The Crying Game

Despite a celebrated history, Native American transgenders struggle in the modern world

The outreach coordinator for the Native American Pathways Prevention Project, Trudie Jackson, as well as Tionne and five other queens who attend the weekly meetings (and asked that their identities not be revealed), told New Times that they, too, knew of the same girls being murdered while working Van Buren.

Unfortunately, the girls only knew each other by their street names and didn't have exact dates for the murders, making it impossible to even ask for police reports.

A search for recent transgender deaths through the medical examiner's office was fruitless, because victims are not listed as their chosen sexual gender, but rather by the one to which they were born.

Angel Manuel (center) performs a traditional Tohono O'odham ritual, flanked by her siblings, at the Miss Native American Transgender Beauty Pageant.
Ian Wingfield
Angel Manuel (center) performs a traditional Tohono O'odham ritual, flanked by her siblings, at the Miss Native American Transgender Beauty Pageant.

Cliff Jewell, a Phoenix police homicide detective, agreed to search a database of all hate crimes from the past 10 years for New Times, but by press time had been unable to find any possible matches for the homicides Jackson, Tionne and others described.

In fact, Phoenix police were only able to provide reports on two confirmed homicides. But just those have been enough to scare most of the TGs off the street, if not entirely out of the sex trade.

On March 4, 2002, two City of Phoenix sanitation workers were driving down an alley north of Thomas Road on 18th Street when one of them noticed the lifeless body of Alejandro Lucero hunched over in an alcove.

Lucero was a 26-year-old Hopi transgender. Months earlier, according to police reports, he'd moved to Phoenix from Gallup, New Mexico. He moved in with his brother, Lorenzo, also a transgender, and they were living together in a central Phoenix apartment.

When the sanitation workers discovered Alejandro Lucero's body, he was dressed in a woman's blue tank top, a strapless padded bra, "low rider" jeans, and blue thong panties. It wasn't until forensic investigators showed up almost an hour after Lucero's body was discovered that police realized Alejandro was not, in fact, a woman.

At the conclusion of an autopsy the next day, when Lucero was "found to have abrasions and contusions to the lower left edge of his jaw, down the left side of his neck and on the upper left portion of his chest," the medical examiner determined that Lucero had died from strangulation and blunt-force trauma.

"We were never able to establish who Alejandro really was," says one Phoenix homicide detective who asked that his name not be revealed, as he continues to work on the case almost four years later. "His murder was the first time he ever popped up on anybody's radar screen."

Raymond Soos -- known on the street and to friends as "Amy" -- was different. The Salt River Pima Indian was known to work Van Buren and frequent gay dive bars looking for tricks.

On February 16, 2002, just weeks before Lucero's murder, Soos hopped into a stranger's car for the last time. Phoenix police determined that Soos, after a night in downtown Phoenix, was picked up somewhere near the former Cruisin' Central (a gay bar that has since moved to Seventh Street, and is now known as Cruisin' 7th), either turning a trick or just looking for a ride back to her home on the reservation just south of Casino Arizona.

Soos' body was discovered by hot-air balloonists, lying in the middle of Jomax Road near Cave Creek. She had been beaten, run over several times by the car in which she was picked up, and left for dead.

Phoenix police have since determined that both Lucero's and Soos' unsolved murders were hate crimes. But they've found no link between the two.

"We did not determine that they were related. That's not to say that they aren't, but there was nothing similar about the two other than the lifestyle of the victims," the homicide detective says. "It's been my experience in 25 years of law enforcement that transgenders are targeted, period. A guy gets a six-pack of beer under his belt, picks up a hooker, and when he finds out the hooker is actually a man, he gets angry."

But girls like Tionne insist there's a pattern of homicides committed specifically against Native American transgenders.

"The cops," she says, "they don't care about us. They don't investigate enough."

According to the anonymous homicide detective, many of the girls Tionne suspects of having been murdered were more likely to have overdosed on drugs, or simply moved back to the reservation.

Phoenix Police Detective Tambra Williams agrees. "We're going to treat every homicide the same as any other," says Williams, the department's liaison to the gay community. "So many of the girls, and their families, may want to place blame. They don't want to know that their friends and relatives OD'd."

But, Williams admits, the Native American TG community is a target for violent crimes.

"When you have that much of your community homeless, on drugs, abusing alcohol," she says, "you've got such a huge propensity for violence. And when that community is gay or transgender, those who would commit those violent acts see them as weak individuals."

She adds, "They see them as easy targets."

Trudie Jackson was once like Francessica, yearning for an urban environment where she could blend in and disappear.

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