Crime

Will this Mississippi murder be the first federal hate crime with a transgender victim?

The day Josh Vallum killed Mercedes Williamson, he first saw her from the front porch of a friend’s house near Theodore, Alabama. She was walking down Dauphin Island Parkway in blue jean shorts, a pink tube top and pink flip-flops, her long, dirty-blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail.

Vallum wasn’t sure it was Williamson, he told me in a jailhouse interview in late July, so he asked his friend, a fellow Latin Kings gang member.

The friend said it was — she was living in a crack house around the corner, and had developed a horrible drug problem that included a $200-a-day crack habit. Vallum jumped into his silver Pontiac Grand Am and drove up next to the 17-year-old. It was about 3 p.m. May 30, 2015.

“So I pulled up and said, ‘Hey, what’s up?’” he said. “She looked surprised to see me. I told her I wanted to smoke weed, eat and have sex. My dad was grilling. My dad always grills on either Saturday or Sunday.”

He told her they were “going to have ribs and potatoes and potato salad and baked beans and we are going to have sex.”

He said Williamson knew they were headed to Vallum’s childhood home in rural Mississippi but said he doesn’t recall if he had ever taken her there before.

“I asked her and she didn’t remember either,” he said. “I mean, I’ve taken a lot of girls to my dad’s house so I just don’t remember.”

As they crossed the line into Mississippi, Vallum told investigators, Williamson seemed spooked, and asked him if she was being set up.

Vallum said he told her she wasn’t.

But by day’s end, Vallum would shock and stun Williamson with a Taser, stab her repeatedly with a 75th Regiment military knife, and beat her to death with a claw hammer.

Here are some things we know: Williamson was a transgender girl in a romantic relationship with Vallum. Vallum was a top officer in the Latin Kings, a gang that prohibits homosexual activity in its bylaws, and which sometimes punishes rule-breakers with death. Vallum said he and Williamson never had sexual intercourse. Vallum pleaded guilty to murder by deliberate design — meaning he planned the killing — but outside the courtroom he maintains that he “lashed out in anger” and murdered Williamson when he discovered she was a transgender girl.

“I didn’t know Mercedes was a guy, and I found out in the middle of making out,” he told me.

Vallum is serving a life sentence with the chance of parole, but federal prosecutors are considering charging him with a hate crime, which would mean he could end up serving another life sentence, but without the possibility of parole.

If that case goes forward, it will the first time in U.S. history the killer of a transgender person will be prosecuted under federal hate crime law.

But even if it doesn’t, the crime will remain one of the most tangled and horrific George County has ever seen.

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A DIRT AND GRAVEL DRIVEWAY LEADS to Vallum’s family’s brown-brick home, nestled among trees and brush on 45 acres of land at the foot of a dead-end road in George County’s Rocky Creek community.

As a child, Vallum enjoyed the “peaceful” life that came with country living.

“It had a big yard,” he said of his home. “It was perfect for me and my brother to run around and play. We liked to shoot BB guns a lot, (and) run through the woods. We built forts ... and … played baseball and stuff like that.”

But there were problems, too.

His parents divorced when he was 15. His dad drank a lot during his childhood, and his mother was in and out of prison for drug-related offenses, according to court records. To mental-health officials, he described his mom as “bat crazy,” and said she often left him and his brother home alone while she went out for drugs. His father was working offshore at the time.

Vallum attended school in George County and joined the JROTC in high school. He would eventually drop out at age 17 and earn his GED.

Those who knew him in high school said he seemed like a “normal” kid.

But Vallum said he started getting into trouble at an early age and has had problems with depression most of his life, court records show.

By the time he reached seventh grade, he got caught with a “hit” list for people he didn’t like and was later busted with alcohol on campus, he told officials. He spent two years in an alternative school because of his behavior. After high school, he joined the National Guard with hopes of becoming a member of a military special operations team. Two years later, he was medically discharged after a motor vehicle accident caused him to have seizures.

He was working odd jobs at 18 when a few of his friends told him about about the Latin Kings, a street gang initially formed by Puerto Rican immigrants in Chicago in the mid-1960s to overcome racial prejudice. The gang later expanded to include members of various races.

