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.
Police said the rumors spread quickly around Newark, a 13-square-mile town of 42,000 rooted in salt mining. The East Bay city north of San Jose served mostly as a bedroom community for blue-collar San Francisco airport and auto-plant workers before being subsumed by Silicon Valley in the last two decades.
Within days of Araujo’s disappearance, his aunt, Imelda Guerrero, recounted what she described as “fourth-hand rumors” to police: A girl had had anal sex with at least one male and when “they found the girl was in fact a male ... they killed him and buried him in Tahoe,” according to court records.
The three suspects were all known around town and had been high school athletes.
The Merels’ home sits on a corner in a middle-class neighborhood, within half a mile of the police station. Residents said officers were often called there. Jose Merel works at a mattress warehouse and has a daughter who lives out of state with her mother. Neighbors said the brothers had a lot of visitors, mostly young men. Toward the end of the summer, they said, the parties grew more frequent.
Wanda Merel, who visited her son Jose and Magidson in jail Saturday, said Jose had told her he had nothing to do with the killing. She wanted to pass a message to Araujo’s mother: “I’m sorry for what happened to her son. I didn’t raise my sons to do something like this. But if my son did take part in this murder, then he’s where he’s supposed to be.”
She said she doesn’t think the slaying was a hate crime, adding that whoever did it was “temporarily insane.”
“If you find out the beautiful woman you’re with is really a man, I think it would make any man go crazy,” she said.
Nabors attends community college, works at a restaurant and has a 10-month-old child with his girlfriend, court records show. Longtime friend Miles Reece said Nabors is a responsible, bright kid who likes trucks and rhythm and blues music. “It’s kind of devastating,” Reece said. “You know him pretty well ... and now in the paper you see him as a killer. I don’t think he did it.”
Magidson, who lives in a middle-class Fremont neighborhood near railroad tracks, attended Fremont Christian High School. As a teenager, one neighbor said, he started hanging out with a different crowd, getting tattoos and shaving his head.
Araujo’s mother said she had tried to understand the changes Eddie was going through over the past several years. She does not use words like “transgender” or “transsexual” to describe her son, the second of four children.
When Eddie was born, he was named after his father. His parents divorced 10 months later. Guerrero said the father was never a part of Eddie Jr.'s life.
As a boy, Araujo played Little League, earned school awards and loved to go fishing and camping. His mother said she had long sensed he was different and believes he was born that way.
“He felt feminine and never, never felt masculine,” Guerrero said. “I never understood what he felt. He came out three years ago and still was confused. Being who he was was very painful. He felt like a freak.”
She said she had supported him as best she could; his dressing like a girl “took guts, especially in this town.” After he told his mother, who works as a legal assistant, that he wanted to live his life as a woman, the two had many conversations about his sexual identity -- seldom easy ones. He kept his sex life private, and she said she never asked.
“He felt like a girl trapped in a man’s body,” said his mother. She too struggled, refusing to call him Gwen until he could have the sex-change operation he wanted.
Other boys teased and hassled Eddie at school, she said, calling him names. He eventually dropped out after his attendance and grades fell off.
“He never liked school, because he never felt comfortable,” she said.
He couldn’t find a job, his mother believed, because his appearance as a girl did not match the name on job applications.
Still, Araujo had friends, both at school and in his neighborhood. About 200 people attended a candlelight vigil in his memory Friday in a park not far from his home. His friends, his mother said, were Latino, black, white, boys, girls -- like an extended family.
“He had a lot of girl friends,” his mother said. “He did their makeup. He wanted to go to cosmetology school and move to Hollywood and be famous.”
Her son drank alcohol and went to a lot of parties, his mother said.
She had warned him about strangers. His friends told police he had been drinking and had taken methamphetamines the afternoon of the party, according to the affidavit.
Struggles such as Araujo’s are not uncommon, said Dr. Virginia Erhardt, a psychologist and gender specialist.
“These are people who believe they should have been born the other sex,” she said. “It’s not that they are out of touch with reality
The recognized treatment for “gender identity disorder” is therapy, hormone pills and possibly a sexual change operation. Erhardt said people who have gender identity disorder often suffer from anxiety or depression and abuse alcohol or drugs.
“They are uncomfortable in their own skin,” she said. “They have to cope with the disapproval of society. That’s why a lot of other issues arise.”
Shirley Bushnell, a member of the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition, said the realization that your gender and your sex do not match is terrible. “You feel like your body is betraying you,” said Bushnell, 53.
Times staff writers Stephanie Chavez, Cara Mia DiMassa, Robin Fields, Anna Gorman and special correspondent Carol Pogash contributed to this report.