NEWARK, Calif. — Stephanie, who still wears Eddie Araujo's friendship ring, bumped into her childhood friend about three years ago. He was sporting his new look: a cascade of black hair with red streaks, perfect makeup and sculptured brows.
Seeing him surprised her, but she didn't ask why he was dressed like a girl. "I understood him so much," said the 17-year-old friend, who did not want her last name used.
Araujo's closest friends tried to understand. His mother tried to understand. She even sensed something different about her son when he was a child.
So when the 17-year-old's beaten body was unearthed Wednesday from a shallow grave in the Sierra foothills, his mother and friends said they immediately suspected that prejudice had turned to murder.
"This was my worst fear," said Araujo's mother, Sylvia Guerrero, "that someone would kill him because they did not know he was a man."
What she and others say they cannot understand is how the killing could have been kept quiet so long.
Michael Magidson, 22, of Fremont, and Jason Chase Nabors, 19, and Jose Merel, 24, both of Newark, face murder charges with hate crime enhancements, which could lengthen any sentence. A fourth man -- Paul Merel Jr., 25, Jose's brother -- was arrested and released. Authorities allege that the suspects had sex with Araujo and then killed him after discovering he was male.
Paul Merel, who is on probation for grand theft, said Saturday that he met Araujo two months ago and that the teenager he knew as Lida had been at his house several times since then. "I never saw anything to indicate that she could possibly be a man," he said.
Nabors led police to the grave, police said, and the body was found wrapped in a sheet with hands and feet bound. Police said Saturday that more arrests were possible.
On Oct. 3. Araujo, who had told people to call him Gwen or Lida, went to a party at the Merels' house, dressed in a denim miniskirt and shirt.
Paul Merel said he had planned to pick up Araujo at a nearby school that night but that Araujo had not been there. Araujo telephoned the Merel house and arrived later. Some of Merel's friends came over, he said, and he tried to persuade Araujo to go home.
"Lida didn't want to go home," he said. "She wanted to keep drinking."
He finally walked Araujo outside when Magidson, Jose Merel and Nabors arrived. Paul Merel said he went to bed. "The next thing I recall is waking up and hearing a commotion," he told The Times. "I recall hearing someone say, 'She's a man.' "
Records show that, through days of silence, about a dozen partygoers at the Merel house never told authorities what they knew.
Lt. Lance Morrison of the Newark Police Department said the investigation unfolded "like a giant game of telephone" among a small circle of teenagers and adults who either had attended the party or heard about it later. "Every nugget of information we got tended to reinforce that something very bad had happened," he said.
A break in the case came when a friend of Nabors' agreed to wear a concealed microphone and, during their conversation, Nabors indicated that he was afraid.
Nabors talked about how police wanted him to reveal what had happened at the party, according to court records. "I'm not narking on anybody," Nabors reportedly told his friend.
When the friend told him not to worry, Nabors responded, "I have to worry," the documents stated. When the friend said everything would be OK, Nabors interrupted: "No, it ain't, dude. [The police officer] knew everything, dude; he knew everything."
During a later interview with police, Nabors said his friends Jose Merel and Magidson might have had sex with the victim at the Oct. 3 party, court records show.
Nicole Brown, Paul Merel's girlfriend, reportedly went into the bathroom with Araujo and discovered that he was a boy. Paul Merel told police he had heard Brown yell, "It's a man; let's go." Merel said he heard a tussle and went to see what was happening. He recounted finding Araujo lying on the floor, skirt partially pulled up, exposing his underwear.
Nabors described the attack to police, saying Jose Merel first punched Araujo, according to court papers. When someone asked for a knife, Nabors said, he volunteered his folding pocketknife.
Jose Merel and Magidson dragged Araujo, who was semi-conscious, into the garage, Nabors told police. The two men then tied a rope around his neck until they believed he was dead, Nabors said. Later they wrapped Araujo's body, put him in the back of Magidson's truck and drove to a remote area near the Silver Forks campground where, Nabors told police, he helped the others bury Araujo.
"Someone was dumped like a piece of trash on the side of a mountain," Lt. Morrison said. "I'm getting a sense that a lot of people heard about it." At least five or six people heard enough about what happened but didn't come forward, he said.
Araujo's mother reported her son missing Oct. 5, telling police she was worried, even though he sometimes stayed away from home.