Going Public with Anti-Trans Attacks (UPDATED)

MPD briefs press on weekend death in Columbia Heights, asks for community assistance to ID the deceased

Metropolitan Police Department officials held a news conference Monday afternoon, Sept. 12, to ask the press and public for help in the death investigation of an unidentified victim found in the 2600 block of 11th Street NW on Sept. 10.

Assistant Police Chief Peter J. Newsham told reporters that the deceased was found by a passerby at around 5:20 a.m. Officers responded to the scene, and the victim was taken to a local hospital, pronounced dead and taken to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for an autopsy.

[UPDATE: Metro Weekly received a Metropolitan Police Department email at 5:59 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 13, identifying the victim as Gaurav Gopolan, 35, of Northwest DC.]

Columbia Heights crime scene
Columbia Heights crime scene
(Photo by John Riley)

Newsham said the medical examiner’s office had not determined a cause of death, but said there was no significant visible trauma to the victim, rebutting earlier statements made by community activists working with MPD.

Jason Terry, an organizer with the DC Trans Coalition, told Metro Weekly that Assistant Chief Diane Groomes told him that the victim had suffered trauma to the face when she called to inform him of the death at around 6:15 a.m. on Sept. 10. 

Newsham also said the person’s identity remained unknown, which was why the police released a photo of the deceased to the press in the hope that someone in the community might be able to identify the victim.

In the briefing, Newsham described the victim as a ”Hispanic or Middle Eastern male; approximately between the ages of 25 and 30; 5 foot, 8 inches with dark, wavy hair about 3 inches long,” prompting a raised eyebrow from transgender activist Ruby Corado, who was standing next to him. Newsham said police didn’t have enough information to classify the dead individual as transgender.

Newsham said the deceased had been wearing makeup and a black and purple jacket, a gray shirt made of sweatshirt-like material that had been cut like a camisole, with a plunging neckline and slits on the sides, blue shorts and carrying tan or gold high-heel shoes.

Capt. Michael Farish of the MPD’s Homicide Unit told reporters that the victim was in possession of money and jewelry, which would seem to indicate the deceased was not a victim of a robbery. 

In response to follow-up questions, Farish said the victim had been wearing a wristband similar to the kind that bars or clubs might give out to patrons. Farish said that police officers had followed that lead and canvassed possible nightclubs to determine places the victim may have gone, and said officers had found one club that might have used such a wristband. However, the club could not confirm whether it had given out such a wristband on the Friday evening preceding the victim’s death.

Newsham insisted that police did not have enough information to classify the death as ”suspicious,” even though an earlier e-mail sent out on the Listserv of the Special Liaison Unit, of which the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU) is a part, said, ”This matter is being investigated as a suspicious death pending an official ruling from the District of Columbia Medical Examiner.”

Beverly Fields, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, told Metro Weekly that the medical examiner’s office cannot release the identity of the victim, the exact cause of death or clarify details about the victim’s physical condition until the next of kin has been notified.

Newsham also used the news conference to address the shooting of a transgender woman at 1:50 a.m. on Sept. 12 in Southeast D.C.’s Shipley Terrace/Randall Heights neighborhood.

According to the police incident report, a transgender woman was shot by an acquaintance in the 2300 block of Savannah Street SE. She drove herself to the MPD’s Seventh District Station to report the shooting, and was taken to George Washington Hospital.

Newsham said in the conference that the victim was in stable condition at the hospital. He said police had not arrested the suspect identified by the victim, but expected to close the case soon.

The Shipley Terrace shooting is the latest in a wave of violent attacks against members of the transgender community sweeping the District in the past two months. On July 20, transgender woman Lashai Mclean was killed in the 6100 block of Dix Street NE. Nine days later, another transgender woman was shot at in the 6200 block of that same street.

On Aug. 22, an off-duty MPD officer shot at a car containing two transgender women and three others at Pierce and First Streets NW, following an earlier altercation at a nearby CVS store. The officer in that case, Kenneth Furr, has been held without bail as he awaits a trial for assault with a dangerous weapon, as Metro Weekly previously reported.

On Aug. 31, two transgender women were threatened by a man in the 400 block of I Street NW. The man told them they had five minutes to leave the block and told other witnesses he would come back and shoot everything.

On Sept. 3, police responded to a report from a member of the transgender community that two men were attempting to rob transgender women in the Chinatown neighborhood near 5th and K Streets NW. The suspects in that matter were arrested and charged with possession of a prohibited weapon.

And on Sept. 10, three other transgender women were approached and threatened by a suspect who pointed a gun at them in the 4000 block of Minnesota Avenue SE. Police arrested the suspect on a charge of assault with a dangerous weapon, with bias-related charges.

Newsham also referenced several other robberies and assaults against members of the transgender community. He said police had originally suspected a pattern, but said that new information shows the cases do not appear to be related.

”Unfortunately, members of the transgender community are victims of crimes, probably on an all-too-frequent basis here in the city,” Newsham said in response to questions about the alleged disparity between closed cases involving the general public and those involving members of the transgender community. ”We give every single crime in the District of Columbia the same attention, and we’re very serious about closing all cases.”

Capt. Farish said there has been no evidence to believe that the Mclean murder and some of the other incidents are hate crimes.

Later, Corado pushed back against that claim, saying, in her opinion, the crimes were hate crimes.

”It is hatred, it is transphobia, it is homophobia and unfortunately, as a society, we have let it go on for too long.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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