Transgender Americans are facing an epidemic of violence. Twenty-seven trans people, mostly women of color, were murdered in the U.S. in 2017, tying it with 2016 as the deadliest year on record. Of course, the number of victims in any given year is likely much higher, given that some are misgendered by police or media, and some homicides not reported at all.
As of early December, 24 homicides of trans Americans have been reported in 2018. The first known victim was Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien, 42, of North Adams, Mass. The founder of the Miss Trans America and Miss Trans New England pageants, she was stabbed to death at her home January 5. Her husband, Mark S. Steele-Knudslien, 47, has been charged with her murder. He turned himself in to police the same night, saying he had done "something very bad," and describing details of the crime, but he pleaded not guilty the following week in Northern Berkshire District Court. In January 2020, however, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
For Transgender Day of Remembrance, November 20, the Human Rights Campaign released a report, A National Epidemic: Fatal Anti-Transgender Violence in America in 2018, which covers the same deaths The Advocate had reported on at that point and raises concerns about two others. Roxana Hernández, a transgender immigrant, died May 25 in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The cause of death was complications of pneumonia and HIV, and activists say there are unanswered questions about the conditions in which she was detained and whether they may have contributed to her death. Also, Jessie Sumlar of Jacksonville, Fla., was found stabbed to death July 19. Sumlar was a gay man who often dressed in drag. Even though he did not identify as transgender, the HRC included his story because of the possibility that anti-trans bias because of his gender presentation figured in his death. Omar Lewis has been charged with Sumlar's murder, but police are still trying to determine a motive.
Viccky Gutierrez, 33, was stabbed to death at her home in Los Angeles January 10. Firefighters were called to a fire at the building early that day and discovered her body. Gutierrez, an immigrant from Honduras, was described as "a beautiful soul who was really nice to everyone and would offer any type of support when someone would need it" by friends who set up a crowdfunding page to raise money for funeral expenses. She was active in the L.A. trans community, working with the Los Angeles LGBT Center on Transgender Day of Remembrance events. A few days after her death, Los Angeles police arrested Kevyn Ramirez, 29. Police said he admitted to stabbing Gutierrez and setting the fire. He is charged with murder during the commission of an attempted robbery, plus two counts of arson, while police continue to try to determine his motive and whether the murder was a hate crime.
Zakaria Fry, 28, went missing from her home in Albuquerque, N.M., January 18, along with her housemate, Eugene Carroll Ray, 70. Their bodies were found February 19 in trash bins in a rural part of New Mexico; both had died of blunt force trauma to the head and face, police said. It is not clear exactly when they were killed. Albuquerque police arrested Charles Anthony Spiess, 27, who is also known by the name James Knight, February 27, and the next day he was charged with the murder of both Fry and Ray, along with a charge of tampering with evidence. Police said he may have lived with the victims for a time. “It's a massive case and there's a lot of connections there. But the main thing is we’re asking the public if they ever saw these three together,” Albuquerque Police Department public information officer Simon Drobik told the Albuquerque Journal. Friends of Fry's described her lovingly. “You were such a fun and positive person despite all the challenges you faced in life,” Tara Yvonne wrote on Facebook. “You were a brave, strong and inspirational woman. Your spirit lives on and you are missed by many. May you rest in peace.”
Celine Walker, 36, was found shot to death in a hotel room in Jacksonville, Fla., February 4. A friend, Naomi Michaels, wrote on Facebook that Walker “lived a low key life where she did whatever needed to be done in order for her to survive” and “was not a pageant girl” or a clubgoer. The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office misgendered and deadnamed her when reporting her death, with officials saying they do not identify people as transgender. Activists have called for a change in the policy, which may have delayed the investigation of the crime. No one has been arrested for her murder yet, and police have revealed no details of their investigation. Some friends suspect her murder was an anti-trans hate crime.
Tonya Harvey, 35, was fatally shot on a dead-end street in Buffalo, N.Y., February 6. Social media posts by friends described Harvey, who sometimes went by the nickname “Kita,” as “sweet and loving” and “the black Cameron Diaz.” Police and the Erie County District Attorney's office are continuing to investigate her murder, including the possibility that it was a hate crime. Activists pointed out the widespread violence against trans people. “There is a very real epidemic of violence targeting the transgender community, particularly those who live at the intersection of transphobia, racism, and misogyny,” Damian Mordecai, executive director of the Pride Center of Western New York, told The Buffalo News.
Phylicia Mitchell, 45, died February 23 after being shot in the chest outside her home in Cleveland. She and partner Shane Mitchell had been together for about 30 years, ever since Phylicia fled her less-than-accepting family in Pittsburgh. They were not legally married, but they had an unofficial ceremony last May in which she took his last name. Phylicia earned a high school equivalency disploma and worked as a hairstylist, and Shane did odd jobs. Shane said their relationship endured and even became stronger through hard times, including periods of homelessness. “I miss her tremendously,” he told Cleveland's Plain Dealer. “That’s my soul mate. We went together everywhere. We did everything together. We always held hands on the bus. Years ago people didn’t respect that, but they do now.”
