Authorities found the body of Mercedes Williamson hidden on the property where her boyfriend grew up in a small community in George County, Mississippi.
Her boyfriend, a Latin Kings street gang member named Joshua Vallum, later admitted to hitting the 17-year-old from Alabama with a stun gun before stabbing her repeatedly with a military knife and beating her over the head with a claw hammer until he could no longer hear her begging for her life. Vallum said in 2016 that the spirit of Mercedes still haunts him in prison, where he will spend the rest of his life after being convicted on a murder charge for his girlfriend’s killing.
But there’s more to this story that would have never been told without the work of Sun Herald investigative reporter Margaret Baker.
Because officials didn’t at first identify the body as Mercedes Williamson. The person they said they found was 17-year-old Michael Christopher Wilkins.
Baker got a tip that Wilkins was transgender and identified as Mercedes. She dug until she got the story and followed up on it. She assembled hundreds of documents and interviewed members of law enforcement, gang members and family and friends of both Mercedes and Vallum. She went into unsafe territory to conduct interviews and exposed that the punishment for being gay in the Latin Street Gangs was death. That would later explain why Vallum killed his one true love.
Baker’s reporting helped prompt U.S. prosecution of a federal hate crime against a transgender person.
Mercedes’ story caught the attention of producers from Top Hat Productions in the United Kingdom. Baker will be featured in the premiere episode of “Love and Hate Crime,” which will premier on BBC in the UK next week and later on Investigation Discovery in the United States.
Baker will also speak on a panel about the series and her experiences covering the case, which is arguably the most high-profile crime case involving a transgender person ever reported in Mississippi.
She’ll speak in Los Angeles on Friday at the Television Critics Association Tour and in February at the Paley Center for Media Premiere Screening in New York.
“I’d like to think my reporting helped shed light on the brutality of this crime and the vicious nature of this gang,” Baker said, “and just how crucial it was for this Latin King to hide who he really was from the public — and he killed the person he loved as a result of it.”