Last words of transgender woman killed in South L.A. key to probe, police say

Mourner Paulisha Thomas dances in tribute to Deshwanda Sanchez before her burial at Angeles Abby Memorial Park in Compton on Dec. 19.
Mourner Paulisha Thomas dances in tribute to Deshwanda Sanchez before her burial at Angeles Abby Memorial Park in Compton on Dec. 19.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Deshawnda “Ta-Ta” Sanchez’s last words were captured in a 911 call.

On Dec. 3, 2014, about 4 a.m., Sanchez, a 21-year-old transgender woman, was trying to escape an attacker in the 6100 block of South Wilton Place in Chesterfield Square.

She told a dispatcher that she had been attacked and robbed. While pounding on a door for help, she said the man had returned. Gunshots were fired and the phone went silent.

Those last words became integral for police. Detectives on Thursday identified Robert James Spells, 30, of Inglewood as the primary suspect. Police said Spells got out of his car, walked up to where Sanchez was trying to escape and shot her. He was arrested Wednesday on a parole violation and is being held without bail.




12:06 p.m.: An earlier version of this post omitted the first name of suspect Robert James Spells.


At a news conference, police said DNA and residential surveillance footage taken near the scene led investigators to Spells, who has been convicted of various offenses, including robbery, being a felon with a firearm and possession of a controlled substance, records show.

Spells was featured on a UCLA social justice club’s blog in September 2014 and described as a man “full of compassion and charisma overall in spite of society.”

In an interview on the site, Spells said he was 11 when he first had an encounter with the law.

He said that Homeboy Industries helped him set and maintain educational goals and gave him a support system. He said that before he became involved with the organization, “I was going in and out of jail every 90 to 120 days, that is a phenomenon I haven’t had anymore, my life is more stable now.”

Homeboy Industries did not respond to a request for comment.

LAPD Det. Chris Barling said Spells knew Sanchez but declined to discuss the nature of their relationship.


It is unclear whether Sanchez was targeted because of her gender identity, but it is believed to be a contributing factor in the attack.

“In this case, it is not clear-cut,” Barling said. “I think hate was used by Mr. Spells in killing Deshawnda.”

It is also unclear whether prosecutors will seek to try the killing as a hate crime. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office declined to comment on the case Thursday.

Police have also accused Spells of the sexual assault of an 11-year-old girl whom police say he forced into prostitution, and are looking for additional victims.

Sanchez’s death was one in a string of transgender killings in Southern California in recent months. In the last year, four transgender people, including Sanchez, have been killed in the region.

Sanchez’s sister, Diana Williams, said she has had a hard time sleeping since the killing and worried that the case would go unsolved. She said her sister, who loved to style hair, do makeup and talked about becoming a doctor or a lawyer, didn’t deserve to die in such a brutal way. Sanchez grew up in Compton and Watts.


“It’s not complete until we go to court and I see for myself,” she said.

At Thursday’s news conference, Williams talked to a photo of Sanchez on a nearby stand. She called her sister a “bug in my ear.”

“You didn’t deserve how you got treated.”

Anyone with information can call the LAPD’s Criminal Gang Homicide Division at (213) 485-4341.

For breaking news in California, follow @nicolesantacruz