Crime

District attorney seeking gang-related evidence in killing of transgender teen

Mercedes Williamson
Mercedes Williamson

GEORGE COUNTY -- Prosecutors are seeking details of Josh Vallum's and four other people's membership in the Latin Kings street gang as evidence before Vallum's trial on a charge of first-degree murder in the beating death of a transgender teen. Specifically, they're looking into the gang's bylaws forbidding homosexual activity and the punishment exacted on its members for such activity.

Vallum, 28, has been in custody since June 2, a day after he told his father he'd killed and buried someone. Vallum later told authorities, according to a deputy's sworn statement, he beat to death 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson with a hammer while the two were in Vallum's car on his father's property, and buried her in a field behind the father's home in the Rocky Creek community.

Vallum's friends in Alabama told the Sun Herald he knew Williamson was transgender, and she had even considered him a boyfriend at one time.

George County deputies found Williamson's partially decomposed body buried under some brush on the property of Vallum's father. Authorities used DNA samples to identify her. According to the indictment, she died between May 30 and June 2. In an affidavit, a deputy said Vallum admitted "killing a person known as Mercedes."

Shortly afterward, her killing made national headlines when Caitlyn Jenner remembered her during an acceptance speech for the 2015 Arthur Ashe Award at the ESPY Awards.

District Attorney Tony Lawrence has issued subpoenas for four people believed to be associated with Vallum. They are Dustin Kelley; his fiancée, Cheyenne Jones; Jessica White; and Levi White, witnesses who have failed to cooperate with authorities, court records say.

The four are scheduled to testify at a June hearing to determine if their testimony will be allowed at trial. Vallum's attorney, David Futch, wants a judge to prohibit testimony about Vallum's gang activity, which he said is not connected to the case.

Lawrence says otherwise in a motion he filed, saying some of the gang members "spoke to law enforcement initially and admitted their role in the Latin Kings" and those members have "relevant information."

Ties to Vallum

One of the witnesses, Dustin Kelley, is the brother of Dexter Kelley, a Meridian native jailed on a murder charge in the death of his cousin, Cliff Allyn, 16, in Vancleave. At the time of Cliff's killing, Dexter and Dustin Kelley were living in a mobile home on their grandmother's property. Cliff was last seen playing basketball with the brothers.

When Dustin Kelley's father, Paul Kelley, was asked if Dustin was a member of the Latin Kings, he said his son is in the process of ending his membership because he was stripped of his title after his brother was arrested on the murder charge.

Paul Kelley said he's met Vallum, a man he knew by the name Chaos. He said Vallum came to his son apparently after Williamson's slaying, and asked if he could park his car at Kelley's home. At that time, Dustin Kelley was living with his father in Gautier.

Days later, Paul Kelley said, cops busted into his Gautier home and searched it.

According to an affidavit, authorities found suspected blood stains in Vallum's car for comparison with DNA collected from Vallum and Williamson.

The District Attorney's Office also has subpoenaed Alabama residents Jehue Joseph Wilson and Ashley White to testify at Vallum's trial. Circuit Judge Robert Krebs found Wilson and White had "pertinent information regarding the whereabouts and statements made by the victim and defendant prior to and/or after the alleged murder" of Williamson.

Tattoo photos sought

Prosecutors are also asking for photos to be taken of Vallum's gang-related tattoos, which they say would be less intrusive than requiring Vallum to stand up before jurors and remove his shirt to show the tattoos on his arms, neck and body.

The District Attorney's Office also is requesting approval to subpoena gang documentation from gang members who have failed to cooperate, as well as from Vallum.

Among the evidence sought is the gang's history, its bylaws, structure, membership list, the culture of the gang, its rules of discipline, and any positions it takes and laws it has prohibiting homosexual activity, as well as financial documentation and other gang-related material. Prosecutors also want gang members to say whether they knew of Vallum's homosexual activity and if there was punishment for his alleged acts.

Krebs will rule on what among that evidence will be allowed at trial.

Vallum seeks lower bond

Vallum has asked for a reduction in his $1 million bond to a "reasonable" amount to allow him to be released on bond.

"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."

Hate crime?

Early in the investigation, George County investigators told the Sun Herald they were looking into whether the crime was gang-related, drug-related or a hate crime. Officers with the U.S. Department of Justice also have been involved.

When asked earlier this year whether Vallum could face an additional hate-crime charge, Lawrence said he could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

Under state law, a hate crime is one committed against someone based on their "race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin or gender." Federal law says a hate crime is a crime committed against someone or someone's property because of bias against "race, religion, disability, ethnic orientation or sexual orientation."

Authorities did not initially say Williamson was transgender. The Sun Herald went to Alabama and confirmed the information.

Jeanie Miller, of Theodore, Ala.,, who lived with Williamson, said she last saw her the afternoon of May 30 at a camper they shared. She learned Williamson had been killed when she called a friend she thought Williamson had left with.

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

After Williamson's slaying, a memorial page was set up in her honor on Facebook. Many friends posted tributes to her. A service was held in her memory in Mobile shortly after the Sun Herald learned Williamson was transgender.

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