Gwen Amber Rose Araujo (February 24, 1985 – October 4, 2002) was a transgender teenager who died during or shortly after an attack perpetrated by three young men. The events leading up to Araujo’s death were the subject of a pair of criminal trials in which it was alleged that the attackers were angered by the discovery that Araujo — who, at the time, was living as female — had male physiology.
In the most recent trial, two of the defendants were convicted of second-degree murder, but the jury concluded that no hate crime was committed. The circumstances of the case have caused it to become a rallying point for the LGBT community, and a number of underreported and controversial aspects about the case remain points of contention.
Gwen lived in Newark, California, USA. Family members knew Gwen as a happy and energetic child who was always laughing and quite active. Gwen expressed the desire to be female from an early age and just prior to her death she had started to live as female. She attended public school and a local church with family members until the controversy surrounding her trans status grew, at which time she began to withdraw socially. She stopped attending Newark Memorial High School prior to her graduation and began to look for work. She was unable to find a job, which her mother believed was the result of intolerance created by her child’s gradual transition between genders.
Gwen, who was going by the name “Lida” at the time, was introduced to a circle of friends whom she met during a chance encounter while walking down a local street. The group of young adults enjoyed passing the evening hours with party activities that included playing dominos and consuming drugs and alcohol at the home of Gwen’s to-be assailants. Gwen was reported to have engaged in sexual activities with several of the men from the group. She was later invited back to the house where a party was planned a few weeks after she and the men had first met. She wore her mother’s peasant blouse to the party. Gwen’s mother had asked her not to wear the clothing she had picked out for that evening and expressed her discomfort with Gwen’s appearance. Gwen told her mother that she was just being jealous of her. This was the last time Sylvia Guerrero would see her child alive.
At the party on (October 3, 2002) it was discovered, by forced inspection (conducted by a young woman at the party), that Gwen had male genitalia. In an explosion of activity, the men that she had sexual relations with became extremely agitated. Once it was discovered that Gwen Araujo was biologically male Mike Magidson began choking Lida in the hallway of the house. At this point numerous guests left the residence. Jose Merel and Jaron Nabors remained inside the residence with Mike Magidson. Jason Cazares claimed to go outside at this point, however he did not leave because he had arrived in Mike Magidson’s truck. Once everyone left, the three assailants began assaulting her. Jose Merel struck her on the head with a frying pan and then struck again with a can of tomatoes, causing a gash to her head which bled profusely. Jaron Nabors struck her with a barbell weight. Mike Magidson kneed her in the head against the living room wall. The blow was so forceful that her head caused an indentation in the plaster wall.
After some time in the living room, Gwen was then taken to the garage of the home, where she was strangled by a rope (stories conflict as to whether Mike Magidson or Jaron Nabors strangled her). Most accounts have Jose Merel cleaning blood out of the carpet at the time she was strangled. She was then hog-tied, wrapped in a blanket and placed in the bed of a pick-up truck. The three assailants, plus Jason Cazares drove her body to parkland in El Dorado County, California, a wooded area in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada known as Silver Fork, where she was finally buried in a shallow grave. It is not clear at what point during this sequence of events Gwen’s death occurred. However the autopsy showed that Gwen died from strangulation associated with blunt force trauma to the head.
Nearly two weeks passed before Gwen’s body was discovered by the authorities. Partygoers present, for fear of reprisal, did not report the crime that had occurred and the assailants all agreed not to say a word to anyone about the matter. Later however, Jaron Nabors began talking to a friend about what happened. The friend called the police and Jaron Nabors was later detained and questioned. Under interrogation, Jaron Nabors disclosed the location of Gwen’s body.
