Josh Vallum, a highly placed member of the Latin Kings street gang, pleaded guilty yesterday in the first ever federal hate crime charge filed against the killer of a transgender person.
Vallum, 29, admitted he stabbed and beat to death Mercedes Williamson, 17, because she was transgender. Until now, Vallum had consistently denied killing her because of gender identity.
Vallum entered the plea before U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. He is facing a sentence of life without parole and up to a $250,000 fine at his March 21 sentencing.
The prosecution is the first in U.S. history under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act for targeting a transgender victim. Allen Andrade was convicted of first degree murder and bias-motivated crime in Colorado for killing transgender teen Andie Zapata in 2009, but that was application of a state hate crime statute.
Vallum is already serving a life sentence with parole on a state charge of murder by deliberate design in the case. Vallum claimed he entered the plea to avoid putting his fellow Latin Kings through more than they had already been through.
Jackson County District Attorney Tony Lawrence said he believes Vallum entered the plea in the state case because of a trove of gay pornography found on his cellphone.
Prosecutors believe Vallum killed Williamson to cover up his sexual relationship with her. Williamson’s friends said she had openly talked about how she and Vallum would be killed if his fellow Latin Kings street gang members found out about his homosexual activity.
Latin Kings bylaws strictly prohibit homosexual activity.
In an exclusive jailhouse interview in July, Vallum said he thought Williamson was a virgin. He said he didn’t know until he went to have sexual intercourse with her the day of the May 30, 2015, murder.
Vallum said he hit Williamson with a stun gun, stabbed her repeatedly with a 75th Regiment military knife and beat her over the head with a claw hammer until her screaming stopped. Afterward, he covered her body with some debris and buried her body on his father’s property.
Williamson, he said, begged for her life.
While in jail Vallum attempted to hang himself with a bedsheet. He wrote a suicide note, addressing his fellow gang members:
To my Nation and my brothers and sisters, it will always be Amor de Rey y Reina y Corona (meaning Love King and Queen and Crown)! I just can’t take this anymore. I see her face and hear her voice.
Her spirit is screaming for revenge. I’m living a nightmare. It’s like a horror movie. I killed her and now she’s not gonna stop until she has killed me. I love all of you. I’m so sorry.