On May 12, 2006, Vallum became a member. His street name was King Chaos, and he would eventually advance through the ranks to become secretary of the gang’s statewide organization. He did a brief prison stint for calling in a fake bomb threat in George County, and then, in May 2014, about a month after he got out, he met Mercedes Williamson after her name popped up as a suggested friend on Facebook.

“I guess we knew some of the same people or something,” he said of the 17-year-old South Alabama girl who dreamed of becoming a cosmetologist. “I thought she looked good so I messaged her.”

“I just said, ‘What’s up girl?’” he said of their Facebook exchange. “We got to talking.”

Vallum was mostly staying in South Alabama at the time, he said, though he often drove to South Mississippi and stayed with his street-gang brothers and sisters. He and Williamson usually got together when he drove to Elberta, Alabama, where she was living at the time. Vallum usually stayed overnight when he visited her, but the two of them never had sexual intercourse, he said.

“She was a sweet girl,” he said. “She was fun to be around. She was very bashful and shy when we went out.”

The couple spent a lot of time smoking dope and drinking alcohol and usually just hung out together. However, Vallum said, he did take her out maybe once or twice to play darts or shoot pool, and once they ate at a place where they played Laser tag.

“We weren’t having sex. We were making out, holding hands. I was getting oral sex from her.” He said he slept right beside her many nights but never suspected anything.

“I thought she was a female,” he said. “I even took her to meet some of my friends (Latin Kings gang members). I had a hangout on the (Biloxi) beach and I took her to meet some of my brothers. Nobody ever said anything. Everybody thought she was a girl.”

“But as far as acting like a couple and stuff like that, yeah, we were a couple,” he said. “You know, I let her sit in my lap. I held her hand. I’d send her ‘good morning, beautiful’ texts.”

He sent her flowers on at least one occasion and bought her a cellphone so she could talk to him when they weren’t together. That phone was the same one he would later throw over a bridge so authorities couldn’t find it.

“I mean I really liked this girl, you know?” he said.

Vallum said he broke up with Williamson in either late August or early September 2014, because he didn’t believe in “wasted time.” He said she was bashful around his friends and he didn’t like that either. He said he was also fresh out of prison and looking to get married and settle down by the time he turned 30.

Another reason for the breakup, he said, was because he was looking to have any type of sex he wanted from a woman when he got out. And Williamson, he said, was holding back.

“I mean, I thought she was a virgin and holding out,” he said. “I mean I tried (to have sexual intercourse) and she just kept shooting me down. Like I would rub her leg and she was like, ‘No, you know that’s off limits right now.’”

Williamson took the breakup hard, he said.

“I don’t know if she loved me or not, but I know she was probably more emotionally attached than she should be after two months,” he said.

About eight or nine months passed, Vallum said, before he would run into Williamson one last time — the day he would kill her.

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WILLIAMSON’S FRIENDS, AND HER PARENTS, question a lot of things Vallum has said about the teen, and about his relationship with her.

Williamson grew up around Gulf Shores and by the time she reached middle school, she was living in Elberta, a rural town in Baldwin County with fewer than 2,000 residents. In school, she often was tormented by students because she was different. “All through (her) … life, she didn’t like to fight nobody,” her mother, Jeannie Wilkins, said, but then she’d get to the school and the boys would “bully, bully, bully” her around.

Williamson’s childhood friends say she mostly brushed off comments from boys, but sometimes she confided in them that the words hurt her. But she didn’t try to hide who she was. She was “special,” her friend Skylaar Ratliff said. “You could tell she was different. She knew she was a queen. She always said she was the queen and deserved to be treated like one.

“She didn’t really care what people thought about her. She wanted people to know she was transgender.”

Her mother says she knew early on that her only child was different. By age 4 or 5, she said, the child grabbed a pair of her mother’s red high heels, put them on and strutted around the house.

“She liked those shoes,” she said.

By the time Williamson was 9, she told her mother she was gay, but in a different way. “He told me, he says, ‘Mom, I’m not a guy, I’m a girl,’” she said. “It hurt at first because I didn’t know, I didn’t know what transgender was.”

Wilkins walked away from Williamson and sat alone for about a half-hour before her child came to her side and asked if she was mad because of what she had told her.