Alameda County Sheriff’s Department dispatched four crime scene investigators and two detectives who recovered the body at the gravesite. The deputies were led there on 16 October 2002 by Jaron Nabors, the youngest of the four individuals charged with her murder and hate crime. The four accused of the murder were: Michael Magidson, 25, Jaron Nabors, 22, José Merél, 25 and Paul Merel, Jose’s older brother. Paul Merel was quickly released because his girlfriend (the one who checked Gwen’s genitalia in the bathroom) came forward to the police telling them that Paul had left that night with her. Paul Merel and his girlfriend were never charged and became witnesses for the prosecution. Nabors later testified against the other three in a deal with the DA for a lesser charge of manslaughter after police monitored a jailhouse letter and information gained during a conversation with one of the accused using a wiretap. Jason Cazares was arrested over a month after the other defendants and only after Nabors implicated Cazares in a letter to Nabors’ girlfriend, explaining how he (Nabors) wasn’t involved in the killing. However, Nabors would later testify that he was involved in the killing, bringing into question the reliabiltiy of the letter. Additionally, Nabors’ girlfriend testified that the letter contained numerous lies and Nabors frequently lied to her.
In their first trial, some of the defendants appeared to use a variant of the gay panic defense. Magidson’s defense involved an implicit acknowledgment of his role in Araujo’s death, but argued that Magidson acted in the heat of passion, and therefore, should be found guilty of manslaughter, not murder, under California law. Merel’s attorney denied any involvement by Merél in the killing. Cazares, the only defendant to testify at that first trial and the only defendant who never had a physical relationship with Araujo, denied involvement but admitted to help burying Araujo. Prosecution witnesses pointed out that Cazares attempted to intervene on behalf of Araujo (to stop the beating) on as many as five separate occasions prior to everyone fleeing the house. All three attacked Nabors’ credibility, arguing that he minimized his own role in Gwen’s death and had the most to gain by lying. The jury deadlocked on all three defendants, and a mistrial was recorded. The jury appeared to be unable to decide whether the murders were premeditated, and so whether to convict them of first degree murder or second degree murder. However, another possibility — one that the prosecution appeared to respond to in the second trial — was that the prosecution’s lack of a coherent theory as to who was responsible for what role in Araujo’s death made it impossible for the jurors to determine who of the three, if any, was guilty.
In contrast to the first trial, where only Cazares testified, all three defendants testified in this trial — and blamed each other as well as Nabors. However, Jose Merel conceded (like the prosecution witnesses) that Cazares intervened on behalf of Araujo during the beating. Magidson claimed to have blacked out during the beating and was unable to recall whether Cazares intervened. Cazares again claimed to be only involved in burying Araujo. No witnesses ever testified to seeing Cazares strike the victim in any manner. Jose Merél blamed Nabors as the main killer, and indicated that Magidson helped Nabors strangle Araujo to death; Merél acknowledged hitting Araujo over the head with a pan, but claimed he never wanted to kill her. Magidson also largely blamed Nabors, but also claimed to be heavily intoxicated the night of Araujo’s death. Jose Merel and Mike Magidson said that Jaron Nabors struck Gwen in the head with a barbell weight, which had not previously been disclosed. A weight from the house was brought into court and did show a presumptively positive test for blood. Nabors denied that anyone used a weight to strike Gwen. Nabors’ girlfriend also testified about the letter she received from Nabors while she was in custody. She testified that the letter contained a number of factual accounts that were lies, and that Nabors often lied to her.
On August 24, 2005, closing argument commenced. Prosecutor Chris Lamiero appeared to abandon the strategy that the prosecution employed in the first trial — blaming all three defendants equally for the crime and arguing hard only for first degree murder — and instead concentrated his argument against Magidson, calling him a “pathetic, despicable excuse for a man”. As for Cazares, Lamiero argued that his assistance of Magidson made him as culpable as Magidson for murder. He repeatedly referred to Cazares as “the killer’s friend” during his argument. Lamiero further appeared to concede that the murder might not be first degree murder, by arguing that the most important thing for the jury is to find Magidson and Cazares guilty of murder, either first degree or second degree. Lamiero’s closing arguments appeared to leave Merél entirely out of his fire — stating merely that Merél’s fate was up to the jury. This may be because Merél’s testimony, if believed, would tend to establish Magidson’s and Cazares’ guilt.
