Jessie Sumlar, 30, is the latest LGBTQ homicide victim in Jacksonville, FL. According to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, Sumlar was found dead July 19, the same day trans Orlando resident Sasha Garden was gunned down two hours away.
The two killings come on the heels of three trans murders in Jacksonville this year. Another unidentified transgender woman also survived a shooting earlier this year (an arrest has been made in that case).
There have been 57 murders in Jacksonville this year, five of them trans women or gender non-conforming people — in other words, nearly nine percent of the city’s homicides. Trans people make up less than .7 percent of Florida’s population, according to the Williams Institute.
Chicago has reported 290 murders in this year. None of them were trans people. At last count, there were 159 homicides in Baltimore, and none of those were trans people either. New Orleans has reported 86 murders; none of them trans. New York City, which reported 147 murders at the end of June hasn’t had a trans homicide either. New York state has had one murder of a trans person.
The combined six incidents have sparked deep fears among queer Floridians as a disturbing pattern begins to arise. Florida accounts for a fourth of the nation’s 16 transgender homicides this year. That total does not include Sumlar’s death or the shooting of the trans woman who survived.
Sumlar did not identify as a woman, say community members, but he did perform drag. Like the other victims, Sumlar was Black and young. He was gender non-conforming.
Mulan Williams, prevention outreach coordinator with Orlando HIV/AIDS organization Miracle of Love, identified Garden’s body for police. She also knew Celine Walker and Antash’a English, two of the Jacksonville victims. All three women were performers. Walker and English both traveled to Orlando for shows.
“I do really think the trans community is being targeted,” Williams said. “I don’t know if it’s the same person, or if a lot of people are feeling the same way, that it’s time to you know, get the girls.”
Paige Mahogany Parks, director of the Transgender Awareness Project in Jacksonville, says she feels like she is walking on eggshells, fearing for her life. On social media, a local man recently sent her a message. “Kill all the fags off the face of the of the earth,” it read.
“It’s open season for the girls, honey,” she said. “I haven’t seen this much killing in one city. It’s really ridiculous.”
There are striking similarities between the victims. Cathalina Christina James, who was gunned down at a Quality Inn June 24, posted frequently on her Facebook about traveling from city to city doing sex work.
Celine Walker was shot to death in an Extended Stay America in February, just six miles up I-95 from the hotel where James was killed. She too was doing sex work, said her friend Bailey Bolden. Walker was from Tampa but had been staying in Jacksonville for some time, Bolden said.
“I would imagine that it’s someone that she had probably met before,” said Bolden. “I don’t think it’s someone that met her for the first time. I don’t know what it is about Jacksonville, but it just seems to be a really violent town.”
Antash’a English, a transgender performer who was killed in a drive-by shooting June 1, was also believed to be engaged in sex work at the time of her death, according to her friend David Harrell. She had recently been fired from a job because she was trans.
“At the end of the day, they ended up terminating her before she could even start work,” Harrell said. “It’s to me now one of those situations where a lot of trans women are damned if they do [find jobs] and damned if they don’t.”
Garden, the victim from Orlando, had also been doing sex work along the “The Stroll,” a stretch of road in Orlando where workers and clients regularly meet. According to Williams, a few women reported seeing her get in a car early the morning of her death.
Lakey Love, an advocate with Equality Florida, also points to another homicide from June in the south that escaped media attention until this week because she was misgendered. On Tuesday, transgender blogger Monica Roberts first reported on the death of Diamond Stephens in Meridian, MS.
Stephens, a black trans woman, was shot to death, like the victims in Florida.
Meridian is about eight hours from Jacksonville, and still, Stephens’ death has intensified fears in Florida. That’s because, Love said, the killings seem to also follow a pattern of roadways.
“Meridian, Mississippi is right off I-10,” Love told INTO. “So there is this I-10 and I-75 corridor.”
Meridian, while not directly off I-10, is reached by Jacksonville primarily along that highway.
I-10 also cuts right through the heart of Jacksonville, and naturally, the sites of the killings loosely fall on both sides of it.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has insisted that none of the crimes are linked. Asked if Sumlar’s death was related to the spate of trans killings, Melissa Bujeda, public information officer for the department, reiterated there was no trend or pattern.
“I am not sure what you are referencing as ‘in connection,'” wrote Bujeda in an email to INTO. “From the very beginning, we have stated we do not believe any of the murders are part of a pattern, series, or trend based on evidence and information obtained in the investigation.”
JSO has come under fire since the start of the slayings for consistently deadnaming transgender victims, misgendering them in statements to the media and providing their former male assigned names.
In Orlando, after the Orange County Sheriff’s Office misgendered Garden, police issued two apologies.
“The Orange County Sheriff’s Office did not intend to be insensitive in this effort and I along with agency members apologize for any misgivings our communications may have caused,” said Sheriff Jerry Demings in a statement, adding that he was proud to have a positive relationship with the LGBTQ community. Police are offering a $5,000 reward for information in Garden’s case.
No such statement has come from Jacksonville police.
And JSO’s insistence that the crimes are unrelated is a hard sell for queer advocates in Jacksonville. For one, they argue, little evidence suggests a commitment to solving the murders.
The police report on the murder of James lists her birth year as 1900 and her age as 118. James was 24. A question on the report asks if there is significant reason to believe that the crime can be solved by a patrol follow-up investigation. “No,” writes the author. The report notes that the investigation took one hour and cost the department $48.24.
Police have ostensibly worked on James’ case since. After the report was written, they released video footage of a white car they suspected was driven by her killer.
Sumlar’s police report similarly does not recommend follow-up investigation. It notes zero hours of investigation and cost the department $24.12. Police didn’t canvass the neighborhood.
Police did interview neighbors about the shooting of the anonymous trans victim who survived her shooting. In that case, they investigated for two hours. It’s the only instance in which an arrest has been made.
Law enforcement has not stated what evidence demonstrates that the crimes are isolated incidents.
Susan Gail Sherman, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, studies transgender sex workers. Sherman does see a pattern when trans sex workers are killed but perhaps not the same one advocates in Florida are pointing out when they worry there is a serial killer on the loose.
“The context is racism and transphobia,” Sherman said. “Why are they targeted? Because people are hateful. We live in a time where hate is tolerated. It’s unbelievable.”