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Colo. transgender woman’s slaying is tried as hate crime

To her sister, Angie Zapata was a teenage girl in every sense but the biological one.

She spent hours spraying her long hair into compliance with Aqua Net, painting her eyelashes with L’Oreal and her skin with Cover Girl. She combed discount stores for clothes that would emphasize her curves.

The effect was stunning. When the 18-year-old visited the store where her older sister, Monica, worked, men would make excuses to hover.

“This is my brother, Justin,” Monica would tell them, “and my wannabe sister, Angie.”

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Always they were shocked, but often accepting, Monica said. Still, she felt uneasy for Angie, who had endured taunts since she was a little boy who begged to use her sister’s lip gloss.

“I worried about her all the time,” said Monica, 33, of Brighton, Colo.

In July, her fears proved valid. Concerned when she had not heard from Angie for several days, Monica went to her Greeley apartment and found her battered body on the floor.

Authorities say the killer beat her to death after learning she was a man, and later told police that he thought he’d killed “it.”

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Activists say Allen Ray Andrade’s trial, which began last week in Weld County, marks one of the first times in the United States that the homicide of a transgender victim is being prosecuted as a hate crime.

Though a number of states have hate-crime laws that include protections based on sexual orientation, Colorado is one of 11 states, along with the District of Columbia, whose statutes also include gender identity as a protected class. However, prosecutors and activists say such laws have never been applied in Colorado -- and rarely elsewhere in the nation.

One high-profile case was that of Gwen Araujo, a 17-year-old Newark, Calif., transgender woman, who was beaten and strangled in 2002 after two men with whom she’d had sex learned she was biologically male. They were convicted of second-degree murder but not of a hate crime. Two others were sentenced for manslaughter.

Saying the Angie Zapata case underscores the dangers that transgender people face, activists recently launched a statewide ad campaign featuring the crime and promoting a federal hate-crimes law.

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“We wanted to start a conversation,” said Rashad Robinson, spokesman for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. “It’s also about humanizing Angie and letting people know about her life.”

In northern Colorado’s gay and transgender community, the case struck a nerve because of its proximity to Fort Collins, where gay college student Matthew Shepard died in 1998 after he was beaten and tied to a fence in Wyoming, said Andy Stoll, executive director of the Lambda Community Center in Fort Collins.

“They were angry that it happened again and that it continues to happen,” he said.

Zapata met Andrade, a 32-year-old convicted felon, on a social networking website in July, according to an arrest affidavit. On July 16, they went on a date, and Andrade said Zapata performed oral sex on him but would not permit him to touch her. Andrade said he became suspicious about Zapata’s gender and grabbed her crotch. Enraged, he said, he beat her with a fire extinguisher.

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Arrested several days later in Zapata’s car, he was charged with first-degree murder and committing a bias-motivated crime. The latter carries a possible sentence of up to three years in prison, according to Weld County district attorney spokeswoman Jennifer Finch. But that’s a “moot point” if he’s convicted of first-degree murder, she said; the penalty is life in prison without parole.

Yet advocates say such laws send a message that attacks on “a community as a whole” will not be tolerated.

“It’s not just a simple case of murder. Not that any murder is a simple case, but there are members of a community who are targeted because of who they are,” said Robinson, of the alliance, which is urging passage of the Matthew Shepard Act.

Introduced in Congress this year, the bill would give the federal government the power to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated crimes in cases in which the victim was selected because of race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity.

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The bill has opponents, among them Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family.

“The criminal laws we have are adequate to prosecute anyone who commits a murder in this state,” said Bruce Hausknecht, judicial analyst for the group’s lobbying arm.

Hate crime laws “create special classes of favored victims” and veer toward criminalizing speech, he said.

During their opening statements Thursday, defense attorneys sought to portray Andrade’s actions as an impulsive reaction to the shock of Zapata’s sexuality.

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“This case is about deception and a reaction to that deception,” Bradley Martin said.

But prosecutor Brandi Nieto argued that Andrade learned the truth about Zapata’s gender 36 hours before he killed her. Andrade had accompanied Zapata to traffic court, where clerks called her Justin Zapata, Nieto said.

“This was not a snap decision,” she said.

Last month, a judge threw out Andrade’s confession to police, saying it came after the suspect told them he was through answering questions. Prosecutors say they intend to use statements he made to others, including, “It’s not like I . . . killed a straight, law-abiding citizen.”

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In Greeley, debate has centered on the role that the element of surprise played in the crime, with some opining on newspaper message boards that Zapata contributed to her own demise.

Such comments infuriate Monica Zapata, who, along with other supporters, echoes the prosecutors’ assertion that Angie’s gender was no surprise. She said she often overheard Angie on the phone revealing her status to would-be suitors. Some hung up. Others remained interested.

Ironically, she said, Angie -- who dreamed of becoming a drag queen or securing a spot on “America’s Next Top Model” -- would have loved the attention she’s gotten postmortem.

In the courtroom Thursday, reporters filled several rows as prosecutors and defense attorneys warred over pronouns. One blogger’s fingers flew over a keyboard as the defense attorney repeatedly referred to “Justin” and “he,” and prosecutors repeatedly described the victim as “Angie” and “she.”

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Correll writes for The Times.


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