Killings of transgender women of color often unsolved in Chicago
Speaking through tears, Rosemary Gamble returns again and again to the questions she would like to ask her granddaughter’s killer:
Why did you do this?
What could she have possibly done to you?
Did you act out of hatred?
Have you killed anyone else?
“Before I leave this earth, I would just like to look them in the face and ask them, ‘Why? Why would you take my baby from me like this?’” said Gamble, 66, of Chicago.
But five years after Gamble’s granddaughter, a transgender woman named Tiara Richmond, was shot to death at age 24, Gamble has yet to see justice, and a new analysis by the Tribune indicates that the odds are against her. The Tribune found that only about 23% of the violent deaths of transgender women in recent years have been solved by Chicago police, compared to 38% of homicides solved overall.
The Chicago Police Department doesn’t track these deaths, but by combing through news clips, LGBTQ websites, and Cook County medical examiner’s records, the Tribune was able to identify at least some of the victims: 13 transgender people killed in Chicago since 2010, all of them women of color. Three of those transgender homicides — or killings of transgender people by others — have been solved.
Chicago transgender advocate LaSaia Wade called that track record “deplorable,” but said she was not surprised by it.
“They’re giving up because they don’t care. They just don’t care,” said Wade, the CEO of the Brave Space Alliance LGBTQ center on the South Side. Wade said she and other advocates had to push very hard to get an arrest in a 2018 case, and her attempt to expand the police department’s LGBTQ training had been unsuccessful.
“I’ve been trying my best for the last six years with working with police officers, but it’s just like banging my head against the damn wall,” Wade said.
Chicago police Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan said he wasn’t happy with the 23% solve rate, but each case is different, and some cases are more difficult to solve than others.
“The detectives go out and put the effort in — the best of which they’re capable — to solve every single case, regardless of any sort of race, creed, etcetera,” Deenihan said. “Every single case gets treated the same by the detective division.”
Asked if the police department would make any changes in response to the Tribune’s findings, Deenihan didn’t answer yes or no. Instead, he pointed to existing initiatives such as staff training on LGBTQ issues, and he said detectives will continue to take all cases seriously and work hard to solve them.
Although the Tribune analysis is small, and likely excludes some victims because of the limited sources of information available, it is one of the first of its kind, and it is in keeping with new research from Florida State University, where preliminary data on roughly 300 transgender homicide cases from across the country — including 17 in Illinois — indicate that 18% of transgender homicides in this state are solved, and 40% to 50% of transgender homicides are solved nationwide.
Closer to home, a victim’s family member said the Tribune’s findings were in line with his own observations.
“I’ve heard and seen so many (transgender people) murdered, and there’s no justice,” said Shamari Woulard, whose sister Sandy Woulard, a 28-year-old transgender woman, was shot to death on the South Side in 2010.
Relatives of transgender homicide victims told the Tribune of multiple phone calls to police that went unreturned, with one saying she had made over 40 calls without getting a single response.
Darrin Frazier, whose daughter Ciara Minaj Frazier was killed in 2018, said police never told him they had made an arrest in the case, or that the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office rejected felony charges against the then-suspect.
When the Tribune contacted him, Frazier, 57, of Franklin Park, had been waiting for news from police on an investigation that had been over for almost three years.
“I feel terrible because that’s my child,” Frazier said.
Rosemary Gamble was preparing to go to work on the morning of Feb. 21, 2017, when two police officers came to her door, asking if she knew Donnell Richmond.
Yes, said Gamble, whose transgender granddaughter had been known as Donnell before she transitioned. The officers said they needed to talk to Gamble, so she buzzed them up and asked what the problem was.
“Well, it’s a damn shame,” Gamble recalls one of the officers saying.
Tiara Richmond had been shot multiple times while she sat in a car with a man at about 6:15 a.m. in Englewood.
All of the victims identified by the Tribune were Black or Latina transgender women killed in South and West side neighborhoods — and most were under age 35 — in keeping with a national study that found a higher risk of homicide in this demographic group. The youngest victim was 19 and the oldest 37.
“It all trickles down to how society treats transgender people as a whole,” said Wade, referring to discrimination and bias.
