Chicago transgender community faces uphill battle for justice amid 'epidemic of violence'

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel, Maggie Green and Ross Weidner WLS logo
Friday, November 18, 2022
Chicago's trans community faces 'epidemic of violence'
Chicago's transgender community faces an uphill battle for justice for murders of transgender women, most often trans women of color, data shows.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Many Chicago area transgender and gender non-conforming people are looking for answers amid what the American Medical Association has branded an "epidemic of violence."

Since 2020, more trans people have been killed in Chicago than any other U.S. city, according to data analyzed by the I-Team. The killings of transgender women, particularly those of color continue at a concerning rate.

Jerry Nicholas wants to know if his daughter is one of those statistics.

On January 17, 2021 the body of Sherry Nicholas was found on the floor of her room at the Grand Regency of Jackson Park Supportive Living facility on Chicago's South Side.

Nicholas claims Chicago police did not take his transgender daughter's death seriously from the beginning because of who she was.

In police body camera video obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request an officer can be heard asking staff at the facility if the death is from natural causes. A staff member said they don't know.

Nicholas said authorities misgendered his daughter, and he said they ignored evidence of foul play.

In an email to Nicholas, CPD declared that a thorough investigation found no evidence of murder and the case was closed. In the autopsy finding, cause of death is undetermined.

But a mysterious note allegedly written to the Nicholas family which said "call the news people" fueled her father's speculation.

"She was delightful. She is going to be missed forever. Can't bring her back," Nicholas said through tears.

The latest data shows between 2020 and now, there have been eight homicides of transgender people in Chicago, and suspicions even more cases have gone unreported. All victims are women of color.

Brendan Lantz, the director of the Hate Crime Research & Policy Institute at Florida State University, is working with a team to compile a database to keep tally on cases and the outcomes.

"We're seeing geographic concentrations in certain states and certain cities, Chicago being one of the cities in our database with the most transgender homicides," he said.

The Chicago area is still reeling from three deaths this year.

Martasia Richmond was found stabbed to death on a porch in July. Daniel Burley, described as her partner, is charged with murder. Lawyers say he acted in self-defense.

In March, Tatiana LaBelle's remains were discovered stuffed in a trash bin on the city's East Side. There are no arrests yet in that case.

And a day later in Evanston, transgender activist Elise Malary's body was discovered in Lake Michigan. Evanston police said the investigation remains open and the department is working to follow up on any open leads and will investigate additional leads as they become available.

Her death is listed as a drowning, but the medical examiner's office was unable to determine if it was accidental or murder.

"The clearance rates in our data are far below the national average for non-transgender homicide rates, and the clearance rates in Chicago are much lower than what we are seeing for trans homicides nationally as well," Lantz said.

Victoria Kirby York, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said the numbers in Chicago are troubling.

"Definitely shows there's a pattern of neglect and a lack of interest in really sending a clear message that murdering transgender women, especially black transgender women, women in the city is not ok," York said.

National and local activists are calling for police to stop misgendering victims and to take the crimes more seriously, including classifying the homicides as transgender.

"Definitely something that is important so communities know where the disparities lie and to help figure out if there is a serial killer out there," said York.

For more than a week, Chicago police officials told the I-Team they wanted to do an interview for this report, but never provided anyone to speak on camera.

Transgender activists are more forthcoming. LaSaia Wade is CEO of Tha Night Haus.

"Most if not all of the time trans people are murdered by someone they care for, or someone that there doing survival sex work with," she said. "And we don't normally talk about that."

Four of the eight Chicago cases have resulted in charges, including the murder of Courtey Eshay Key who was shot to death on Chicago's South Side in 2020 on Christmas Day.

William Truss, 62, is accused of killing Key after allegedly soliciting her for sex. Truss will plead not guilty according to his attorney.

Key's support network said the arrest is progress, but more is needed.

"She left her footprint on your soul, on your heart," said Malik Pullum, Key's former boyfriend, "It's a victory, so we one up right now."

Jerry Nicholas said he has his own small victory. The Civilian Office of Police Accountability recently referred Nicholas's complaint to the newly launched mediation pilot program where his concerns will be discussed.

"They could correct this and show the LGBT community they care about them also. That's what I want," said Nicholas.

A spokesperson for the supportive living facility told the I-Team they fully cooperated with CPD's investigation. And community activists said that the deaths of trans and gender non-conforming people could decrease if there was more social acceptance and economic acceptance.