On Kurtland Ma’s Facebook page, there are lots of photos from his travels—some of him doing handstands in front of scenic backdrops such as the Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris or in front of the Taj Mahal. Friendly and quick to smile, Ma loved to travel and made new friends wherever he went.
Ma, 34, also treasured his longtime friends and his family. He often returned from his travels with souvenirs, little trinkets for loved ones.
Now those loved ones are reminiscing about Ma’s life while mourning his tragic death. Ma, an emergency room doctor who recently moved to West Hollywood, was found stabbed to death on Saturday in the Palm Avenue apartment that he shared with boyfriend, Andre Damiane Davids. Davids, 36, is being held under suspicion of murdering Ma in lieu of $1 million bail.
While the circumstances that led to Ma’s murder are not clear, some of Ma’s friends said that Davids was possessive and didn’t want Ma to associate with them. Several said that Ma was planning to end his relationship with Davids when he was murdered.
Cautioning that she wasn’t addressing the relationship between Ma and Davids, Mary Case, coordinator of the STOP Domestic Violence program at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, said that most murders of one partner by the other occur when the victim suggests he or she wants to end the relationship.
Case said that a key warning sign of an abusive relationship (which may or may not include actual physical violence) is one person having all the power and control. The abuser often isolates the other person, shows extreme jealousy and doesn’t take responsibility for his or her actions.
Case recommends referring possible victims to professional and confidential resources so that they can figure out the safest way to get out of the situation. The center offers LGBT domestic violence services. Which can be accessed by calling (323) 860-5806 or emailing email@example.com.
Ma’s death certainly has stunned his wide circle friends, who describe him as always happy. “I asked him why he always smiled,” said Christian Sipaco, a nurse in New York City who knew Ma when he was in medical school. “He described it as his ‘perma-grin.’ He said ‘I can’t take it off’.”
Growing up in Arizona, Ma showed a keen intellect from an early age. When he was in middle school in Scottsdale, he took a bus to a high school to take advanced math. That’s how he met lifelong friend Anne Chung, who took the bus from another middle school. Later, the two went to high school together in Phoenix.
“He was so smart,” said Chung, an emergency room doctor in Boston who also noted Ma’s infectious smile. And it seemed to come to him easily—“it seemed like he never had to study.”
Ma shined academically, achieving an SAT score that came near the perfect 1600 mark. In 1997, as a junior, he was named a Presidential Scholar, honoring him as one of the nation’s most distinguished high school students. But his intelligence didn’t define him, Chung said; he always had a good school-life balance. He played tennis on the varsity team.
“Growing up, he was always happy,” Chung said. “He was one of the most caring people I knew. He always had a smile in his face—always happy, always laughing. He loved his friends; he loved his family. He was just such a good person.”
Ma was one of Chung’s best friends in high school. One day, she told Ma that he was her soul mate and that she loved him. He said he loved her, but like a sister. That briefly broke her heart, but she recovered quickly and their friendship continued unfazed. After high school, the two remained in close touch. One day, Chung asked Ma why he never told her about women he was dating. She thought he had kept quiet on the subject to avoid hurting her feelings. He told her that women just didn’t like him that way, but Chung couldn’t believe that was true. Finally, he told her, “I just don’t like girls that way.”
Chung said she was sad to realize that Ma hadn’t felt comfortable revealing that he was gay. His acknowledgement of his sexual orientation didn’t change their friendship, and Ma occasionally would mention men he was seeing.
After high school, Ma went to Yale for both undergraduate and medical school. Michael Gottesman, who roomed with Ma for a time at Yale, recalled him as generous. “He was there for you emotionally and also just generous in all the little ways too,” Gottesman said. “If you went over to his house, you often left with some sort of treats. In college we were in New Haven, and he would go into New York, and he’d pick up some treats from Chinese bakers. If you went over to his room, you’d always share those with him.”
Ma did his residency in New York at Jacobi Medical Center-Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In 2010, he wowed his teachers by diagnosing a man who’d recently eaten barracuda in the Bahamas as suffering from a rare affliction known as ciguatera poisoning. The diagnosis was so impressive that The New York Times wrote about it under the heading “Diagnosis: Fish Tale.”
One of the many friends that Ma made While he lived in New York City was Ray Nelson. Nelson remembers Ma as a “fun-loving guy” who maintained strong relationships both with friends from high school and from his medical residency. He’d readily travel to attend the wedding of a friend he hadn’t seen in years.
“He was just a great guy,” said Nelson, who now lives in Atlanta. “He loved life.”
It was also in New York that Ma met Tomny Lor, and they became fast friends.
“He was instantly like a brother to me,” said Lor, whom Ma would jokingly call “Dajie” (big sister in Mandarin Chinese). “He was probably one of my most amazing friends … His star was so bright, and at the same time he was so caring.”
Sipaco, who said he knew Ma for about ten years, was part of a close circle of Ma’s friends who traveled together and dined together.
“He is one of those guys that, once you know him, you’ve got a feeling that you’re going to be friends for life,” he said. Sipaco said Ma and he both volunteered for Medevent, an organization of about 40 medical professionals in New York City that works to educate LGBT people about the risks of drug use and unsafe sex.
Ma left New York City in 2012 to go back to Arizona to briefly live with his parents. He was eager to spend time with them, according to Sipaco. Ma made a Facebook post in July 2012 marking the start of his “new life here in AZ.”.
Ma knew Andre Davids in New York. But it was only in September 2013, while he was living in Arizona, that Ma made it “Facebook official” that he was in a relationship, posting a photo of himself with Davids. Some of Ma’s friends worried about their relationship. Things seemed different when he was with Davids, they said. While Ma was outgoing and social, Davids didn’t want to spend time with Ma’s friends. Sipaco found that unusual, given the closeness of Ma and his circle of friends to one another. “We actually got surprised that one day he showed up, and he had a boyfriend,” he said of Ma. “We decided that we’d get to know (Davids), and we’d take him into our circle of friends.” But Davids appeared uninterested in joining, Sipaco said. He seemed jealous, several of Ma’s friends said. Lor and Ma went to a gay Disney event last summer. After that, Lor said, it was hard for him to get time with Ma. Sipaco said he and Ma both attended the wedding of two gay friends in Paris last year and that Davids came along. But Sipaco said that, surprisingly, he and his friends saw Ma only briefly while they were all in Paris together.
Recently, Ma and Davids decided to move to West Hollywood and live together. Ma hadn’t planned to stay in Arizona forever, Chung said, and “California was the next step.” Lor said that Ma was looking forward to being more involved in the LGBT community, for which West Hollywood is a major center; he was excited about that part of his life.
Ma got a job at Memorial Hospital in Gardena, and he rented an apartment on Palm Avenue in West Hollywood. Nelson said that Ma began renting the place in early February, though because Ma had been traveling—taking a trip to Japan—he didn’t take up residence right away. Ma arrived in WeHo on March 24. It was less than a week later that sheriff’s deputies responded to the call and found Ma stabbed to death on his kitchen floor. Davids, who had ingested a large number of pills in what deputies called an apparent suicide attempt, was in the bathroom.
While Ma no longer is alive, his friends are reluctant to let him go.
Sipaco stumbled for a word to summarize his feelings about Ma’s death, eventually coming up with “heartsick.” He also recalled that Ma didn’t like to say “goodbye.”
“He was never one to say goodbye,” Sipaco said “He was always like, ‘I’ll see you later’. Goodbye seems final to me. My friends and I, we say ‘goodbye’ is not ‘goodbye,’ we’ll meet again.”
Henry E. (Hank) Scott contributed reporting to this story.