miami — a happy occasion that capped off their legal battle.
“It’s an unspeakable tragedy,” Pareto said. “He was such a sweet man, very calm demeanor, always level-headed and positive. I can’t comprehend who would ever hurt this poor man.”
Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, said she was heartbroken to learn of his murder.
"Jorge and his husband Don were two of the brave plaintiffs who took on Florida’s anti-gay marriage ban and helped pave the way for marriage equality for all Floridians," she said. "Our deepest condolences Don and Jorge’s extended family."
On Wednesday, Don Diaz-Johnston went on Facebook to update loved ones about the tragic demise of his husband, whom he began dating in 2013. He said he had no words that could express his loss.
"I can't stop crying as I try and write this," he wrote. "But he meant so much to all of you as he did to me. So I am fighting through the tears to share with you our loss of him."
Jorge’s family ‘very grateful’ to police as investigators continue search for killer
Diaz-Johnston was last seen Jan. 3 in the 2800 block of Remington Green Circle near his workplace, according to TPD, which issued a missing person alert Saturday morning. He went missing around 3 p.m. and didn’t have his car with him, a family friend wrote on Facebook.
His body was discovered Saturday afternoon in the landfill. The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office said at the time that investigators believed the body came from outside the county.
On Sunday, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office reported that the body had been in trash collected by a private company at the Baker landfill on Charlie Day Road.
“The driver was on his way back to Okaloosa County to pick up another load when he got a call to contact law enforcement,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a Facebook post. “OCSO investigators say the trash that goes into the waste trailer comes from a metal bay at the Baker landfill, which is accessible to any company or individual.”
On Wednesday, TPD announced that the body had been identified and that Jorge was the victim of a homicide. The State Medical Examiner's Office conducted an autopsy. However, results have not been released.
Alicia Turner, a TPD spokeswoman, said she could not release a cause of death or other details because of the open and active investigation. No arrests have been made, and Turner couldn't comment on whether investigators have circled in on a suspect.
Manny Diaz, in his statement, said he was "so very grateful" for TPD's work on the case and thanked both Mayor John Dailey and City Manager Reese Goad.
"Their commitment has meant the world to my family and will continue to mean the world in our search for justice," he said.
Jorge remembered as bright, kind and generous
Jorge and Don, who lived in Miami at the time of their lawsuit and later moved to Tallahassee, were picked from a pool of more than 1,000 candidates to be a part of the court challenge organized by Equality Florida.
"They were so brave,” Pollitzer said. “It's scary to have your life and relationship be made so public, but they were so prepared. There was such an easy, joyful affection between them that got them through everything."
Todd Delmay, who with his husband Jeffrey Delmay was among the six pioneering couples, didn’t know Jorge or Don until they all showed up at the courthouse and were rejected by the clerk. They began to bond a couple of days later at a press conference at the LGBT center in Miami Beach.
“He had such a contact with his roots and what family meant,” said Delmay, a Democrat running for a state House seat in District 100. “Belonging to the greater community and the greater good was so important to him.”
Pollitzer said he'll always remember Jorge's warm presence.
"Jorge is one of those people who has a smile that lights up a room," he said. "(He) was always laughing, and I never saw him be anything but kind, generous and easygoing. That's why it's so hard to imagine what has happened to him.
Jorge earned a bachelor’s degree in religion at FSU in 1991. He was readmitted in the fall of 2020 as a doctoral student and was studying religious ethics.
Aline Kalbian, who chaired the Department of Religion last year, said Jorge was “extremely bright" and worked well with students as her teaching assistant. He decided to leave the program at the end of the spring semester.
“The undergrad students who worked with him in my class just all loved him,” said Kalbian, associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. “He was really thoughtful and always went the extra mile to help them out and make sure they understood ... the work they had to do. Just a really wonderful human being.”
Martin Kavka, who chairs the religion department at FSU, said Jorge made close and lasting friendships with fellow students despite the pandemic.
"That's really hard to do when so much your education is over Zoom," he said, "and proves just how visible his good-heartedness was to all of us who were lucky to know him."
‘He touched so many people’
Diaz-Johnston said funeral services will be held for family only in Miami. But he said there will likely be a way for loved ones to mourn virtually.
"This is all so sudden," he wrote. "So please be patient with us. I just couldn't wait any longer to share with you our profound loss."
Diaz-Johnston asked that everyone share the news of his husband's passing.
"He touched so many people with his kind and generous heart," he wrote. "It seems impossible to even fathom how to tell them all. But if you want to help, that is how you can. By sharing the best of him with each other."
Contact Christopher Cann at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @ChrisCannFL on Twitter.
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Jorge Diaz-Johnston remembered by friends loved ones as kind, generous