A 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that transgender people of color experienced deeper and broader discrimination than white transgender people. Their unemployment rate, at 20%, was four times higher than that of the general population. They were also more likely to live in poverty, be homeless, and engage in sex work, all of which are associated with a heightened risk of violence.
The survey found that 24% of Black transgender women had engaged in income-based sex work in the past year, compared to 5% of transgender women overall.
For this story, the Tribune compared the percentage of transgender homicides from 2010 to the present that were considered solved by police (whether or not anyone was charged with a crime), to the percentage of homicides overall in 2010-2021 that were considered solved.
The solve rate for homicides of transgender people was 23%, compared to a 38% solve rate for homicides overall. That 38% rate is lower than the rates the Chicago Police Department usually reports, because the police department counts any homicide solved in a given time period, regardless of when that homicide occurred. In other words, if a 2005 homicide was solved in 2010-2021, it would count for the Chicago police solve rate for 2010-2021, but not for the Tribune solve rate.
The Tribune didn’t use the Chicago police solve-rate formula because so few transgender homicides could be identified prior to 2010.
Solve rates for transgender homicides are “shockingly low,” both in Chicago and nationwide, according to Brendan Lantz, director of the Hate Crime Research and Policy Institute at Florida State University. In the absence of good government statistics on transgender homicides, he is developing a national database.
Nationally, the solve rate for all homicides (as measured by the more generous formula used by Chicago police) was 54% in 2020 and 65% in 2010, according to the nonprofit Murder Accountability Project.
Gamble said that police officers repeatedly failed to return her calls about her granddaughter’s case. Even when Gamble went to Georgia to care for an injured relative, she kept calling, she said, but without success.
“I figure they just wrote it off like, ‘OK, he’s gay; he’s gone,’” said Gamble, who uses male pronouns to refer to Richmond. “But I don’t care if you’re gay or have no arms and legs. That’s my grandson, and he has the same rights as anybody else. He has the right to live.”
Cassandra Monroe, whose 24-year-old sister, Tiara Banks, was shot to death in West Pullman in April 2021, also complained of multiple unreturned calls to Chicago police.
“I guess because she’s transgender, they just didn’t care,” Monroe said.
Deenihan said the detective division has created a new unit with family liaison officers whose duties include making sure all phone calls from victims’ relatives are returned.
The humanity of the victims was a common theme among family members, who said they wanted people to know how much their relatives were loved and missed.
A breast cancer survivor, Lacrisha Alexander doted on her 28-year-old daughter Tyianna, doing her hair and cooking for her every Sunday. After Tyianna’s death in January 2021, Alexander woke up repeatedly — her heart racing with anxiety — at 4 a.m., about the time that her daughter was shot.
“You just really destroy a family” when you kill someone,” Alexander said. “(My daughter) had a sister, she got nieces, nephews. It’s like a hurt feeling towards everything.”
Lunetta Frazier, whose younger sister Ciara Frazier was killed in 2018, said that her first memory was of going to the hospital to see Ciara when she was born. The sisters were born 2 years and 7 days apart, and they celebrated their birthdays together until Lunetta Frazier was in her mid-20s. Ciara Frazier was one of the first people to hold Lunetta Frazier’s son when he was born in 2011.
“Nobody knew me like her,” said Lunetta Frazier, her eyes filling with tears. “Nobody.”
Lunetta Frazier, an accountant who lives in Franklin Park, and her sister, Davina Frazier, a clerk who lives in Chicago, recalled a sister who made friends easily, baked sweet potato pies from scratch, picked up dance routines the first time she saw them and could be trusted with any secret.
“She was crazy about her sisters, and we were crazy about her,” said Davina Frazier, 32.
After examining police records from Ciara Frazier’s case given to her by the Tribune, Lunetta Frazier disputed aspects of the former suspect’s account, including that Ciara Frazier, armed with a gun, entered the man’s car when he got lost at night in West Garfield Park and stopped to check his phone for directions. The former suspect said Ciara Frazier pointed a gun at him and ordered him to drive to an abandoned building where they fought and he stabbed her in self-defense.
No gun was found at the crime scene, according to a Chicago police inventory list obtained by the Tribune; two knives were recovered.
“Where’s the gun?” Lunetta Frazier said. “Where is the gun? Where is the gun that Ciara supposedly had?”
