Buckel left a note in a shopping cart not far from his body and emailed it to several media outlets, including The New York Times.

Share story

NEW TORK — A lawyer nationally known for being a champion of gay rights died after setting himself on fire in Prospect Park in Brooklyn early Saturday and leaving a note exhorting people to lead less selfish lives as a way to protect the planet, police said.

The remains of the lawyer, David Buckel, 60, were found near Prospect Park West in a field near baseball diamonds and the main loop used by joggers and bikers.

Buckel left a note in a shopping cart not far from his body and emailed it to several media outlets, including The New York Times.

Buckel was the lead attorney in Brandon v. County of Richardson, in which a Nebraska county sheriff was found liable for failing to protect Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was murdered in Falls City. Hilary Swank won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Teena in the 1999 movie “Boys Don’t Cry.”

While serving as marriage-project director and senior counsel at Lambda Legal, a national organization that fights for the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, Buckel was the strategist behind important same-sex marriage cases in New Jersey and Iowa.

Friends said that after he left the organization, Buckel became involved in environmental causes, which he alluded to in his note as the reason he decided to end his life by self-immolation with fossil fuels.

“Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather,” he wrote in the email sent to The Times. “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.”

He added: “A life of privilege requires actions to balance the harm caused, and the greater the privilege, the greater the responsibility. For if one does not leave behind a world better for having lived in it, all that remains are selfish ends, sometimes wrapped in family or nation.”

The police said Buckel was pronounced dead at 6:30 a.m.

Susan Sommer, a former attorney for Lambda Legal who is now the general counsel for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, said Buckel made clear the importance of the marriage equality movement.

“He was all about justice, but he was also all about what it means to be human,” Sommer said. “They were so intertwined in his work. He was a very smart and methodical lawyer. He knew his craft and his trade and was strategic in how to build the blocks toward a sweeping victory.”

Catherine Varous, a neighbor of Buckel’s, said he was very active in gardening, and together they worked on the Greenest Block in Brooklyn competition.

She said she often saw Buckel and his partner at the Park Slope Food Co-op and a farmers market. “He was the quieter of the two,” she said, referring to Buckel. “He was definitely more serious.”

Amy Orr, a kindergarten teacher who lives in the neighborhood, was out for her regular weekend jog at about 6:25 a.m. when she saw police officers standing over something that was smoldering.

She said she first “thought it was a pile of garbage because of the shopping cart” but then she saw the outline of a human body.

Runners and bicyclists continued to pass. But as more police officers and firefighters gathered, they all looked “dumbfounded,” Orr said. “Nobody could believe it.”

By 11 a.m., authorities had removed Buckel’s body, leaving a blackened patch and a circular indentation around which parks officials placed two orange cones.

The grim scene stood in stark contrast to the rest of the park, which brimmed with activity. Several youth baseball games continued nearby, and participants in PurpleStride, a walk dedicated to ending pancreatic cancer, strode along the bike path with runners and joggers.

The field where Buckel died would ordinarily be filled with activity, too. Warren Beishir, a graphic designer, said it was used for volleyball, soccer and barbecuing.

Beishir sat across from the field under a tree with his wife, Susan Stawicki, their 2-year-old daughter and their neighbors. They live across from the park and were awakened by sirens and flashing lights.

“How do you do that to yourself?” Beishir asked. “It’s a terrible way to go, and I don’t want to think about it after today.”

“I hope they are at peace,” Stawicki said.