As the funerals are set to begin for the nine victims of last week's terrorist attack on an historic African-American church in Charleston, another reign of terror continues to quietly spread across the country.
For at least the ninth time this year, a transgender woman has been murdered.
The most recent to die in the slow-moving slaughter is 17-year-oldMercedes Williamson, an aspiring cosmetologist with long, dark hair and a beautiful smile from Theodore, Alabama. Her partially decomposed body was found on June 2 in a field in George County, Mississippi, about 40 miles west of her home. The authorities say she was killed a day or two earlier, her body left in the field, hidden under brush and debris.
"It's shocking to me that I'm not hearing more about it from people in the community," James Robinson, of the Huntsville, Alabama-based LGBTQ social service agency, Free2Be, told Hatewatch today. "I think it's just getting lost and it shouldn't. This was a 17-year-old girl in rural Alabama who was murdered."
An alleged street gang member, Josh Brandon Vallum, 27, has been charged with her slaying and is in jail. Bond for the ex-con has been set at $1 million.
A motive for the slaying has not been established. Agents with the FBI's Safe Streets Task Force have joined deputies from the George County Sheriff's Department in the investigation, according to theSun Herald newspaper of Gulfport, Mississippi.
"We are trying to determine whether (the killing) is drug-related, gang-related or a hate crime," George County sheriff's Capt. Ben Brown told the paper this week. "We will do a thorough investigation to bring justice to the victim's family."
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) recently published an in-depthreport on anti-transgender violence taking place across the country. The report quotes a study by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) that says since 2013 nearly 30 transgender women, most of them black and Latino, have been slain.
"It's absolutely rooted in transphobia and hatred and it's absolutely a national crisis. And that's just confirmed murders. It's probably more."
"We've had people burned in their homes," Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, a policy adviser for the Washington D.C.-based group, told the SPLC. "We've had people's genitals mutilated after they're dead. It's absolutely rooted in transphobia and hatred and it's absolutely a national crisis. And that's just confirmed murders. It's probably more."
Just last year, for the first time, the FBI published statistics on the number of hate crimes based on gender identity, finding that 33 people were victimized in 2013, the latest numbers available. But the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs released a similar report last year, finding that 344 trans people had been victimized in 2013, 13 of them killed.
There is no dispute that the life of young transwoman has been snuffed out.
Williamson lived in a rented, $50-a-week, one-bedroom camper in Theodore with Jeanie Miller, 41, according to the Sun Herald. Williamson slept on the sofa in the front of the camper. Miller took the back bedroom. They were more like mother and daughter than roommates, Miller told the paper.
"I was overprotective of her because she was closer to me than my own daughter," Miller said.
"It's a horrible case, a sad situation… She was a beautiful person."
Miller told the paper she last saw Williamson around 2 p.m. on May 30 when Williams left the camper, saying she was going to Gulf Shores. When Williamson did not return for a couple of days, Miller said she grew alarmed and called one of the teenager's friends, who informed her that Williamson was dead.
On June 1, according to Sun Herald, Josh Vallum, the ex-con gang member charged with the murder, told his father that he had killed someone and left the body in the underbrush behind his father's house. The father called the authorities and helped them search for and find the body.
Vallum later turned himself in.
Miller, the dead girl's roommate, told the paper that she knew Vallum and that Vallum knew Williamson was transgender.
"It's a horrible case, a sad situation," Shonna Pierce, spokesperson for the George County sheriff, told Hatewatch today. "She was a beautiful person."