In April, Cleveland police issued a warrant for the arrest of Gary Lamar Sanders, 36, in connection with Mitchell's death. He was placed on Ohio's Most Wanted List and was finally apprehended by the U.S. Marshals Service in July in West Virginia, where he had been living for more than a month. He is charged with aggravated murder.
Sasha Wall, 29, was found shot to death in her car along a rural road in Chesterfield County, S.C., the morning of April 1. She had been shot several times in the neck and shoulder. Police believe she knew her killer and that her death was likely the result of a domestic dispute. Wall, who lived in a mobile home near Pageland, S.C., was remembered fondly by friends on social media. On Facebook, Donovan Dunlap recalled taking photos of her, saying, “You stayed ready for the camera. I will miss you my beautiful sister. I cannot sleep. I hope they find who did this.”
Carla Patricia Flores-Pavon was strangled to death in her Dallas apartment May 9. Police found her unconscious about 4 p.m. at her apartment, Dallas TV station KTVT reports. She was pronounced dead at a local hospital. A witness reportedly saw a man fleeing the scene. Dallas police said they do not believe her death was a hate crime. The are some discrepancies in the details about Flores-Pavon. KTVT listed her age as 26, but the Dallas Voice gave it as 18. Also, while police spelled her first name as Carla, her Facebook page spelled it Karla.“You were a good person,” her friend Gia York Herrera wrote on Facebook, also noting that the loss ”harts so much.” (This is a translation; the original post was in Spanish.) York Herrera added, “God give comfort to your family and friends” and “I send you a hug and a kiss as always.” Police arrested a suspect in Flores-Pavon’s murder, Jimmy Eugene Johnson III, 24, near Huntsville, Texas, May 17. Johnson, who was arrested during a traffic stop, had items from Flores-Pavon’s apartment in his car, so police believe his motive was robbery and not anti-transgender bias. He is charged with murder.
Nino Fortson, 36, was shot to death in Atlanta May 13. Fortson, who has been described both as a trans man and a gender-expansive individual, was involved in an argument with two men and two women on the street, The Atlanta Jounral-Constitution reports. A witness said Fortson fired a small gun into the air but then walked away. But a few minutes later, the witness heard more gunshots and then saw Fortson lying on the ground, as one of the other people involved in the dispute limped away. Fortson died shortly afterward at Grady Memorial Hospital. Initial media reports listed Fortson as female, something called out by friends and allies social media. The Atlanta Police Department responded with this statement: “Our preliminary investigation did not in any way indicate that this individual identified as transgender. And we have no evidence at all that such an identification played any role in this death. But given the issues that have been raised publicly, we have engaged our LGBT liaisons and asked them to work with our homicide unit to see if there are angles that need to be explored.”
Gigi Pierce, 28, was shot to death in Portland, Ore., the night of May 21. She was from Boise, Idaho, and it wasn't clear how long she had been in Portland. Sophia Grace Adler, 33, has been arrested and charged with Pierce's murder; she has pleaded not guilty. Witnesses and police said there had been an altercation between the two prior to the shooting. A friend remembered Pierce as someone “full of life, always trying to help somebody.”
Antash’a English, 38, was shot to death in Jacksonville, Fla., June 1. On a city street, she was shot in the abdomen by someone firing from a vehicle. She died at a local hospital. “She was an unapologetic, bold, and loyal person,” friend Taliyah Smith told Firs Coast News, a program of stations WTLV and WJXX. English had won several pageants and performed regularly at local nightclub InCahoots. Police are continuing to investigate her murder.
Diamond Stephens, 39, was shot to death June 18 while driving home. She was shot in the back of the head, causing her van to crash into a house. She was not identified as transgender until a month later because police and local news outlets misgendered and deadnamed her. Police, who have yet to identify a suspect, say there may have been others in the car with her. Her family is devastated. “We are hurting really bad,” Stephens’s cousin Georgia Brown told Mississippi TV station WTOK. “I don’t really know what words to say other than we need God to help us and give us strength to make it through this situation and pray to God that whoever did this is found.”
Cathalina Christina James was the third transgender woman murdered in Jacksonville this year, leading some to suspect a serial killer is at work. James, from Bishopville, S.C., was shot to death outside a Quality Inn and Suites motel June 24. The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office continued its practice of not using trans victims' preferred names. James's mother described her to First Coast News as the life of the party, with a love of travel and dancing.
Keisha Wells, 54, was found dead in the parking lot of an apartment complex June 24 in Cleveland, the second trans woman murdered in the city this year. She had suffered a gunshot wound to the abdomen. Her best friend, Sheila Jones, described her to the Plain Dealer as "a tough cookie" but "the nicest person ever." Wells loved dressing up and frequenting nightclubs, Jones added. But she also had suffered a great deal of loss, as her mother and brother had died recently, and her sister has been in a coma for the past year, Jones said. Police found 11 bullet casings at the crime scene and are continuing to investigate.
