Crime

June 2015: Was transgender teen's death a hate crime?

Margaret Baker

mbbaker@sunherald.com

Video: Friend remembers murdered transgender teen found in George County

Michael Christopher Wilkins was a 17-year-old transgender teen, whose chosen name was Mercedes Williamson. Her remains were found June 2 in George County. Josh Vallum has been charged with her murder. Video by Margaret Baker and Amanda McCoy/SunHerald
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Michael Christopher Wilkins was a 17-year-old transgender teen, whose chosen name was Mercedes Williamson. Her remains were found June 2 in George County. Josh Vallum has been charged with her murder. Video by Margaret Baker and Amanda McCoy/SunHerald

GEORGE COUNTY -- Officials are looking into whether the slaying of a transgender teen in George County earlier this month is a hate crime.

“Right now, we are still investigating and collecting evidence,” George County sheriff’s Capt. Ben Brown told the Sun Herald this week. “We are trying to determine whether (the killing) is drug-related, gang-related or a hate crime. These cases take time to work, and we are working on it as diligently as we can.

“We will do a thorough investigation to bring justice to the victim’s family.”

Brown and agents with the FBI Safe Streets Task Force are working together on the June 1 killing of Mercedes Williamson, 17, whose birth name was Michael Christopher Wilkins. At the time of her death, she was an aspiring cosmetologist who shared a $50-a-week camper with a roommate in Theodore, Ala.

Josh Vallum, 28, a documented member of the Latin Kings street gang, has been arrested on a charge of first-degree murder. He’s being held at the George County jail on $1 million bond. The state Department of Corrections has placed a hold on him for violating the conditions of his parole on a conviction of false reporting of a crime.

Vallum surrendered June 2, a day after his father called to say Vallum told him he’d killed someone, who was buried in the father’s backyard in the rural Rocky Creek community.

Brown said Vallum told investigators who the victim was. Her identity was later confirmed through DNA analysis. The Sheriff’s Department identified Williamson by her birth name but did not say she was transgender.

That information surfaced after the Sun Herald went to Alabama and talked to her friends.

District Attorney Tony Lawrence said evidence will be presented to a grand jury to decide whether to indict Vallum.

Though Lawrence said he cannot comment on a pending case, he did say a grand jury can indict someone under the state’s hate-crime statute if it applies.

Mississippi’s hate-crime law considers only the victim’s “perceived race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin or gender” as motivation.

“You would have to do research under existing interpretations to see if gender (under the hate-crime statute) is to include transgender,” he said. Under federal law, a hate crime is defined as any “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”

In Mississippi, Vallum is facing a life sentence for murder if he’s indicted and then convicted, which means the person is not eligible for parole until age 65.

“You know, God gave each human being a life and a right to that life,” Lawrence said. “I don’t think we should allow another person to take that life because of their own personal view or their opinion, whether it’s based on race like we saw play out in the horrors in Charleston last week, whether it’s based on ethnicity like we saw in Nazi Germany, whether it’s based on religion like we are seeing ISIS do today in the Middle East or whether it’s based on sexual orientation. We should not allow one person to decide whether they can hate someone and justify a killing. We should say, ‘No. You can’t kill, period.’

“I long for the day when we can accept and embrace our differences instead of killing over them.”

Jeanie Miller, 41, Williamson’s roommate, last saw her the afternoon of May 30, when Williamson left their camper. When Williamson didn’t return for several days, Miller said she got worried and called a girl she thought had picked up Williamson. She said the friend told her Williamson was dead.

Miller later learned another person had picked Williamson up that day. Miller’s son, a minor, told the Sun Herald he saw her leaving in what appeared to be silver car.

Miller said Vallum was known to stay in the Theodore area, though authorities listed his home address in George County. She said Williamson often spoke about Vallum. She said Vallum knew Williamson was transgender.

Brown said he’s also heard Vallum knew Williamson was transgender, but said authorities are still investigating that as well as other leads in the case. “We are going to investigate it until we follow up on every viable lead we get,” he said, “collect evidence and present it a grand jury.”

Mercedes is the ninth known transgender woman killed in the United States in 2015, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

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