Suddenly, they heard a scream. Nicole came busting out of the bathroom, yelling, "This is a fucking man!"
Lida bolted toward the front door, but Mike caught her, pinned her to the carpet, yanked up her skirt, peeled back her underwear. "Fucking balls," he spat. "Right there -- fucking balls." He let Lida stand up and got behind her, putting a chokehold on her.
Jose stunned his friends by starting to cry. "I can't be gay," he repeated over and over again. "I can't be fucking gay." Nicole tried to console him. "Any girl you meet after this, it won't make a difference," she told him, putting her hands on his shoulders. "You still look like the football player I knew you as."
Mike had Lida down on the carpet again, his legs locked around hers, his meaty forearm clamping down on her Adam's apple. Jay pulled him off and Lida struggled to her knees. "Please don't," she gasped. "I have a family."
Jose ran to the kitchen and grabbed a can of food. When he came back into the living room, he reared back and pounded Lida over the head with it. She crumpled against the wall, blood welling up on the crown of her head. Jose ran out again, came back this time with a frying pan. Mike propped Lida up while Jose swung and connected, square on her forehead.
Nicole decided to leave. Jay and Jaron got into Mike's truck. "They're going to kill that bitch," Jay said. The two friends drove to the house where Jay lived with his parents. Tiptoeing into the pitch-black storage shed, they used their lighters to locate three shovels and a pick. Ten minutes later, they were back at the party house.
Lida was sitting on the couch by then, hands in her lap, blood streaking down her face. Jose was bitching about the blood, how it was getting everywhere, how he was going to have to clean it up. "Get off the couch," he ordered Lida. She did as she was told, standing up against the wall while Jose furiously scrubbed blood off the cushions. Mike came in from the garage and asked Jaron for his ten-inch hunting knife. A minute later he was back with an armful of white rope.
"Enough is enough," Jaron thought. It seemed like this had been going on for a couple of hours, and sooner or later Lida would start yelling and wake the neighbors. "Knock the bitch out," he said.
Mike dropped the rope and punched Lida in the face, once, twice. She fell limp, slid down the wall, landed ass-first with a muffled thud. Perfect position for Mike to knee her a couple of more times, right in the face. The second time, Jaron heard Lida's head snap back into the wall, leaving a puckered dent in the plaster.
Mike picked up the rope and wrapped it around her wrists four or five times. He did the same thing with her ankles. Seeing that her blood was getting everywhere, Jay fetched a comforter. They wrapped Lida in it. She wasn't putting up a fight anymore. Her legs jutted out the bottom of the blanket, below her smooth brown calves, but the rest of her was bundled up well enough for Mike, Jay and Jaron to hoist her up and cart her out to the garage. Jose kept scrubbing the couch and crying.
In the garage, where they first tasted Lida's lips just a couple of months before, broken crap was strewn everywhere. There was a washer and dryer, an old refrigerator and a beat-up car buried under a pile of junk. The guys dumped Lida on a piece of carpet near the back door. Mike grabbed a loose end of the rope with his bloody hands, pulled it around her neck and twisted, hard.
* * * *
Stephanie Baumann, one of Gwen's best friends, was in first-period economics when she got the news. "This girl in my group was telling another girl, 'I heard Gwen was missing.' And the other girl goes, 'Gwen?' The first girl says, 'She used to be Eddie in junior high.' I'm like, 'What?' I ran to the drama room and cried and cried. I was supposed to be rehearsing The Laramie Project that afternoon, but I couldn't do it. I couldn't deal."
Newark was already buzzing about the high school drama department's decision to stage the famous play about the hate-fueled murder of Matthew Shepard. "People were saying, 'Why don't you stick with The Fantasticks?' " recalls drama teacher Barbara Williams. "Nobody in Newark needed to see such things, they said. Partly because of our proximity to San Francisco, people like to assume that the town is a model of tolerance."
Stephanie loved the idea of the play, partly because of Gwen. They'd gotten tight back in seventh grade, when Gwen was still Eddie. "He was basically the class clown, I guess you'd say -- always cracking jokes, very sarcastic," Stephanie recalls. "In eighth grade, he gave me a ring. He wanted us to be best friends. It's a silver ring with these bubbles on it. I've never taken it off. And that's when he told me his, I guess you'd say, sexual preference." Just before Gwen disappeared, the two friends had scored tickets to see their idol, Gwen Stefani, in concert. "God, we couldn't wait," Stephanie says.
Now rumors were flying around town, repeated in the hallways at school and the aisles at Big Lots: A girl got butt-fucked at this three-day sex party, but then they found out it was a guy and killed her. Yeah, and twenty-five people were there, and they hung her up in the garage and beat her like a pinata. The Stooges just kept partying like nothing had happened. On October 4th, the night after Gwen disappeared, they were back at it at the Merel house. "What happened to Lida?" Nicole asked Jay when she arrived that night.
"You don't want to know," he said.
