Crime

Man admits beating transgender teen to death in car in George County

Video: Man accused of killing transgender teen waives preliminary hearing

Josh Vallum, who is facing a first degree murder charge in the death of Mercedes Williamson, waived his preliminary hearing on Wednesday, July 29, 2015, in Lucedale. Video by Amanda McCoy/Sun Herald
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Josh Vallum, who is facing a first degree murder charge in the death of Mercedes Williamson, waived his preliminary hearing on Wednesday, July 29, 2015, in Lucedale. Video by Amanda McCoy/Sun Herald

GEORGE COUNTY -- A member of the Latin Kings street gang and a transgender teen who once considered him a boyfriend were in a car behind his father's home when he beat her to death with a hammer, according to an affidavit filed in the case.

Now, the District Attorney's Office is asking for a court order to obtain a DNA sample from Joshua "Josh" Vallum, a Lucedale man charged with murder in the killing of Mercedes Williamson, a 17-year-old aspiring cosmetologist from Theodore, Ala.

Williamson's brutal slaying made national headlines when Caitlyn Jenner remembered her during an acceptance speech for the 2015 Arthur Ashe Award at the ESPY Awards.

Authorities did not initially identify Williamson as a transgender teen, but the Sun Herald went to Alabama to confirm her identity.

Assistant District Attorney Cherie Wade filed the motion requesting the DNA, saying the DA's Office cannot adequately prepare for trial until the sample is collected and sent to the state Crime Lab to compare it to possible blood stains found in Vallum's vehicle.

Vallum has been in custody since June 2, a day after he told his father he'd killed someone and buried them in a field behind his father's home.

George County deputies found Williamson's partially decomposed body buried in a makeshift grave under some brush on the property a day later.

When Vallum was booked into the George County jail, he was also held on a probation violation related to a conviction for false reporting of a crime. He finished serving the remainder of that sentence Jan. 16, but remains jailed.

Now, Vallum has written a letter to the judge asking for a reduction in his $1 million bond to a "reasonable" amount that would allow him the opportunity to post bail.

"I turned myself in to law enforcement to face justice for my crime and solemnly swear that if I am allowed a reasonable bond that I will not abscond justice and will appear in court when ordered," Vallum said in a letter written on Valentine's Day. "I have a job waiting on me upon my release and request a bond of a reasonable amount so that I be allowed to better prepare myself for trial, sentencing and incarceration. I have child support that I need to catch up on and fines that I need to pay. I would like to be able to spend some time with my family before I am sentenced."

Vallum, 28, has pleaded not guilty. His trial is set for July 18.

The George County Sheriff's Department has headed up the investigation. One of the investigators, Ben Brown, said early-on deputies were looking into whether the crime was gang-related, drug-related or a hate crime. Officers with the U.S. Department of Justice have also been involved.

When asked whether Vallum could face a hate charge in the killing, District Attorney Tony Lawrence said he could not comment on an ongoing investigation or whether additional charges, if any, will be filed.

Under state law, a hate crime is a crime committed against someone based on their "race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin or gender."

Federal law defines a hate crime as a crime committed against someone or someone's property because of bias against "race, religion, disability, ethnic orientation or sexual orientation."

Since his arrest, Vallum has been ordered to undergo a mental-health evaluation as part of his defense.

In police reports the Sun Herald obtained, investigators said Vallum confessed to the crime.

In a subsequent affidavit filed to obtain a DNA sample, Deputy Jason Pharez said Vallum "admitted to killing a person known as Mercedes."

Jeanie Miller lived with Williamson and last saw her at the camper they shared the afternoon of May 30. She learned Williamson had been killed after calling a friend she thought Williamson had left with the last day she was seen alive.

According to murder indictment, Williamson died between May 30 and June 2.

Though authorities listed Vallum's home address in George County, friends say he was known to stay in Theodore, Ala.

Miller said her beloved friend often spoke of her fondness for Vallum. And Vallum, she said, knew Williamson was transgender.

In 2015, 21 transgender women died in a killing in the United States, up from 12 in 2014, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

After Williamson's death, a memorial page was set up in her honor on Facebook.

Many of her friends remembered her there. Another memorial service was held in Mobile.

Vallum's attorney, David Futch, has declined to comment on the case.

The crime is the second reported in George County involving a transgender man or woman.

Krishna Maroney, a transgender man from George County, is facing trial on various sex crimes charges against a transgender minor.

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