LUCEDALE, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi man accused of killing a transgender teen pleaded guilty Tuesday in county court.
Josh Vallum, 28, entered a guilty plea for murder in the 2015 beating death of 17-year-old Mercedes Williamson of Theodore, Alabama.
Williamson's killing made national headlines when Caitlyn Jenner remembered her during an acceptance speech for the 2015 Arthur Ashe Award at the ESPY Awards.
Williamson, born Michael Christopher Wilkins, was killed and buried on property owned by Vallum's father in the Rocky Creek community. She once considered Vallum a boyfriend.
Vallum's attorney, David Futch, told The Sun Herald (http://bit.ly/29voPxM ) declined further comment because of an ongoing federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice to determine whether the killing was a hate crime. Federal agents were in the courtroom for the plea hearing.
Judge Robert Krebs sentenced Vallum, a member of the Latin Kings street gang, to life in prison.
Vallum could have gone to trial next week for Williamson's death. He told authorities previously that he used a hammer to beat Williamson while they were in Vallum's car on his father's property. He claimed he killed Williamson after he reached between her legs and realized she had a penis.
But other witnesses say Williamson dated Vallum and the two had an active sex life. They said Vallum knew Williamson was a transgender girl.
Williamson's former roommate testified that Williamson spoke openly about how she and Vallum would be killed if members of his gang found out about the homosexual relationship.
The roommate said the two stayed at her trailer and didn't go out much, though she said she remembered one instance when Vallum took Williamson to a Latin Kings beach party in Biloxi.
Prosecutors believe the testimony showed that "fear of exposure" was the motive for the killing.
Former George County Sheriff's investigator Ben Brown said Vallum readily acknowledged killing Williamson, but claimed he didn't know she was transgender.
Vallum told investigators he was kissing Williamson when he reached between her legs and realized she had a penis. Vallum told authorities he blacked out after that and the next thing he knew, he was holding a hammer and standing over Williamson's dead body.
Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com