KSLA INVESTIGATES: Grieving, frustrated families fear police bias in unsolved trans murders in Shreveport

Published: Dec. 22, 2022 at 9:49 AM CST|Updated: Dec. 22, 2022 at 7:19 PM CST
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SHREVEPORT, La. (KSLA) - It has been a nonstop battle in the streets of Shreveport the last few years: a rise in homicides.

KSLA reports on most, but some get little media attention. Now, KSLA Chief Investigative Reporter Stacey Cameron is examining five unsolved homicides. These murders have few clues and different killers, but the victims all share something in common.

So what is it that ties these murders together? And why can’t investigators catch the killers?

“They hurt my baby. They scandalized my baby like a piece of trash,” said Bonita Smith, the mother of one of the victims.

“They are losing suspects, they are losing time. And when you don’t do your job and it involves fatal violence, then that means a criminal is getting away with a crime,” said Tori Cooper, a national victims’ rights advocate.

Early in the afternoon on Oct. 7, 2020, the Shreveport Police Department responded to an apartment complex about a death. That’s when Bonita got word that her transgender daughter, Brooklyn Smith, was dead.

“When I arrived, I couldn’t go near the apartment,” Smith said. “My baby was shot in the right side of her head.”

Brooklyn was shot three times and left to die in the bedroom of her upstairs apartment. Her mother wants to know why.

A police report says inside the apartment, investigators found “signs of foul play.” Bonita says according to details investigators shared with her, the door wasn’t kicked in, which she believes means the killer was already inside the apartment.

Bonita says Brooklyn likely knew her killer, and that’s important because in the month leading up to the murder, Bonita claims Brooklyn was giving money to a family member and her boyfriend.

“Brooklyn helped pay bills, helping with their kids,” Bonita said.

But when Bonita supposedly told police about the couple, she says the detective working Brooklyn’s case didn’t seem interested in following the lead. Now, 26 months after the murder, Bonita says Brooklyn’s detective has stopped taking her calls.

“If he only knew how I felt, how I really felt,” Bonita said. “I feel like they don’t want to solve my baby because he was transgender.”

It turns out Brooklyn’s unsolved murder isn’t an isolated case in Shreveport. Hers is one of five open cases in which the murder victim was either transgender or cross-dressed… and police haven’t caught the killers.

The first victim, Valerie Jock McKinney, was shot dead in July of 2013 and was found lying in the middle of Kennedy Drive near the Clear Horizons Apartments. Two months later, in September of 2013, Terry Golston was shot and killed while hanging out near the intersection of Abbie Street and Pierre Avenue.

Valerie Jock McKinney
Valerie Jock McKinney(Family)
Terry Golston
Terry Golston(Family)

Five years later, in August of 2018, Vontashia Bell was shot and left for dead on the side of Harrison Street in Cedar Grove. Two years later: the October of 2020 shooting death of Brooklyn Smith in her West Side apartment on Bernstein Avenue.

Vontashia Bell
Vontashia Bell(Family)
Brooklyn Smith
Brooklyn Smith(Family)

And finally, in August of 2021, Brennan “Pooh” Johnson was shot multiple times and found dead in a car on W 74th Street.

Brennan "Pooh" Johnson
Brennan "Pooh" Johnson(Family)

“It’s frightening that so many of these cases remain unsolved. It’s frightening because it shows where there are gaps and things that need to be addressed in how the police are investigating the deaths of trans people,” said Tori Cooper with the Transgender Justice Initiative - Human Rights Campaign.

Cooper says one of her fears with these open cases is the victims’ demographics.

“Trans people are not out here killing trans people in the streets,” she said.

Each person murdered was Black. They all identified or dressed as females. And three of the victims were 25-years-old or younger.

“What you just described is intersectionality,” Cooper said.

And according to Cooper, the intersection between minority demographics and sexual orientation increases the likelihood of police prejudice against the victim, especially in the south.

“I will make sure to reinforce that I am a fan of the police, but with that being said, police officers are also human beings. And as human beings, all of us bring our own biases into work,” said Cooper.

Cooper says bias most often appears when homicide investigators refuse to identify a transgender victim by their chosen name and gender.

“Then suddenly, what you are doing as a police officer, as an investigator, you are not telling the whole story,” said Cooper.

So police, by failing to ask questions using the name the transgender person goes by, they may be losing leads, they may be losing suspects, they may be losing vital information on a case they could possibly solve.

KSLA’s Stacey Cameron wanted to speak with SPD about the five open transgender homicides, but his request for an interview was denied. However, in a statement, the department said, “Our investigators work all cases with compassion for their victims and their families and friends, regardless of their gender identity, gender, or sexual preference.”

This comes as violence against transgender people is on the rise. Over the past decade, the Human Rights Campaign has documented 256 transgender homicides in the U.S., 19 of which happened in Louisiana. And that includes the five open transgender homicides in Shreveport, and one in Bossier City.

“It’s hard. It’s been hard. It’s been real, real hard, but I’ve been holding on by the grace of God because I have to,” Smith said.

Following the murder, Bonita laid Brooklyn to rest in a small Shreveport cemetery, but for this grieving mother, peace is hard to find.

“That was my best friend. That was my best friend,” Bonita said of her daughter.

Bonita is struggling because Brooklyn’s killer remains free, and she feels police let the case go cold.

“My heart is racing. I’m holding back a lot of tears,” she said.

But she’s not giving up hope.