Crime

Mississippi man sentenced in first-ever transgender hate crime trial

Josh Vallum, a member of the Latin Kings, received a sentence of 49 years Monday in the first-ever federal hate crime prosecution against a killer of a transgender person. He is already serving a life sentence on a state charge of murder.
Josh Vallum, a member of the Latin Kings, received a sentence of 49 years Monday in the first-ever federal hate crime prosecution against a killer of a transgender person. He is already serving a life sentence on a state charge of murder. ttisbell@sunherald.com File

Josh Vallum, a statewide officer with the Latin Kings street gang, received a sentence of 49 years Monday in the first-ever federal hate crime prosecution against a killer of a transgender person.

Vallum, 29, is already serving a life sentence on a state charge of murder in the same May 30, 2015, stabbing and beating death of Mercedes Williamson, 17. His federal sentence will run concurrently.

U.S. Judge Louis Guirola said at the sentencing that murder because of sexual orientation “is particularly heinous and can’t be tolerated by an enlightened society.”

The judge also fined Vallum $20,000.

Prior to sentencing, the gang member — clad in a blue jail jumpsuit with his legs and arms shackled — apologized for killing Williamson.

“There is nothing I can say or do to make up for what I did,” he said, later describing Williamson as someone who was “sweet, smart and fun to be around.

“I robbed her friends and family when I took her life,” he said. “There is no excuse or reason for doing what I did. I am really sorry.”

The investigation

When George County authorities first discovered Williamson’s body, they did not identify her as a transgender person. The Sun Herald confirmed the information.

In December, Vallum pleaded guilty to the federal charge under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act for targeting transgender victims.

As part of his plea, Vallum admitted planning Williamson’s murder. He said he started hatching the plan after his fellow gang members learned Williamson was a transgender girl.

Vallum, whose gang name was King Chaos, feared other Latin Kings would exact revenge on him if they knew he had been involved in a consensual sexual relationship with Williamson. In its bylaws, the gang strictly forbids its members from engaging in homosexual activity.

Josh Vallum appears in George County Circuit Court with public defender David Futch on Tuesday, July 12, 2016 to plead guilty to a charge of first-degree murder by deliberate design in the beating and stabbing death of Mercedes Williamson, 17, of

Making history

After Williamson’s murder, Vallum continuously shot down allegations he knew Williamson was a transgender girl before the murder. He claimed in an exclusive interview with the Sun Herald that he was groping Williamson when he “felt something that wasn’t supposed to be there” and killed her.

Vallum finally confessed to his plan in federal court.

After he entered the plea, then U.S. Attorney General Loretta 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 had said. The landmark hate crime prosecution, Lynch said then, “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,” Lynch said.

Planning a hate crime

Vallum spent two days hatching his plan to kill Williamson, a teen whose family says she had grown to love Vallum during their time together in the years leading up to her killing.

Vallum was at a gang member’s house off Dauphin Island Parkway in Alabama when he saw Williamson the afternoon of May 30, 2015, picked her up and drove her to his family home in George County.

He said he zapped Williamson with a stun gun, stabbed her repeatedly with a military knife and beat her over the head with a claw hammer until she died. He placed some limbs and other debris over her body afterward.

Many of Williamson’s friends, including her roommate at the time of the killing, feared harm from the Latin Kings if they talked about the relationship Williamson had with Vallum.

But Vallum became so comfortable about his relationship with Williamson that he even brought her to a Latin Kings party on the Biloxi beach while they were dating. Her mother, Jeanie Garner Wilkins, was angry when Vallum tried to deny knowing Williamson was a transgender girl.

A mother remembers

Wilkins had spent a lot of time around Williamson and Vallum. She said Vallum was very much aware of Williamson’s gender identity and was a willing participant in that relationship.

Other friends of the teen said Williamson had spoken openly about her fear of being killed if the Latin Kings learned of her relationship with Vallum.

Vallum tried to hold onto the myth that he didn’t know Williamson’s gender identity even after he first learned an FBI data dump on his phone revealed a trove of images and videos of “man on man” sex. He had told his family members authorities had planted the evidence on the phone.

Vallum had two phones prior to the killing — one that was seized and another he used to strictly talk to Williamson. Vallum ditched the phone he used to talk to Williamson after the killing.

Williamson’s friends believe Vallum loved her, but felt he had to kill her to avoid retribution from a gang he cherished more than anything else.

A ‘spirit screaming for revenge’

Shortly after the murder, Vallum tried to commit suicide at the George County jail because he was so haunted by the killing. In one excerpt, he wrote: “Her spirit is screaming for revenge. 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.”

Williamson was among 21 transgender people murdered in 2015 in the United States compared to at least 27 murders of trans people nationwide in 2016, according to the Human Rights Campaign. So far in 2017, reports show at least 10 trans people have died at the hands of a killer nationwide.

The FBI Safe Streets Task Force in Pascagoula and the George County Sheriff’s Department investigated Williamson’s murder.

Staff writer Anita Lee contributed to this report.

Margaret Baker: 228-896-0538, @Margar45

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