A Navy seaman in training at Keesler Air Force Base is accused of robbing and stabbing to death a 25-year-old transgender woman who was in town for the Gulf Coast Black Rodeo, officials said.
Dwanya Hickerson, 20, of New Orleans, was arrested Monday morning on a charge of capital murder in the killing of Dee Whigham of Shubuta. Capital murder is a murder committed during the commission of a felony crime, in this case a robbery. The maximum penalty is death.
Bond is not granted in capital murder cases in Mississippi.
Jackson County Sheriff’s Capt. Chris Stratton said Hickerson was shown on surveillance video leaving the hotel where Whigman was staying with friends and coworkers. Investigators obtained a warrant to search the Hickerson’s residence at Keesler, where he had been in training since April.
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The murder investigation began after Whigham, 25, was found stabbed to death at a Best Western hotel in St. Martin on Saturday night, Sheriff Mike Ezell said.
“If this turns out to be a hate crime, we will pursue this to the fullest in court,” Ezell said.
Mississippi’s hate-crime law considers the victim’s “perceived race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin or gender” as motivation. The state law does not apply to gender identity.
The Sun Herald reached out to District Attorney Tony Lawrence on Monday to ask if the case is being investigated as a possible hate crime.
“The investigation is ongoing and I cannot speculate on the motive,” he said Monday morning. “The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office is doing a very deliberate and thorough job on this investigation and I commend them for the long hours and hard work the have put in thus far.”
Until 2009, when Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Prevention Act, there was no federal law to prosecute hate crimes based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
Ezell would not release any other information Monday, including whether Hickerson had met Whigham at the rodeo. He also said he could not identify the items stolen because of the ongoing investigation.
A promising nurse
Whigham’s family said she was a registered nurse who was just starting her career in the medical field.
Amanda Kirby, media relations coordinator at Forrest General Hospital, confirmed that Whigham was employed at the Hattiesburg medical center. She started working at FGH in January, Kirby said.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Dee Whigham as they try to make sense of this terrible tragedy,” said Evan Dillard, president and CEO of Forrest Health. “She will be remembered at Forrest Health as an excellent nurse who was well-loved by her patients. I know Dee will be missed by her co-workers, supervisors, and the Forrest Health family.”
Whigham’s killing is the third homicide in Jackson County so far this year.
Raquel Cooley, Whigham’s cousin and neighbor, said Whigham, who is called DJ by family members, posted on Facebook on Sunday that Whigham “fought hard to get thru school and get his RN license and was making strides at being more self-sufficient.”
“He was a hard-working, kind-hearted person who was just starting his life who did not deserve this,” Cooley told the Sun Herald.
Whigham’s sister, Denisha Whigham, said Dee lived as a woman but had not yet had surgery to transition.
“My only brother is gone. I just can’t believe he is gone forever,” she posted on social media. “DJ I love you and you will be missed.”
The Spectrum Center, a Hattiesburg-based nonprofit that advocates for full inclusion and empowerment of people affected by discrimination, is hosting a candlelight vigil in Dee Whigham’s honor at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
“When a member of our community is attacked, we are all affected and are driven to push forward for the fight toward equality and acceptance,” said Keenon Walker, executive board member at The Spectrum Center. “We want to rally the community to show support and send love to the family.”
Walker said the board encourages friends or family of Dee Whigham to attend the vigil.
The Mississippi Rainbow Center in Gulfport is hosting a vigil for Dee Whigham at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Lighthouse Community Church in Biloxi.
“We want to make sure this person is remembered for who they are,” said Molly Kester, executive director of the Rainbow Center. “We need to move toward love instead of hate. The community of the Gulf Coast is behind the LGBT community and we are all in this together.”
The public is invited to the both vigils.
Family members have set up a Go Fund Me page to help with funeral expenses.
Whigham is the 16th transgender person killed in the United States so far this year. In 2015, 21 transgender murders were reported, the highest ever recorded, according to Human Rights campaign. Of those, the majority of victims were black transgender women.
One of the killings occurred in Mississippi.
Josh Vallum, a documented member of the Latin Kings street gang, stabbed and beat to death Mercedes Williamson, 17-year-old transgender girl from south Alabama. The killing occurred May 30, 2015, at Vallum’s father’s home in George County.
Vallum pleaded guilty to the murder this month and was sentenced to life. He will be eligible for parole at age 65. A federal investigation is ongoing to determine whether Vallum will also face a federal hate crime charge.