Latin Kings street gang member Josh Vallum pleaded guilty to murder Tuesday in the stabbing and beating death of a transgender teen.
Vallum picked up Mercedes Williamson, 17, at Dauphin Island, Ala., on May 30, 2015, telling her they were going somewhere to have sex.
When Vallum crossed the state line into Mississippi, prosecutors said, Williamson became suspicious about where they were going and asked “am I being set up?”
When Vallum drove into a wooded area on his father’s property in rural George County, prosecutors said, he got out of the driver’s seat and Williamson got out of the passenger seat.
It was then, District Attorney Tony Lawrence said, that Vallum started stabbing Williamson, but Williamson started running, though Vallum caught up with her and stabbed her again,.
Vallum later used a hammer to finish the job of killing Williamson.
Vallum’s fear of being exposed to his fellow gang members for the homosexual relationship, something strictly prohibited by the gang, is what prompted him to kill Williamson, Lawrence said.
Circuit Judge Robert Krebs sentenced Vallum to life in prison. Officials said he is being held in isolation at an undisclosed facility pending any possible federal action involving a hate crime in the case.
Vallum’s attorney, David Futch, said Tuesday that he can’t comment on any of the action because of the ongoing federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Federal authorities attended Tuesday’s plea hearing.
“The defendant’s membership in the Latin Kings street gang was the reason he killed Mercedes Williamson,” Lawrence said in a statement. “Some people may try to blame it on Mercedes because she was transgender, but that is simply unfair and she should not be blamed for her own death.”
Vallum’s plea came less than a week before he was set to go to trial. He had claimed he was kissing Williamson when he reached between her legs and realized she had a penis.
Her friends said Vallum knew Williamson, an aspiring cosmetologist from Theodore, Ala., was transgender and the two had dated for a while.
Vallum initially told authorities he used only a hammer to beat Williamson to death, but later admitted he also used a knife in the killing.
Afterward, he burned his clothing and put the knife, a stun gun, the hammer and a cellphone in a plastic bag and threw it over the Interstate 10 bridge.
Then Vallum attended a Latin Kings gang meeting as if nothing had happened.
Williamson’s killing made national headlines in 2015 when Caitlyn Jenner remembered her during an acceptance speech for the 2015 Arthur Ashe Award at the ESPY Awards.
Loved by many
By all accounts , prosecutors said, Williamson was a good person who was loving and kind and lived her life openly as a transgender girl.
Her grandmother and uncle attended Tuesday’s court hearing, but did not wish to comment.
Prosecutors said Williamson had lived her life as a boy until she was 14 and became her true identity as Mercedes.
Vallum had broken up with Williamson about eight months before he called her and told he was going to pick her up and they were going to go somewhere to have sex.
Vallum said he killed Williamson because he “didn’t want it to come out.”
Transgender identity not a question
At a June 23 pre-trial hearing, Williamson’s former roommate testified. She said Williamson spoke openly about how she and Vallum would be killed if members of his gang, the Latin Kings, found out about the homosexual relationship.
The gang’s bylaws strictly prohibit homosexual activity.
Williamson, the witness said, spent the night with Vallum several times a week and the two called each other “Baby” and often told one another they loved each other. She said the couple also had an active sex life, and Williamson talked openly about the sexual relationship the two had.
Williamson and Vallum, the witness said, acted like a couple and were openly affectionate.
She said the two stayed at her trailer and didn’t go out much, though she said she remembered one instance when Vallum took Williamson to a Latin Kings beach party in Biloxi.
Williamson, she said, thought she was safe and said “she didn’t have anything to worry about.”
Prosecutors believe the testimony showed that “fear of exposure” is what led Vallum to kill Williamson.
Relative called authorities
Vallum was taken into custody on June 2, 2015, a day after he told his family he had killed someone and buried the body on his father’s property in rural George County.
Vallum’s brother said he saw his brother’s shoulders covered in blood at their father’s home on May 30, 2015, the day authorities said Williamson died.
“I asked him, ‘What the heck happened?’ ” Jacob Vallum said at the pre-trial hearing. His brother, he said, told him, “Well, it was my life or his.”