“I said, ‘No, I’m proud of you,’” she said. “I told (her) ‘I would never disown you.’”

Williamson’s father took it hard, she said, and wanted her punished, even whipped, to help her learn she shouldn’t live her life that way.

Wilkins said he still loved his child and learned to live with what she was the best way he could. The Sun Herald could not reach Williamson’s father for comment.

By the time Williamson reached age 12, she was going to friends’ homes to put on makeup and wear feminine clothing, but she always changed and wiped away the makeup before she went home, because she didn’t want to upset her parents.

At age 16, Williamson’s mother got tired of all the bullying her child was suffering and pulled her out of school to enroll in home schooling. Not long after that, she would meet Josh Vallum online. By then, she and her mother were sharing a camper with a roommate in Elberta.

That roommate testified in court about how she could hear Vallum and Williamson in their room having sex because it was so loud that the trailer rocked back and forth. The roommate also recalled a time when she and the couple were together and Williamson said she and Vallum would be killed if the Latin Kings found out about their sexual relationship because homosexuality is strictly forbidden. She said Williamson often talked to her about her sexual encounters with Vallum, and said they acted like a couple, shared a bed, and exchanged “I love yous.” Vallum knew about Mercedes, she said.

Vallum says the roommate lied about the sexual encounters out of “vengeance” because she wanted to make sure he spent the rest of his life in prison.

“I mean, how could you claim I knew Mercedes was a dude?” he said in response to the roommate’s testimony. “There is no way you can. You didn’t see us engaged in homosexual activity. You didn’t stand outside the door and hear us having sex.”

He also said he and Williamson never told one another they loved each other, though her roommate described it as a common occurrence.

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AS THEY DROVE FROM ALABAMA INTO Mississippi, Vallum said, he tried to ease Williamson’s fears. He started talking about how he was hungry and how he might stop at a nearby McDonald’s to get her mind off the fear she was feeling and then, he said, they went back to “hitting that old green pipe.”

“We probably smoked 5 grams of weed,” he said, but “we didn’t talk much.” He said he assumed she was being bashful because she hadn’t seen him in a while.

“She acted a little nervous,” he said. “We just smoked weed. She said it was a good thing I was hot.”

They got to his father’s home off Odom Road later that day, and it wouldn’t be long before Williamson was dead.

When Vallum pulled up to his childhood home in George County, where agriculture and farming is a way of life amid the woods and fields that encompass it, he realized his father wasn’t there. He drove around to the back of the house and parked in a field surrounded by woods about 75 yards from the house.

He parked and said the two of them started getting intimate.

“We were making out in the car and I reached down to grope Mercedes and something was there that wasn’t supposed to be there,” he said, referring to Williamson’s genitals.

At first he said he blacked out and came to holding a claw hammer in his hand and standing over Williamson’s dead body.

“I had blood all over me,” he said. “My shirt, my arms, my face.”

As the days passed, he said he started to remember what happened.

Once the two started kissing and he realized Williamson was biologically born a male, “I snapped.”

“I remember screaming at her,” he said, “but I don’t know what I said.”

Vallum said he carried a Taser “because I’m affiliated (with a gang) and you never know what’s going to happen,” though he had indicated earlier the gang was not violent, contrary to what authorities say. When he snapped, he said, he grabbed the Taser and “hit her” with it.

He remembers Williamson cried out, “’Oh, God, Josh, please no.’”

He said he had a pocketknife, a 75th Regiment military knife, and started stabbing her. Her mother said she had more than 15 stab wounds.

She got out of the car, bleeding from her stab wounds, and ran for her life. Both doors on Vallum’s silver Pontiac were open when he started to chase her after popping his trunk and grabbing a claw hammer a fellow gang member had left there.

She kept running, losing one of her flip-flops along the way to a wooded area nearby.

Vallum wasn’t far behind, claw hammer in hand. He also lost a shoe, but caught up with her soon enough.

Vallum says he still dreams about “chasing Mercedes through the woods,” and he remembers her screams and how she wanted him to let her live.

She was still screaming when Vallum caught up with her and started beating her over the back of the head with the claw hammer.