The former suspect, who is not being named because he was not charged with a crime, said in a phone interview that two people, whom he took to be Ciara Frazier’s friends, arrived on the scene after she screamed for help.
“I don’t know where that gun may have gone,” the former suspect said. “All I can assume is that one of that person’s friends must have taken the gun off them.”
The state’s attorney’s office rejected felony charges against the former suspect in 2019.
Ciara Frazier’s father, Darrin, said he disagreed with that decision and was trying to figure out his options.
“They just dismissed it. They didn’t even want to deal with the case,” Darrin Frazier said of the state’s attorney’s office. “That’s why they took (the former suspect’s) word over everything.”
The state’s attorney’s office responded to questions with a written statement.
“After a thorough review, we concluded that the evidence was insufficient to meet our burden of proof to file charges,” the statement said in part.
“The Chicago Police Department agreed with our determination in this case. As prosecutors, we have both an ethical and legal obligation to make charging decisions based on the evidence, facts, and the law.”
The state’s attorney’s office declined to answer additional questions.
Wade said she’s at a loss as to what to do to improve police performance, either locally or nationally. Instead, she and her colleagues at Brave Space Alliance are currently focusing on creating a safety net for Chicago’s transgender community, including housing for homeless people and those who are housing insecure, and coaching for those who want to do sex work more safely.
To that end, Brave Space Alliance recently bought a South Side apartment building for $448,000. When the building is fully operational, it will provide housing, coaching and support to up to 26 transgender people at a time, according to Wade.
Gamble, a home care provider, said that when Richmond was little she lived just a few blocks down the street in Bronzeville.
Richmond would run over to Gamble’s home every morning, still wearing her pajamas, and beg her to take her to work with her, Gamble recalled with a chuckle. When other kids gravitated to Gamble, Richmond could get possessive, telling the interlopers, “That’s my grandma. Get away from my grandma.”
Gamble called her firstborn grandchild “Booman,” a loving reference to Richmond’s curiosity and talent for mischief.
“I said ‘Boobaby,’ and then I said no, ‘Booman: That’s what I’m going to call you, ‘cause you’re so damn bad.’ He would fight, beat up the other kids — he didn’t want nobody around me.”
The bond between grandmother and grandchild fractured, temporarily, when Richmond was about 17, and Gamble came home from work to find a young woman in torn stockings, red lipstick and an unflattering wig.
“Grandma, it’s me!” the visitor said.
“Me, who?” said Gamble, confused.
“It’s me, Booman.”
Richmond explained that she was gay, but Gamble, who hadn’t had much exposure to LGBTQ people, wasn’t ready to hear that.
“You got two minutes, I don’t care what you is,” she told her granddaughter. “Get that (stuff) off and put your clothes on. I can’t do this.”
The two women didn’t speak to each other for about four months, but when Richmond came by one snowy winter night, saying she had been sleeping under porches, Gamble told her to come upstairs and never looked back.
“To each his own,” Gamble said. “I used to have a hang-up with the gay scene, but now I realize they’re just people. I’m not here to judge — love is love.”
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A big believer in the motto, “Whatever you’re going to do, be the best at it,” Gamble came to take great pride in her granddaughter’s feminine appearance, her stylish hair and nails, and her graceful walk. Richmond remained devoted as well, bringing Gamble food, helping her clean her house and teasing her about her trademark honesty and directness.
“Granny, I love you so much,” Gamble recalls Richmond telling her. “You’re so mean — and sweet. I just love you.”
In the years since Richmond’s death, Gamble has endured other heartbreaks. Her older son died in July. Her husband died a month later. Her younger son was injured, and she moved to Georgia for a while to care for him, interrupting her career as a home care provider. After she returned to Chicago, she faced the threat of eviction. ,
But through it all, the loss of her first grandchild has remained a fresh wound.
Gamble releases balloons every year on Richmond’s birthday, sometimes dozens, sometimes fewer, depending on where she is and who she is spending the day with. But each time, she said, she notices a strange glitch. There’s always a balloon that starts sailing skyward, but then turns and floats down again, as if drawn back to the earth.
“There goes Booman,” Gamble will say of the low-flying balloon. “He ain’t ready to leave the party. He wants to stay here with me.”