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Slaying Victim's Mother Now Speaks Out Against Hate Crime

October 05, 2003|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Wearing an elegant lavender evening gown, Sylvia Guerrero faced the lights at a downtown hotel here Thursday night to accept an award no mother wants to receive -- one honoring the memory of her slain child.

In what authorities are calling a hate crime, her 17-year-old was bludgeoned to death at a party last October in the suburban East Bay community of Newark. Born Eddie Araujo Jr., the teenager was a transgender high school senior who was often living and dressing as a girl and using the name Gwen.

Araujo was kicked, beaten in the head, smashed with a shovel and strangled with a rope. The body was found buried in a forest in the Sierra foothills, police say.

Three men are being held without bail in connection with Araujo's murder and are scheduled to go on trial March 15. Michael Magidson, Jason Cazares and Jose Merel, all 23, have been charged with murder and a hate-crime enhancement that could increase their sentence.

The three, who authorities say killed Araujo after having sex with the teenager and then learning of the victim's gender, face 29 years in prison if convicted. A fourth man, Jaron Nabors, 20, has pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and testified against the other three in a preliminary hearing.

Guerrero has spent the last year coping with the tragedy. A colorful, talkative woman, she has separated from her boyfriend, lost her job as a legal assistant and seen her 13-year-old son leave to live with his father, her lawyer says.

Yet she has also made the unsteady transition from grieving mother into a no-nonsense spokeswoman for issues involving the transgender community.

On Saturday, Guerrero attended a public memorial marking the first anniversary of Araujo's death. And last week, she accepted the award for her child from a Bay Area gay and lesbian rights foundation.

Taking the podium to a standing ovation, she wiped away tears and admitted that the anniversary of her child's death had made the last few days very difficult.

"But my daughter didn't die in vain," Guerrero said. "She was only 17, beautiful and intelligent, with her whole life ahead of her. She didn't get that chance. But I want to make sure that other transgender kids do have that chance."

Part of Guerrero's transformation has been to embrace her child's sexual identity. In an interview with The Times soon after the murder, Guerrero said she had always known that her child was different.

She said that dressing like a girl "took guts, especially in this town" and said that the two had many conversations about Araujo's sexual identity and desire to live as a woman. "He felt like a girl trapped in a man's body," Guerrero said then, admitting that she refused to use the name "Gwen" until a sex-change operation had been performed. It never was.

Now Guerrero gets angry when people call her child anything but "Gwen" and bristles at news accounts of the case, many of which have referred to the victim as Eddie "Gwen" Araujo.

She told the award audience last week that she was petitioning a judge to legally change her child's name to Gwen Amber Rose Araujo.

"She was never 'Eddie,' " Guerrero said. "I feel so disrespected for her every time I hear that name."

Family attorney Gloria Allred said Guerrero lives "every mom's worst nightmare."

"The words have changed, but the love never has," said Allred, referring to Guerrero's references to her child. "This teen was the victim of a hate crime, murdered over issues of sexual identity. How does a mother live with that?"

Tina D'Elia, a program director for the nonprofit Community United Against Violence, said she has watched Guerrero blossom into an outspoken messenger for the cause of tolerance.

"In the beginning, she was uncomfortable about talking about her child as a son or daughter," D'Elia said of Guerrero. "But now, she speaks publicly about how her daughter's spirit is with her. She doesn't shake hands; she hugs when she says hello. She's become an ally to hate-crime families."

At a preliminary hearing in February, Nabors testified about the night of the killing after the four men learned that Araujo was biologically male. He said Araujo was struck in the head with a soup can and a frying pan, and then struck so hard in the face that a plaster wall behind the victim's head "indented and cracked."

Nabors said the men bound Araujo's hands and feet and threw the semiconscious victim into the bed of a pickup truck. They drove to the Sierra foothills several hours away and buried Araujo in a three-foot-deep grave before going to McDonald's for breakfast.

Nabors later led police to Araujo's body. His attorney says Nabors has no second thoughts about testifying against the others. The hate-crime enhancement has been dropped as part of his plea agreement, and he remains in jail in Alameda County.

"He definitely believes he did the right thing here," said Robert J. Beles. "It's been a cathartic thing, to get it all off his chest and tell what actually happened that night."

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