For nearly two decades, the family and friends of Ukea Davis and Stephanie Thomas agonized over who fatally shot the transgender teenagers in Southeast Washington.
The years ticked by with no arrest.
Thomas’s mother, Queen Washington, feared the killings in 2002 were driven by hate, or perhaps jealousy, by someone who knew her daughter but didn’t want to accept who she was.
On Thursday, D.C. police announced they had identified the suspected assailant, and that he had been killed in a shooting three years ago.
In closing the case, D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said the killings of the two best friends were “clearly a hate crime.” He said the suspect had been with the teenagers in the overnight hours of Aug. 12, 2002, and that two newly found witnesses told a detective that “when he realized they were not women, he killed them.”
Washington, 75, disagrees with the witness accounts that her daughter was killed because a person did not initially know she was transgender. “Everybody in this neighborhood knew that Stephanie was transgender,” she said. “That’s not no motive, and that’s not true.”
She added, “One thing I always taught Stephanie was always let someone know who you are.”
The slayings of Davis and Thomas were among a series of mostly unsolved killings of transgender women in the District in 2001 and 2002, alarming members of that community and sparking an outpouring of grief. Then-D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams spoke at a vigil for the two teens, who were buried next to each other.
Earline Budd, a longtime transgender advocate in the District, said she has been giving information to police from the community since the days and weeks after the killings.
“That was malicious, intended and planned,” Budd said. “It was every bit a hate crime.”
Police identified the suspected assailant as Michael Dupree Price, who was 36 when he was fatally shot in May 2017 on Benning Road SE. No suspect has been arrested in that killing, which police believe is unrelated to the shootings of the women in 2002.
Court records show Price had been convicted in D.C. in at least two domestic assault cases in 2001 involving different girlfriends, and of a robbery and using a firearm in a crime of violence in 2003 in Maryland. He was sentenced to seven years in prison for that crime.
Price’s sister and a girlfriend, the mother of one of his children, disputed the police account. The girlfriend said he was with her the night of the killings. She said she remembers because police questioned her about the case before and after Price died, and even, she said, dangled the $50,000 reward. The girlfriend said it’s “mighty strange how this is all coming out once he’s deceased.”
She and the sister, who did not want their names published because they fear for their safety, complained that police spread Price’s name so often that they think someone knew it was what authorities wanted to hear.
Authorities said the case involving Thomas, 19, and Davis, 18, broke open earlier this year when Detective Danny Whalen, a 37-year veteran in the homicide unit, was reviewing the old file and found a letter discussing somebody who had information about the case.
No one had previously followed up on that tip, Newsham said, and it led Whalen to two new witnesses. The chief said those people independently told Whalen that Price had “essentially told him what he did.” Newsham said details were consistent with information that had not been made public. They also provided a description of the vehicle the suspect had been driving.
“I think it’s a situation of how a fresh set of eyes looking at an old case can be valuable,” Newsham said. “For the families that are involved, the only thing we can really give to them is finding out who is responsible for their loved one’s death.”
Washington still lives in the same home in Southeast Washington that she lived in that summer in 2002, two blocks from the spot where Thomas and Davis were found in a Toyota Camry, each with at least 10 bullet wounds.
Washington wishes she knew more about the suspect, including whether he knew her daughter, who had been presenting as female ever since she was 12 or 13 years old. Thomas had often experienced bullying in the neighborhood because of who she was, her mother said, and was once hit in the head with a brick.
She has always felt certain her daughter was targeted in an act of hate, or perhaps out of jealousy, by someone who knew her daughter but didn’t want to accept who she was.
In cases of transgender homicides, attackers sometimes seek to excuse their actions by claiming they were surprised by a transgender woman. “When all transgender people get killed that’s the first thing they say,” Washington said. “This is the defense they always use.”
Davis’s mother, Michelle Davis, 54, said she also wants to know more about the case.
“I just want to know, who was this person? Was there another person?” she said. “He’s been deceased since 2017, but what was he doing since 2002? Why wasn’t he brought to justice?”
“It’s just upsetting hearing that . . . they have the person and the person has not been brought to justice,” she said. “It’s not adding any closure for the family.”
Reginald Davis, Ukea Davis’s uncle, said that for many years authorities had posted fliers requesting information, and he saved newspaper clippings related to the deaths. But after a while, the fliers and articles stopped.
“I figured after a certain amount of time goes by, if nothing has surfaced,” he said, “that they probably wouldn’t find anything.”
He was relieved to hear the suspect had been identified. He had always wondered whether the person who killed his niece was someone known to the family.
“It’s good to know anything,” he said. “To know that person is not just out here, causing harm to people.”
Violence against transgender or gender nonconforming people continues, with at least 25 people across the country killed so far this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Since the group began tracking these deaths in 2013, advocates have never seen such a high number at this point in the year. The vast majority of transgender people killed have been Black transgender women. Last summer, the American Medical Association deemed the pattern of violence against transgender people an “epidemic.”
Thomas and Davis had birthdays around the same time of year, so they would often celebrate them together.
One of their childhood friends, Lakeisha Moore, 41, said the last time they celebrated the two birthdays, Thomas “did it big.”AD
“She wanted everybody to dress up,” Moore said, adding the group spent an evening on the Spirit of Washington boat on the Anacostia River.
She was relieved to hear authorities solved the case, but, she said, “it took too long.”
“I’m just trying to figure out why, why would you take their lives like that?” Moore said. “Why would you hate a person that much you had to take their life? That’s one answer we will never, ever get.”