GEORGE COUNTY -- A documented member of the Latin Kings street gang used a hammer to beat to death a transgender teen who once considered him a boyfriend, officials say.
A George County grand jury indicted Joshua "Josh" Vallum on a charge of murder in the killing of Mercedes Williamson, a 17-year-old Theodore, Ala., resident whose birth name was Michael Christopher Wilkins. At the time of her death, Williamson was an aspiring cosmetologist living in a $50-a-week apartment.
Williamson's brutal murder made national news when Caitlyn Jenner remembered her during an acceptance speech for the 2015 Arthur Ashe Award at the ESPY Awards.
According to the indictment, Williamson died sometime between May 30 and June 2.
Vallum has pleaded not guilty. His trial is set for Feb. 1.
On Friday, he was taken from the East Central Mississippi Correctional Facility to the Jackson County jail to undergo a mental evaluation by a doctor. He was to be returned to the correctional facility in Meridian afterward.
District Attorney Tony Lawrence would not say Friday if the case was still being looked at as a possible hate crime.
"This investigation is still ongoing and I cannot comment on what additional charges, if any, will arise out of that," he said.
Investigators have, however, been looking into whether the killing was gang-related, drug-related or a hate crime.
The U.S. Department of Justice has been involved in the investigation, which the George County Sheriff's Department is heading up.
Though Lawrence wouldn't elaborate Friday, he did offer some insight in an earlier interview.
"You know, God gave each human being a life and right to that life," he said. "I don't think we should allow another person to take that life because of their own personal view or their opinion, whether it's based on race like we saw play out in the horrors of Charleston (S.C.) whether it's based on ethnicity like we saw in Nazi Germany, whether it's based on religion like we are seeing ISIS do today in the Middle East or whether it's based on sexual orientation.
"We should not allow one person to decide whether they can hate someone and justify a killing. We should say, 'No. You can't kill, period.' I long for the day when we can accept and embrace our differences instead of killing over them."
Hate crime definition
Under state law, a hate crime is defined as a criminal offense against someone based on their "race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin or gender." Federal law defines a hate crime as a crime committed against someone or someone's property because of bias against "race, religion, disability, ethnic orientation or sexual orientation."
Vallum, 28, has remained in custody since his June 2 arrest. The grand jury indicted him on a murder charge, which carries a sentence of up to life in prison.
Last year, George County sheriff's Capt. Ben Brown said Vallum and Williamson had known one another for nine to 11 months. Brown said he had been told Vallum knew she was a transgender woman, but he said that remained under investigation.
At the time of Vallum's arrest, he was also booked on a probation violation and was ordered to serve the remainder of his sentence for falsely reporting a crime, also in George County.
A makeshift grave
George County deputies began investigating after Vallum's father reported his son had said he'd killed someone. Deputies found Williamson's partially decomposed body June 1 under some brush in Vallum's father's backyard in the rural Rocky Creek community.
Reports say Vallum told investigators he had killed Williamson. Her identity was confirmed through DNA analysis.
The Sheriff's Department had identified her by her birth name and did not say she was a transgender woman. That information came to light after the Sun Herald went to Alabama and talked to her friends.
Jeanie Miller, her roommate, said she last saw Williamson the afternoon of May 30, leaving the camper they shared. After she failed to return home for several days, Miller said she was concerned and called someone she thought had picked her up. The friend told her Williamson was dead.
Miller's son, a minor, told the Sun Herald he last saw Williamson leaving in what appeared to be a silver car.
Vallum was known to stay in the Theodore area, though authorities listed his address in George County. Miller said Williamson often talked about Vallum. She said Vallum knew Williamson was transgender.
Williamson was among 21 transgender women killed in the United States in 2015, up from 12 killings of transgender women in 2014, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.
Vallum's attorney, David Futch, did not wish to comment.