Cazares’ attorney, Tony Serra, argued that the evidence against Cazares was weak. He also argued to the jury that it needs to look at the three defendants’ culpability individually, and not make a decision just to avoid another mistrial. When he continued his argument on August 25, he argued that his client was an ordinary person who got caught up in group mentality (in burying the body only), and attacked Nabors as a pathological liar who could not be believed. He also pointed out that his client, Cazares, was the only person to render aid to Araujo.
On August 29, Merél’s and Magidson’s attorneys gave their closing arguments. Merél’s attorney, William Du Bois, argued that Merél was, at most, guilty of felony assault, and was not guilty of Araujo’s death. He also argued that Merél had merely intended to scare Araujo when he hit Araujo’s head with a pan. Magidson’s attorney, Michael Thorman, argued that Magidson acted in the heat of passion, stating that Magidson was surprised by the revelation of Araujo’s biological sex and suggesting that had Araujo apologized, the death would not have happened. Both Du Bois and Thorman also heavily attacked Nabors’ credibility.
On August 30, Lamiero gave his final argument, again attacking and asking for murder convictions for Magidson and Cazares — and noticeably did not do so for Merél. He made no statements at all to rebut the arguments made by Merel’s attorney. He also defended Nabors’ credibility, arguing that Nabors was the one who broke the case wide open. Afterwards, Judge Harry Sheppard instructed the jury, which then started deliberations.
On September 8, the jury announced that it had reached verdicts on two of the three defendants. As Judge Sheppard instructed, the verdicts were kept secret.
On September 12, after the jury announced that it had deadlocked on the third defendant, the verdicts were announced. As it turned out, the defendant that the jury had deadlocked on was Cazares, while Magidson and Merél were each convicted of second degree murder, but the jury found the hate crime enhancement allegation to be not true. Magidson and Merél each faces a mandatory 15 years-to-life sentence as a result of this conviction.
In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, juror Max Stern, a San Francisco attorney, indicated that the jury did not particularly believe any of the defendants or prosecution witness Nabors. He indicated that the jury believed that the offense was murder rather than manslaughter because the jurors believed that Magidson and Merél’s reactions were not reasonable, but rejected the hate crime enhancement because some jurors did not believe that the crime was committed because of Araujo’s sexual orientation, but because the situation got out of hand. According to Stern, the jury convicted Magidson and Merél largely based on their admissions of their roles in Araujo’s death.
Plea by Cazares formally ending the case
On December 16, 2005, surprising the media which had not known that a deal was in the works, pursuant to a plea agreement, Cazares entered a no contest plea to voluntary manslaughter with an agreed sentence of six years in prison. He will serve a little more than three years given his time in custody. He, along with Magidson and Merél, were formally sentenced on January 27, 2006.
Gwen’s mother, who referred to her child as her little “Angel”, has said publicly that she would like her daughter’s case to be influential in changing the disciplinary actions for hate crimes resulting in death to include the death penalty. Sylvia Guerrero and her brother David Guerrero have appeared publicly and before national media to express their grief and to denounce violence against youth faced with gender identity conflicts.
Those who knew Gwen were joined by hundreds of sympathizers for her funeral located at St. Edward’s Catholic Church in Newark. Following the ceremonies, there was a march through main streets leading to the community’s mall attended by community dignitaries and leaders. Gwen was remembered again during the “Remembering Our Dead” vigils that took place in several major cities to commemorate the deaths of 27 transgender people during the 12 month period that contained Gwen Araujo’s own death. A few days after the funeral, members of the Westboro Baptist Church (followers of Fred Phelps) picketed the church proclaiming that “cross-dressing teen pervert Eddie Araujo (a.k.a. Gwen or Lida) has joined Matthew Shepard in hell.” The clan also picketed many places around the Newark area including Newark Memorial High School where drama students performed The Laramie Project.
At Gwen’s mother request, a judge posthumously changed Gwen’s legal name to Gwen on June 23, 2004.
- Gwen Araujo’s Memorial
- Sex with the Imperfect Stranger – article on Gwen Araujo by Patrick Califia
- No issue of sexual deception – article by Dylan Vade, co-director of the Transgender Law Center
- Remembering Our Dead
- In Memory of Gwen Araujo – full story on Transyouth.net