A transgender woman working as a security guard was killed when a gunman opened fire at the Boise Towne Square Mall in Idaho Monday, and her family members say she took actions that undoubtedly saved many lives there.
Jo Acker, 26, confronted the shooter on the first floor of the mall near a department store, according to a police report. The gunman, now identified as Jacob Bergquist, 27, shot Acker, and she died at the scene. Another person at the mall, Roberto Padilla Arguelles, 49, was killed, and at least four people were injured. Bergquist was taken into custody Monday and died the next day; police said there had been an “exchange of gunfire” with him.
Acker’s partner and siblings say she died a hero; she ran toward Bergquist, hoping to stop him. “She was confronting the suspect. She was helping people be safe and get out of the way and they shot at her,” Ray Dawn, Acker’s partner of nearly three years, told the Idaho Statesman. “I was told she was helping people and saving them. ... I know she would have wanted to make everyone else safe. She would have been the first one to go down to confront somebody.”
“Confronting someone whom she viewed to be a threat to others or a bully was entirely within her character even prior to enlisting,” Tiffany Luna, Acker’s oldest sister, told Colorado Springs TV station KKTV. Acker, who had lived for a time in in Colorado Springs, served in the U.S. Army as a forward artillery observer and a paratrooper. “We have had people messaging us to tell us how she helped them, how she saved them, and we are so thankful for the love and support we are receiving,” Luna added.
Another sister, Shawna Lee Lannigan, wrote on Facebook, “I can’t even put into words how completely devastated and shattered I am. Jo you were always kind and loving … you always had such an enormous heart of gold. I always felt like your keeper I always wanted to protect you and you always wanted to protect others. You were and are and always will be a hero. I love you to the ends of this earth and beyond. You are and always will be a hero! I will miss you until we meet again!”
In the Statesman interview, Dawn noted that Acker “hated bullies more than anything else” and added, “She would see anybody in trouble, no matter how uncomfortable or awkward it would be, she would stop whatever she was doing to make sure that the other person is safe.”
Not that she was entirely serious. Dawn said Acker was “one of the strangest, quirkiest individuals I’ve ever known” and was a “proud nerd” who loved video games such as World of Warcraft. Kevin Goncalves, who served in the Army with Acker in Italy and Latvia, also mentioned her enthusiasm for video games as well as her willingness to help others, such as new recruits. He wasn’t surprised she was a hero, he told the Statesman.
She “always stuck up for people [when] others were being disrespected,” Goncalves said. “Always stood up for the right thing, even if it brought trouble. That was always something I admired about Jo.”
Acker had a 3-year-old daughter, Everay. The family has set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Everay’s support. (Editor's note: The GoFundMe misgenders Acker.)
Mall employees and police were familiar with Bergquist, who had caused trouble at the shopping center previously. Also, in April he showed up at the Idaho capitol carrying a semiautomatic pistol and a video camera; he identified himself as a felon and said he wanted to interview Gov. Brad Little about whether felons should be permitted to possess firearms, according to Boise State Public Radio. Police concluded he could legally own guns, although it’s not yet clear if he went through legal channels to obtain whatever weapon or weapons he used Monday.
Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the Human Rights Campaign’s Transgender Justice Initiative, commented both on the epidemic of violence against trans people — Acker is the 42nd to die by violent means in the U.S. this year — and the many tragedies associated with guns.
“Losing yet another sister in the transgender community to such violent means is disheartening, and yet infuriating,” Cooper said in a press release. “The senseless violence against our community is alarming, but what is also alarming is the lack of comprehensive gun control legislation that puts all communities in immediate danger. If we are to draw attention to the frightening rate of anti-trans fatal violence, we also need to draw attention to the dire need for gun control laws in this country that will ultimately not only keep our transgender community safer, but all communities safer.”