Three transgender black women have been fatally shot in Jacksonville, Florida, since the beginning of the year, and local activists fear that the killings are linked.
“The transgender community in Jacksonville is frightened,” Gina Duncan, a transgender-rights advocate with Equality Florida, said in a statement on Tuesday. “They fear this could be a serial killer or orchestrated violence targeting the community. They do not feel protected on their own streets.”
Celine Walker, 36, was the first trans women killed in Jacksonville this year. Police found her body on Feb. 4 inside a room at an Extended Stay America hotel in the city’s Southpoint area, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
Antash’a English, 38, was found shot in the abdomen between two abandoned houses in northern Jacksonville on June 1, and she later died in a hospital, the sheriff's office said.
The body of the third victim, Cathalina Christina James, 24, was found at a Quality Inn and Suites on Sunday about 10 miles south of where Walker was found, according to the sheriff's office.
(A fourth transgender woman was shot multiple times on June 8 but survived. Local activists said the shooting appeared to be a domestic dispute, and they don’t believe the incident to be related to the others.)
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is investigating the three killings as separate cases and released a statement saying that at this point it has no reason to believe that the murders are related.
Community activists, however, are not convinced. Paige Mahogany, the head of the Jacksonville Transgender Awareness Project, said she thinks the culprit is a serial killer.
“The transgender community feels like there’s a target on their backs," she said in a phone interview. "We don’t feel safe in Jacksonville.”
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has not named any suspects, but said that in the James case, police were looking for a man in a beige car, according to NBC affiliate WTLV. Before English died, she said the suspect had driven away in a gray four-door vehicle, according to The Florida Times-Union.
Mahogany said the relationship between the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and the local transgender community is strained.
“Every day, there are a lot of crimes not being reported, because when the sheriffs come out, the sheriffs make the girls feel like suspects, not victims,” Mahogany said. “A lot of these girls are being beaten up, they’re being robbed, they’re being assaulted, but they’re not reaching out to the police department.”
Duncan, of Equality Florida, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, also expressed frustration with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office for repeatedly referring to the three homicide victims using male pronouns.
“By misgendering these transgender women, the JSO disrespects their memory and impedes their own investigations. These are out, trans women and that is how they are known in the community," Duncan said in a statement.
Last year was the deadliest year on record for transgender people in the U.S., with at least 28 deaths due to violence, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which has been tracking such data since 2013. So far this year, at least 12 transgender people have been fatally shot or killed by other violent means, according to the organization.
“For years, there has been a crisis of violence targeting the transgender community, particularly transgender women of color,” said Sarah McBride, the national press secretary at the Human Rights Campaign. “With four shootings — including three fatal shootings — of transgender women in the last six months, Jacksonville is now at the center of that crisis.”
A Trans Lives Matter rally is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday in Jacksonville "for the transgender lives who have become the victims of murder or attempted murder."