Josh Vallum, a statewide officer of the Latin Kings street gang, pleaded guilty Wednesday to the first federal hate crime charge filed in U.S. history against the killer of a transgender person.
Vallum, 29, admitted he stabbed and beat to death Mercedes Williamson, 17, because she was a transgender girl. Until now, he had consistently denied killing her because of gender identity.
Vallum waived indictment and pleaded guilty to a bill of information. As part of the plea, he admitted crossing state lines to commit the murder. In addition, he said he had hid the sexual relationship he had with the victim from his family and friends, including his fellow gang members.
He said he hatched a plan to kill Williamson two days before the murder after one of Vallum’s “friends” learned Williamson was a transgender person.
Vallum said he believed his life would be in danger if other Latin Kings learned he had been engaged in a consensual sexual relationship with Williamson.
The Latin Kings gang prohibits homosexual activity in its bylaws and its members sometimes punish those who break the rules with death.
WATCH: Mercedes Williamson ‘knew who she was,’ mother says
Vallum was hanging out with a gang member the day he said he spotted Williamson, picked her up and drove her to his childhood home in the George County’s Rocky Creek community to murder her.
Vallum entered his federal plea Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. He is facing a sentence of life without parole and up to a $250,000 fine at his March 21 sentencing.
The prosecution is the first in U.S. history under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act for targeting a transgender victim. U.S. Attorney General Lorretta Lynch weighed in on the landmark prosecution.
“Our nation’s hate crime statutes advance one of our fundamental beliefs: that no one should have to live in fear because of who they are,” Lynch said in a statement. “Today’s landmark guilty plea reaffirms that basic principle, and it signals the Justice Department’s determination to combat hate crimes based on gender identity.
“While Mississippi convicted (Vallum) on murder charges, we believe in the fundamental value of identifying and prosecuting these bias-fueled incidents for what they are: acts of hate.”
Vallum is already serving a life sentence with parole on the state charge of murder by deliberate design in the case. Vallum claimed he entered that plea to avoid putting his fellow Latin Kings through more than they had already been through because of the crime.
State prosecutors had suspected Vallum killed Williamson to cover up his sexual relationship with her. Williamson’s friends said she had openly talked about how she and Vallum would be killed if his fellow Latin Kings street gang members found out about his homosexual activity.
Williamson’s mother knew Vallum when he dated Williamson. Vallum, she said, knew his lie wouldn’t hold up once she talked to authorities.
But in an exclusive jailhouse interview in July, Vallum said he thought Williamson was a virgin. He said he didn’t know until he went to have sexual intercourse with her the day of the May 30, 2015, murder.
Vallum said he hit Williamson with a stun gun, stabbed her repeatedly with a 75th Regiment military knife and beat her over the head with a claw hammer until her screaming stopped. Afterward, he covered her body with some debris and buried her body on his father’s property.
Williamson, he said, begged for her life.
Vallum later burned his bloody clothes in a fire pit on the beach in Biloxi. He threw out another cellphone he had along with the claw hammer and stun gun over the side of a bridge in Jackson County. That night, he called a special meeting with his fellow Latin Kings to tell them he’d be going away to prison for a while.
When Vallum pleaded guilty to the state murder charge, he claimed he did so to avoid putting his fellow Latin Kings through more than they had already gone through.
Jackson County District Attorney Tony Lawrence said he believes Vallum entered the plea in the state case because of a trove of gay pornography found on his cellphone.
The cache, which was found in an FBI data dump, consisted of images and video of “man on man” sex, and nearly 100 images of naked men showing their genitals, Lawrence said.
Victim haunts killer
After the murder, Vallum was so haunted by the crime that he tried to kill himself in the George County jail.
In a suicide note, he said, he had been “haunted” by the teen since her murder.
He also addressed his fellow Latin Kings.
“Her spirit is screaming for revenge,” Vallum wrote. “I’m living a nightmare. It’s like a horror movie. I killed her and now she’s not gonna stop until she has killed me. I love all of you. I’m so sorry.”
In a message to Williamson’s family, he wrote, “I wish I could go back in time. I would have done things differently. I’m sorry for your loss and your pain. Maybe my death will at least bring you some small amount of comfort.”
For Jeannie Wilkins, Williamson’s mother, his words of sympathy mean nothing.
Wilkins has cried every day since she lost her only child. Nothing, she said, will make her forgive Vallum, a man she knew well because of his relationship with Williamson.
Williamson grew up in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and was living in Elberta, Alabama, a town of about 2,000 residents in Baldwin County, when she and Vallum dated.
Wilkins said her only child knew by a young age that she was different. By the time she was 9, she told her mother she was different, that she was a girl instead of a boy. Williamson was bullied in school because she was different and eventually dropped out.
As for Vallum, Wilkins said, “he knew (Williamson) was transgender, and he knew me that I knew, too. We even had dinner together.”
What’s even more horrific, Wilkins said, is that Williamson had loved Vallum.
“When he broke up with her, she stayed in the bed crying,” she said. “She loved him.”
Christopher Freeze, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Jackson division, said a “hate crime has no place in our society, especially by those targeting victims solely for their sexual orientation or identity.”
The FBI Safe Streets Task Force in Pascagoula and the George County Sheriff’s Department investigated the murder.
“No conviction, even such a historic one, can relieve the grief and anguish facing the victim’s family,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta. “But this guilty plea sends an unequivocal message that violence based on one’s gender identity violates America’s defining values of inclusivity and dignity.
“We believe in the fundamental value of identifying and prosecuting these bias-fueled incidents for what they are; acts of hate.”
U.S. Attorney Gregory Davis said actions such as Vallum’s hate-fueled crime “ threatens the harmony of our diverse community and undermines America’s principle of equality under the law.”