CANTON, Miss.—At the intersection where Mesha Caldwell took her last breath, there is a dirt road in one direction with no outlet; in another, cotton fields. Some initial reports said Mesha was found in the road, some said beside it, and many misgendered her, further compounding the pain caused by her death.
Mesha’s slaying in Canton, Miss., made her the first trans woman killed in 2017, a year that would ultimately see 28 transgender people killed nationwide, most of them women of color. It has been the deadliest year on record for trans people.
Mesha’s homicide currently remains unsolved. For her friends, family, and community, this has been a year without justice.
“We’re hurt because we feel like there’s no one trying to reach out and help us, like there’s no one there to care,” said Ronnie Hudson, a good friend who grew up with Mesha and thinks of her as family. “Me, personally, I just hope to find her killer. That’s what’s really hurting us, because we don’t know who did this horrible thing to her.”
The Madison County Sheriff’s Office in Canton has been handling Mesha’s case since her murder on January 4 of last year. Her cause of death was reported by the Clarion Ledger as multiple gunshot wounds.
When reached by phone for comment on Nov. 8, Madison County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Sandra Buckley said Mesha’s case was still under investigation and that there were no updates. She referred further questions to the FBI. When asked if the FBI’s involvement meant that Mesha’s death was being investigated as a hate crime, Buckley said she did not know. In a texted statement on January 1, Buckley wrote: “As of now there are no new updates on the Mesha Caldwell case. It is still under investigation by this office and the FBI.”
Brett Carr, Public Affairs Specialist for the FBI’s Jackson Division, emailed the following statement on November 9:
“As previously stated in the media, The Jackson Division of the FBI is aware of the death of Mesha Caldwell in Madison County, and our agents are in regular contact with local authorities. The FBI takes potential civil rights violations very seriously. However, consistent with Department of Justice and FBI policy, we can neither confirm nor deny whether a matter is under investigation.”
For Mesha’s community, the lack of progress on her case is devastating. LGBTQ activists see it as “reflective of the larger issue of violence against members of the LGBTQ+ community,” according to The Spectrum Center, a resource and community center for LGBTQ people based in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
“Transgender women of color make up a disproportionate percentage of victims, and too frequently, law enforcement fails to consider the identity of those victimized as a reason for the violence directed against them,” the statement continues. “We decry the continuing violence against transgender members of our community and the failure of law enforcement to bring the perpetrators to justice. When someone is murdered because of their identity, it reflects a deep problem within a society that refuses to acknowledge the right of its members to live as their authentic selves.”
Human Rights Campaign Mississippi State Director Rob Hill agreed.
“The epidemic of violence against transgender people is an urgent crisis that demands the nation’s immediate attention,” Hill said. “The unique and tragic stories, like Mesha Caldwell’s, reflect the obstacles that many transgender Americans– especially trans women of color– face in their daily lives. It is crucial that we know, lift up and highlight these stories in order to combat the transphobia, misogyny and racism fueling this violence so that we can end this epidemic before it takes any more lives.”
The last photo Mesha posted publicly to her Facebook page is dated December 15, 2016. In it, she looks directly into the camera. She is 41 years old. She has a career as a hair and makeup artist, and it’s easy to see why. Her short hair is a vibrant pink. Her face is flawless. Her clothes and accessories showcase her well-known sense of style. She is beautiful.
“Merry Christmas everyone…” her caption reads. Twenty days from the moment she wrote those words, Mesha Caldwell would be dead, left on the side of a road in rural Mississippi.
“Mesha was a sweetheart. She didn’t bother anyone. She was very fashionably dressed, she was outspoken. She was just a wonderful person,” close friend Ronnie Hudson said. “Losing her has hurt us. We just want some justice.”