By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Police have arrested a self-described former gang member suspected of killing a transgender woman who was shot to death in Los Angeles as she pounded on the front door of a house seeking help, investigators said on Thursday.
The December killing of 21-year-old Deshawnda Sanchez raised concerns among transgender rights activists that she may have been targeted because of her gender identity, and Los Angeles police supervising detective Chris Barling said her transgender status may have been a factor in the slaying.
Barling said prosecutors would decide whether to charge the suspect, Robert James Spells, with a hate crime but that police did not anticipate such a court filing to be made on Thursday, when Spells is expected to be charged with murder in the case.
"I believe Mr. Spells at some point realized Ms. Sanchez was a transgender person and that played a factor in him killing Ms. Sanchez," he said.
Barling said the two had a "relationship of some form." Police declined to describe the nature of the relationship.
Police said Spells, 30, was arrested on Wednesday at a relative's home in Los Angeles after detectives tied him to the Dec. 3 killing of Sanchez based on her last words to an emergency 911 operator, which police have declined to make public.
Aside from a criminal count of murder in Sanchez's death, Spells is expected to be charged with human trafficking over allegations he sexually assaulted an 11-year-old girl and forced her into prostitution in a separate case, Barling said.
There was no immediate word on whether Spells, a resident of the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, had retained an attorney.
Barling said Spells told investigators he was a former member of a South Los Angeles gang.
Sanchez was in the high-crime neighborhood of Chesterfield Square before dawn on the day she was killed after dialing an emergency operator on her cell phone to report she had been robbed and assaulted, police said.
During that call, she told the operator the attacker was driving back toward her, and sought shelter at a nearby home where she pounded on the door as the suspect got out of the car and shot her, police said.
So far this year, six transgender women have been killed in the United States, a number on pace to surpass last year's total of 13, according to the advocacy group Human Rights Campaign.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)