Sasha Garden, 27, was found dead at an Orlando apartment complex July 19.
Garden, an advocate for transgender women and outreach coordinator for the HIV and AIDS organization Miracle of Love, was a sex worker saving money to transition and become a hairstylist. Garden was known for an outgoing spirit. "She was a firecracker – very outspoken," said Montrese Williams, who houses transgender women involved in sex work, providing free condoms, water bottles, and HIV testing. "She didn’t hold her tongue for anyone or anybody. Her womanhood was one of those things she stood up for. She didn’t tolerate any disrespect at all."
Dejanay Stanton, 24, was shot to death early in the morning of August 30 on the south side of Chicago. She was found in an alley, with a gunshot wound to her head, and pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. Police initially did not know her name and identified her as "Jane Doe," but friends who saw her photo on social media confirmed her identity as Dejanay Stanton.
“She was so sweet. Every time you saw her she had a smile on her face," said LaSaia Wade, executive director of Brave Space Alliance. “She was just trying to live her best life as a young girl.” Police have yet to make an arrest but are continuing to investigate.
Vontashia Bell, 18, suffered a fatal gunshot wound August 30 in Shreveport, La. She was found on the street early that morning and pronounced dead at a local hospital. Police and media misgendered her, but a Louisiana activist organization identified her correctly. Bell’s death “is a reminder of the current climate and national discourse on trans issues,” said the release from Louisiana Trans Advocates. “Dehumanizing language and actions lower the barriers to this kind of senseless violence.” The group called on city and state officials to condemn anti-trans discrimination and violence and to work against institutional racism. Police have yet to make an arrest but have asked the public for help in identifying a suspect.
Shantee Tucker, 30, was shot to death September 5 on a Philadelphia street by someone firing from inside a pickup truck. Witnesses had seen her arguing with the person in the truck just before she was shot, and police believe she knew her killer. The police also said they don't think the attack was motivated by her gender identity, but her friends and trans activists don't agree. Friends recalled Tucker, who worked in a beauty supply store, as a sincere and down-to-earth person. Philly police are seeking the public's help in finding her killer; they ask that anyone with information call the homicide unit at (215) 686-3334.
Londonn Moore, 20, was found shot to death September 8 in North Port, Fla. Her car was found the next day at a different location. Police said the crime was an isolated incident and that they believe she knew her killer, who remains at large. Activists pointed out, however, that there is an epidemic of violence against trans Americans, especially women of color, and said Moore's death should be investigated as a hate crime. Police said they are reserving judgment but have not ruled out that possibility.
Nikki Enriquez, 28, of Laredo, Texas, was found dead near Interstate 35 in south Texas September 15. She has been shot in the head. Juan David Ortiz, 35, an intelligence supervisor for the U.S. Border Patrol, is charged with murdering Enriquez and three other women. Police and prosecutors are calling the murders a serial killing spree in which Ortiz singled out sex workers. They have not ruled out the possibility that there are other victims. Enriquez, so far the only known transgender victim, was described by family members as “very outgoing,” “always smiling,” and “loved by the gay community.”
Ciara Minaj Carter Frazier, 31, was stabbed to death in Chicago the night of October 3. She was found in the backyard of an abandoned house and pronounced dead at the scenc. Police believe her killer was a man she had been arguing with at the house, but they have yet to apprehend him. Her death came just over a month after the fatal shooting of transgender Chicagoan Deejay Stanton. “It feels like we are being targeted,” LaSaia Wade, executive director of Chicago trans organization Brave Space Alliance, told the Chicago Sun-Times. She knew Frazier through the local ball scene. “I’m frustrated and upset with the lack of cases turning around,” she continued. “There is a lack of [concern for] our safety from police.”
Tydie, a black transgender woman, was shot to death on a Baltimore street November 26. Police did not release her name pending notification of her family, but the Baltimore Transgender Alliance gave her first name, Tydie, in a Facebook post. Baltimore police are seeking the public's help in investigating the case. “At this time we don’t have a lot to go on,” police spokesman T.J. Smith told The Baltimore Sun. “We know there was some sort of argument that took place and during that argument it looks like a person – one individual – pulled out a gun and shot the female and left her on the side of the road.” He asked that anyone with information about the crime call (410) 396-2199 or text (443) 902-4824. Baltimore trans activist Merrick Moses called Tydie's death “a tragedy beyond words or understanding.”
Keanna Mattel, 36, was found shot to death on a Detroit street December 7. She was well known in the city's ballroom scene. Police have arrested Albert Weathers, 46, on a charge of open murder, a designation under Michigan law that allows flexibility for prosecutors to charge a suspect with varying degrees of murder or manslaughter as more information about a case becomes available. A special prosecutor from the Fair Michigan Justice Project, which specializes in dealing with crimes against LGBTQ people, has been assigned to the case.