She fell face-down on the ground, and Vallum said he beat her until the screaming stopped. He said he pelted her a couple of more times afterward just to ensure she was dead. Then he went to work to cover up his crime.

“I freak out,” he said. “I panic. I’m thinking I don’t want to go back to prison and I ended up going to my dad’s house.”

He walked back to his car, his bloodied T-shirt wrapped around his finger because it was bleeding. It was an injury, he said, he suffered during the attack.

He found his shoe and threw it in the trunk of his car, and he found Williamson’s pink flip-flop and threw it next to her body,

He checked out his car for blood and found a few drops on the passenger-side floorboard and a drop or two on the passenger seat. He said other blood was smeared on the car’s rear passenger door.

He put the hammer on the front floorboard next to the Taser that had fallen there.

He put his car in reverse and parked outside a back door.

He walked into the house and called out to see if anyone was there.

“My brother comes out of his room and sees me covered in blood,” he said. He said he remembers telling his brother, “If I ever need a favor, I need you to not say anything.” Vallum also told him “it was either him or me.”

Jacob Vallum called his brother “stupid” and told him he didn’t want to have anything to do with whatever his brother was involved in. The brothers smoked some marijuana, records show, then Jacob Vallum left and went to a friend’s house.

Vallum got into the shower to wash all the blood off.

Afterward, he used Super Glue and duct tape to close up his wound.

After showering, he went back to where Williamson’s body was.

Before he left the house, he grabbed a flat-edged shovel from his father’s house so he could bury the body.

“I was going to try to dig a hole, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it so I just covered up the body,” he said. “I just wanted to get away from her. I didn’t want to be around her. Like, I just killed her. I didn’t want to be there.”

He later used a bleach spray to try to clean up the blood in and on his car.

“I felt bad,” he said. “I couldn’t believe I did something like that. No, I didn’t love Mercedes, but nobody deserves that.”

Vallum threw his cellphone, the Taser and the hammer in a bag and later threw it over the Interstate 10 bridge in Jackson County. He took a bag of his bloodied clothes to the Biloxi beach and burned them in a fire pit.

Vallum left Biloxi after he burned his clothes and drove back to Jackson County to ditch his car at a fellow gang member’s house and stay there for the night. He planned to turn himself in the following day because, by then, his dad had alerted authorities that his son had killed someone on their property.

He said he “had some friends I wanted to see before I got locked up.”

He left his car at the home of Dustin Kelley and his fiancée, Cheyenne Jones. Dustin Kelley is identified in Latin King records as King Roc, the chief enforcer and leader of the gang, and Jones is identified as Queen Knowledge.

He called a meeting of the Latin Kings that night to make sure his duties as statewide secretary would be covered after he went to prison.

He said he told Kelley: “I had done something bad and that I was going to prison for a long time.”

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IN THE INTERVIEWS after his arrest, Vallum wondered if the crime he committed would be labeled a hate crime because the victim was, as he put it, “a transsexual.”

He was also keenly aware he would be eligible for parole at age 65 — but if he were to be convicted on the federal charge, that would change. With the feds, “life means life,” he said.

He told me he has no issue with homosexuality “as long as they are indifferent to me.”

“Like I’m not gay,” he said, “so don’t hit on me. You know, don’t bring it to me. If they do, I’m going to let them know I’m not into that. I mean, you know, I don’t go to gay bars so there is no reason for somebody to just come up to me, and, you know, pursue me like that.”

Williamson “fooled” him and that’s what led to the killing, he said. He also casts more blame on the victim than himself for the murder.

“It’s not my fault,” he said. “She got in the car. She knew we were going to have sex.”

But authorities say he did know Williamson was transgender, and that’s what attracted him to her. During the lead up to the trial, prosecutors argued Vallum loved Williamson but planned the killing because he didn’t want his fellow Latin Kings to find out about their relationship. District Attorney Tony Lawrence pointed out in court testimony the gang often issued orders to KOS — kill on sight — members who had violated its rules.

Vallum says the murder had nothing to do with his gang affiliation or how the Latin Kings might have viewed a homosexual relationship.

“I know one of the (gang) rules is no homosexual activity, but that’s not the reason I’m straight,” he said. “I’m straight because I want to be straight.”

