Transgender teenager Mercedes Williamson’s remains were found in a field just across the Alabama state line in rural Rocky Creek, Mississippi. Police had been called there by a man whose son Joshua Vallum said he’d ‘killed someone’ and left their body behind his father’s house. Witnesses said the pair had been in a relationship, and Vallum had killed her out of fear of gang reprisals for engaging in homosexual activity. But Vallum claimed he killed her in a ‘blackout’, after learning she had a penis.

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Mercedes Williamson had dreamed of a career as a cosmetologist.

The teenager was living in the small town of Theodore, Alabama, with her roommate Jeanie Miller, 41, who ‘loved her like a daughter’.

The 17-year-old, who was estranged from her family because she was transgender, had been living as a girl from age 14.

Friends and Jeanie told police Mercedes had been in a relationship with Joshua Vallum for several months, breaking up the previous year.

Vallum, 28, a member of the notorious Latin Kings gang, had connections to the criminal underworld.

Mercedes confided in Jeanie that their relationship was very dangerous, as the gang was anti homosexual behaviour. She said if they found out, both her and Vallum would be killed.

Mercedes loved the outdoors, so when, in late May 2015, she told Jeanie she was heading off for a couple of days, the older woman thought nothing of it.

The teen told Jeanie a friend was collecting her, and she was seen leaving in a silver vehicle.

When Mercedes didn’t return days on, Jeanie began to worry, and rang the friend she thought Mercedes was with.

But the friend told Jeanie she’d never been with Mercedes, and broke the horrifying news that she was dead.

Police had discovered Mercedes’ decomposing body in Rocky Creek, Mississippi.

She had, in fact, left with Vallum, who’d said they were going somewhere to have sex.

But, instead, he’d driven them across the border into Mississippi towards a secluded area near his father’s house.

Anxious, Mercedes asked Vallum if she was being ‘set up’. But no other gang members appeared, and Vallum pulled out a knife and stabbed the defenceless teenager.

Somehow, she managed to break free, but Vallum caught up with her and beat her to death with a hammer.

Vallum was arrested the same day police uncovered Mercedes’ body. He claimed he’d ‘blacked out’ and killed Mercedes after learning she had a penis.

But friends told police the pair had been in a relationship on and off for nearly a year.

And they were adamant Vallum knew Mercedes was transgender.

It seemed more and more likely Vallum had killed his former lover to protect his gang-member reputation and keep him from retribution.

Charged with murder by deliberate design, Vallum pleaded not guilty.

But campaigners wanted Vallum to be charged with a hate crime, as they believed he’d killed Mercedes because she was transgender.

The state of Mississippi, however, had no statute in place to cover this.

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So District Attorney Tony Lawrence intended to argue Vallum killed Mercedes for fear of gang retaliation.

At the last minute, Vallum changed his plea to guilty, avoiding a trial. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

‘A person’s hate, fear or intolerance should not be an excuse to take another person’s life,’ Lawrence said.

However, it was not the end of the story…

Investigators still fought for an additional federal hate-crime charge against Vallum.

And, eventually, he was successfully prosecuted under the US Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Last December, Vallum admitted he killed his ex-lover because she was transgender – and, this May, he was sentenced to 49 years in prison.

The case was the first-ever successful transgender hate-crime prosecution under the act brought in by Barack Obama back in 2009.