But Jaron didn't know how to keep his mouth shut. Earlier that day, smoking a joint with his friend Adam Hewson, he had laid out the details of the murder. A week later, when Adam came over and brought up the subject again, Jaron was quick to incriminate himself. He never suspected that Adam was wearing a wireless mike, courtesy of the police. It turned out that Adam had repeated Jaron's story to a roommate -- and word eventually got back to someone who happened to be related by marriage to one of Gwen's forty-some cousins. Her family ran down addresses, phone numbers and license plates, then handed the evidence over to the cops.
The next day, Jaron found himself back on Interstate 880, pointing the way northeast to Silver Fork, a rocky, remote campground in the mountains near Lake Tahoe. On the way, he retraced for the cops what happened after they killed Lida. How the four of them piled into Mike's truck, the body flung in back along with the shovels and pick. How they headed for Silver Fork because they had gone there as kids, and because Jay heard there was only one sheriff patrolling the whole vast wilderness up there. How they drove the four hours in near-total silence, making sure not to exceed the speed limit, until they finally climbed into the mountains and hung a right -- right here -- at Silver Fork Road. How they bumped farther and farther into the woods, until they were almost lost amid the cedar trees. How they fell into perfect sync as they dug a makeshift grave, everything quiet except for the wind and the whoosh of the nearby river. How you could hear Lida's body thud on the ground when they dragged it out of the back of the truck and flung it in the grave. How Jose broke the silence, saying, "I could kick her a couple more times, shit makes me so mad." How they threw rocks on top of the body and heaved a hollow tree trunk over the grave to make it look more natural. How, realizing that they were hungry, they hit the drive-through at the first McDonald's they spotted, just down the mountain in Placerville.
* * * *
By the time her mutilated body was extracted from the rocks and dirt of Silver Fork, Gwen Araujo had already been transformed into a civil-rights martyr. Young and beautiful and murdered just outside the capital of queer America, she made the perfect poster child for a transgender-rights movement just beginning to gain recognition. In Newark, almost a thousand people attended her open-coffin funeral. "We had to put a turtleneck on her because the rope marks on her neck were all the way up to her chin," her mother recalls. In San Francisco, her death inspired a shrine honoring transgender victims of violence -- including two more Bay Area residents who were murdered before Gwen's case went to trial. Activists sold Gwen T-shirts and CDs and raised money for a memorial fund. "She's become a sort of queer saint in the folk religion of my people," says Patrick Califia, a transgendered activist and author.
But in Newark, even Gwen's mourners weren't sure it was quite so simple. Joe Magdalena, a Newark High senior who wore angel wings to Gwen's funeral, says he can relate to the Three Stooges. "I could never see myself doing what those boys did," he says. "But I can kind of see from their mind-set, their homophobia, what they were doing." They thought having sex with Gwen made them gay -- "and in their world, that'd basically be death. That's the way they look at it."
The Stooges went on trial for first-degree murder last April. All three pleaded not guilty. For the first time, though, the three friends parted company. Jay, claiming it was "not my trip," insisted he was innocent of everything except helping to bury the body. Mike and Jose didn't deny that they had killed Gwen but claimed there was no premeditation involved -- they just snapped because she deceived them. Their "deception defense" incensed many civil-rights advocates, who were reminded of the controversial "gay panic defense" used for years by the killers of gay men. "Nobody says they didn't have a right to be angry when they found out she had male anatomy," says Christopher Daley, co-director of the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco. "But does that mean they had a right to beat her and kill her?" Gwen's mother is even more blunt. "Murder is murder," Sylvia says. "A child is a child. This is an issue of humanity."
At the trial, Jaron pleaded guilty to manslaughter and testified against his friends in return for a reduced sentence of eleven years. Much of his grisly testimony was backed up by Nicole Brown and Jose's brothers Paul and Manny. The only one of the Stooges to take the stand was Jay, who might have been better off remaining silent. Far from showing remorse, he grinned and guffawed while describing his drunken capers with Jose and Mike. Asked to describe the murder, he offered a vague, cartoonish version that portrayed himself as Lida's protector and accused Jaron and Nicole of joining in the assault.
When the trial finally wrapped up in June, most of the jurors believed Jaron -- and firmly discounted the deception defense. But after nine days of deliberations, they couldn't decide whether the murder was premeditated -- whether there actually was a Sopranos-like plan to kill Gwen -- or whether it was just a sudden, drunken frenzy of violence. With the jury hopelessly deadlocked over whether to convict for first-degree murder, the judge declared a mistrial. Mike and Jose will remain locked up until the retrial, slated for May; Jay's family sprung him last August on a $1 million bond.
Their victim did get one ruling in her favor, though. After Gwen died, her mother had asked a court to legally change her daughter's name. The day after the murder trial ended, the new name became official. "Edward Araujo Jr." was finally who she wanted to be: Gwen Amber Rose Araujo. Gwen even got something most daughters can only dream about: an apology from her mom. "It is one of my regrets," Sylvia says now, "that I didn't call my daughter Gwen more when she was alive."
Only in death did Gwen Araujo get what she wanted the most: acceptance and attention. Everybody's attention.
"She loved the spotlight," says her uncle David Guerrero. "I guess she's got it now."
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