Jacob Vallum said he also tried unsuccessfully over the years to convince his brother to end his affiliation with a gang but his brother didn’t heed the advice.
Vallum: Victim had too much information
Another witness said Vallum came to her home on June 1, 2015, and told her he had buried a body on his father’s property. The witness said Vallum told her he had killed someone because they “had too much information on him and he wasn’t going down.”
Other witnesses confirmed Vallum’s affiliation with the Latin Kings, a street gang originating in Chicago in the mid-1960s with the intent of helping Puerto Rican immigrants overcome racial prejudice.
The gang expanded over the years and now has members of various races throughout the United States.
The gang, according to authorities, is notorious for its alleged involvement in various criminal activities such as drug sales, weapons trafficking, murders, assaults, armed robberies and kidnappings.
In a letter Vallum wrote from the Jackson County jail and seized by authorities, he talked about how officials thought he was some low-ranking secretary in the Latin Kings instead of secretary of the gang statewide.
Former George County Sheriff’s Investigator Ben Brown said Vallum was reluctant to talk about his gang activities and did not want to turn over any documentation he had on the gang.
Kill on sight
Other witnesses at Vallum’s June hearing confirmed his gang membership and said his gang name was “King Chaos.”
Vallum has the name “King Chaos” tattooed on one of his arms along with the other various Latin Kings tattoos, including the gang’s five-pointed crown, on his body.
The gang’s membership list, Lawrence pointed out in June, contained such abbreviations as “KOS,” short for kill on sight, by certain names on the gang’s membership list.
Other notations showed certain members had been ex-communicated from the gang.
A question of gender
Brown said Vallum readily admitted he had killed Williamson but claimed all along he didn’t know she was transgender.
His story at the time of his arrest was he was kissing Williamson when he reached between her legs and realized she had a penis.
Vallum told authorities he blacked out after that and the next thing he knew he was holding a hammer and standing over Williamson’s body.
There was no mention of a stabbing.
Former gang leader testifies
Vallum later parked his car at the home of Dustin Kelley, a Latin Kings member who used to be head of the group.
Kelley said he also served as the gang’s enforcer, or the gang member charged with carrying out punishment to gang members who violated any of the gang’s bylaws.
Kelley is the brother of Dexter Kelley, a Meridian native, currently jailed in Jackson County on a charge of murder in the beating death of his nephew, Cliff Allyn.
Kelley said has had no contact with Vallum since learning of his homosexual activity. He also said he is no longer a member of the gang.
Lawrence pointed out at the pre-trial hearing that the gang’s membership list included such abbreviations, as KOS, short for kill on sight, by certain member names. The infractions were not included by the names.
Kelley, however, said he did not know of any orders to kill any member for anything they may have done.
He said the gang members usually decide together the punishment for an infraction. He said unwanted gang members are usually ex-communicated from the group.
Kelley admitted he had been a member of the gang for some time. In fact, the gang members often met at Kelley’s home in Gautier. He was living with his father, Paul Kelley, at that time.
Kelley said he and Vallum and other members sometimes hooked up with other out-of-state members of the gang. In one instance, he said, both he and Vallum attended a Latin Kings party in Massachusetts.
Kelley said he never knew Vallum had been involved in any homosexual activity until after his arrest.
Early in the investigation, George County investigators told the Sun Herald they were looking into whether the crime was gang-related, drug-related or a hate crime.
Federal agents with the U.S. Department of Justice are continuing the investigation. FBI agents and an attorney with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has been attended hearing in the court case.
Federal law says a hate crime is a crime committed against someone or someone’s property because of bias against “race, religion, disability, ethnic orientation or sexual orientation.”
Authorities did not identify Williamson as a transgender girl at the time of the killing. Instead, the Sun Herald traveled to Alabama and confirmed the information.
Though Vallum listed his home address in George County at the time of the crime, friends say he often stayed in Theodore.
Lawrence said he had previously declared war on gangs and law enforcement “made clear that we would not tolerate street gang’s hate, their intolerance for others and their blatant disregard for the law and human life.”
“Every human being has a right to live the life they choose,” Lawrence said. “A person’s hate, fear or intolerance should not be an excuse to take another person’s life.”