“A human life is more important than anything,” he said. “It’s more important than being kicked out of an organization or anything. I would have to be a cold-blooded person to kill somebody just so I could remain a Latin King.”

Still, just days after his arrest, he attempted to hang himself in his jail cell, and left a note in which he directly addressed his fellow Latin Kings: “To my Nation and my brothers and sisters, it will always be Amor de Rey y Reina y Corona (Love of King and Queen and Crown)!”

And by his own repeated admission, his gang membership has figured strongly in his actions and decisions since the murder. Vallum has said over and over he tried to do everything he could to protect the gang from any involvement.

“I tried to keep as many people out of it as I could,” he said. “I didn’t want what happened anyway as far as all this negative light shown on the nation, the Latin Kings, but it happened anyway.”

After his initial arrest, his “brothers and sisters” offered their support, he says, but the communication came to an abrupt end when prosecutors started issuing subpoenas for the gang members to testify in Williamson’s killing. Just days before the trial was to begin, Vallum pleaded guilty to murder by deliberate design, because he wanted to keep his friends and fellow gang members out of it and prevent them from having to testify, he said.

“I knew everything that was going to be said and didn’t want all that stuff said,” he said.

“I don’t know how all of this is going to work out,” he said. “I may be excommunicated. I don’t think I’ll be harmed. I would think they would trust my word over somebody else’s word but this has received a whole lot of publicity. It sucks because it is a major part of who I am. I don’t know how not to be a Latin King. I mean, that was my friends and family, my everything.”

Lawrence believes Vallum’s reasons for changing his mind about going to trial had to do with the gang, but they weren’t nearly as noble as Vallum suggests.

An FBI data dump on Vallum’s cellphone revealed images and video of “man on man” sex and nearly 100 images of naked men showing off their genitals, according to Lawrence. It also revealed messages Vallum had sent to other men and pictures “of a sexual nature with other men” shared with him on various occasions.

“He had two cellphones,” Lawrence said. “He had one that he used when he was dating Mercedes. That phone was never discovered because it was ditched. The other cellphone that he used prior to dating Mercedes ... had incriminating evidence on it that he forgot about.

“He knew he was going to jail when he saw those pictures and he wanted to go to jail in the best light possible, that’s as a member of the Latin Kings,” he said. “There were enough pictures on there that there can be no doubt it wasn’t an accident. In other words, when you see 50 pictures of penises, there is no way you can claim you made 50 mistakes and got 50 penis pictures on your phone.”

The find also casts doubt on Vallum’s insistence he didn’t know about Mercedes being transgender, Lawrence says.

“How can you claim you are shocked when you feel a penis when on your cellphone are hundreds, now it may not have been hundreds but it was close to that, of pictures of sexual incidents with other men, not him engaged in it, but pornography of men on men, pictures of penises and other things of that nature?” he asked.

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WILLIAMSON’S AUTOPSY WOULD SAY she died of blunt force trauma to the head. Authorities had to use DNA samples from family to confirm her identity, because her body was partially decomposed and her face was unrecognizable.

“I never got to see my baby again,” her mother said.

Wilkins said she has cried every day since Williamson’s death and still has a hard time accepting she is gone. “I think (she’s) still alive sometimes,” she said.

Williamson’s family never hosted a memorial service. Her mother said she wanted to but Williamson’s father said he didn’t have the money for it. Her ashes still sit in a small black box the funeral home gave the family. They are sitting on a top of a dresser at a childhood friend’s house in south Alabama.

Early on in the investigation, the district attorney reviewed state law to determine whether he could use Mississippi’s hate crime statute in the case, but Mississippi had no hate crime statute that pertained to gender identity. There was no way to differentiate what happened to her from any other killing by a gang member.

But if a crime meets several key criteria — one of which is it must involve interstate commerce, a bar that was cleared when Vallum drove Williamson from Alabama to Mississippi — the federal authorities have jurisdiction to prosecute under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which deals with hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The law went into effect in 2009 but has not yet been used to prosecute a case in which the victim was transgender.

If Josh Vallum were to be charged with a hate crime, Williamson’s murder would be the first.

Margaret Baker: 228-896-0538, @Margar45

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