Ten years later,Araujo's murder resonates

  • by Seth Hemmelgarn and Cynthia Laird
  • Wednesday October 3, 2012
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Ten years ago this week, Gwen Araujo went to a house party in Newark and never came home.

Araujo was 17 on October 3, 2002, when she was killed. Two of the men had reportedly had sex with the young woman they had known as Lida, and they murdered her after their suspicions that she was biologically male were confirmed. Two other young men were also involved in the killing.

Her last words before being beaten were, "Please don't, I have a family."

Afterward, Araujo's killers drove her body to a grave in the Sierra foothills.

Following an investigation and two trials, Michael Magidson and Jose Merel, both 32, are serving prison sentences of 15 years to life after being convicted of second-degree murder in the case. Jason Cazares, 32, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. He was discharged from prison in July, according to Jonathan Parsley, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Jaron Nabors, 29, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in exchange for testimony against the other defendants and an 11-year prison sentence. Parsley was unable to find Nabors in his agency's records.

Sylvia Guerrero listened to closing arguments during the 2004 trial. (Photo: Courtesy AP pool photo)

Sylvia Guerrero, Araujo's mother, told the Bay Area Reporter this week that she plans to visit Merel at Soledad State Prison, perhaps before the end of the year.

"I've been talking on and off with the Merel family for years," Guerrero said in a phone interview Tuesday. "Jose Merel is in Soledad and I plan on visiting him."

She said that of the four men, Merel has "always been remorseful."

"It's kind of scary but I think it's time," she said of the visit. "I think he owes it to Gwen [and] he owes it to me."

Guerrero suspects that a lot more happened to her daughter than was testified to in the courtroom, she said.

"I need to know the truth," she said. "I don't think I'll ever be at peace, but the truth will set us free."

She said that she long ago forgave the four men.

"I forgave all of them; it's me, it's my faith," she said.



Araujo's murder helped bring more awareness of and sensitivity to the challenges transgender people face. Guerrero and other family members spoke to the media frequently, and movies have been made about the case. However, violence against transgender people persists.

Last year Guerrero said that she met Lynice Nelson, the mother of trans murder victim, Michelle "Shelly" Moore, whose torso was found on the east side of Detroit October 23, 2011. Known as "Treasure," Moore's body was decapitated.

"I did a Day of Remembrance speech there," Guerrero said, adding that afterwards, she and Nelson hugged and talked. Guerrero had a butterfly pendant in her purse �" Araujo loved butterflies �" and she gave it to Nelson.

But now at the 10th anniversary of Araujo's death, Guerrero said that she's surprised and disappointed that there hasn't been more attention. A decade ago, Guerrero lived much of her life in the public eye. Araujo's memorial drew national attention �" and protests by anti-trans people �" as did the subsequent trials.

"I could never get away from the cameras," she said, adding that while she didn't expect the same level of media presence this year, she thought there would be some stories around the anniversary.

"I kind of feel like we're forgotten," Guerrero said.

Used to speaking at public events, Guerrero said that she has only one so far this year �" an appearance this Saturday in San Francisco.

"But to me it's my everyday story. I wish I could say that time has healed ... but I have learned to live with the pain.

"The day they murdered Gwen they murdered part of me," she said.


Panic defense

One of the key issues that came out of Araujo's murder was that more attention was paid to gay or transgender "panic defense," a strategy employed by defendants in which they try to blame the violence on the victim. Araujo reportedly engaged in anal and/or oral sex with Magidson, Jose Merel, and his brother Paul, who didn�t participate in the killing. Magidson and Merel claimed that the discovery of Araujo's birth gender had threatened their sexualities and self-images.

Family members, the prosecution, and supporters spent countless hours over numerous months combating the transphobic rhetoric and blame-the-victim mentality that was allowed in court.

Even as the coroner's office was testifying about the multiple causes of Araujo's death and her bruised and bloodied body, defense attorney Tony Serra's questions remained focused on the length of Araujo's skirt.

In July 2006, state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who was then San Francisco's district attorney, convened a national conference on combating gay and transgender panic defense strategies. Guerrero, attorneys involved in the Araujo case, law enforcement officials from around the country, and others were at the meeting.

Months later, Assembly Bill 1160, which was known as the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act, became law in California. The law allows a judge to instruct jurors not to consider their own anti-LGBT biases during their deliberations.

Transgender activist Gabriel Haaland, who was at the 2006 conference, said in an interview this week "[Harris's] efforts really, I think, shone the light on what was clearly really a horrific strategy by attorneys."

However, Haaland said, what's most striking to him is the violence perpetrated against transgender women of color who also face challenges such as housing and employment discrimination.


Violence persists

And when it comes to trans women, the violence, particularly murder, still occurs.

"We still are facing unbelievable violence 10 years later," said Tiffany Woods, the TransVision coordinator at the Fremont-based Tri-City Health Center.

In April, Brandy Martell, 37, a transgender woman Woods knew well, was shot and killed as she and her friends sat in her car in Oakland. Many suspect Martell was killed because of her gender identity. No one has been arrested in the case.

The establishment of TransVision is among the changes that have come since Araujo's death. When she was murdered, Tri-City didn't offer transgender services, Woods said.

She said co-workers have told her that Araujo, who lived in the nearby city of Newark, came a couple times to a gay youth group at Tri-City, "and they just didn't know what to do" with a transgender youth. Resources for young transgender people are still lacking, she said.

In response to emailed questions, Transgender Law Center Executive Director Masen Davis said, "We have a lot more legal protections, especially in the state of California, than we did a decade ago."

But the violence persists. In San Francisco, attacks on transgender women, especially in the Mission district, have been said to still be common, but details on most incidents haven't been readily available.

"In the Bay Area we can become complacent �" thinking the issues of violence and discrimination against LGBT people doesn't touch us here, and it's especially important that folks in the Bay Area remember Gwen, and remember that we have to continue to promote tolerance and safety even in our own backyards," Davis said.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center For Transgender Equality, made similar remarks.

"It's unfortunate that it was Gwen's murder that did this, but a lot of community was built around it," Keisling said. Transgender people "really, really owe a lot to Gwen and her mother Sylvia," she said.

However, she said, "People are still dying."



At 2 p.m., Saturday, October 6, a remembrance of Araujo and others will be held in the community room of the San Francisco Public Library's Visitacion Valley branch, 201 Leland Avenue. Organized by LGBT activist Jose Romero, the event will feature Guerrero. For more information, contact Romero at [email protected].

In November, the 14th annual International Transgender Day of Remembrance will mourn the loss of Martell and other transgender and gender variant individuals killed due to anti-transgender violence over the previous 12 months.

In Oakland, a free, countywide event will be held 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday, November 16 at the Oakland Peace Center, Fellowship Hall, 111 Fairmont Avenue, Oakland. Doors will open at 7 p.m.

The national day falls on Tuesday, November 20.