PR police search for transgender woman's killer

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Police are searching for the killer of a transgender woman in Puerto Rico whose naked, battered body was discovered in her home last week, while activists press authorities to probe the slaying as a possible hate crime.

Ashley Santiago Ocasio, a 31-year-old beauty salon owner with high cheekbones and a flair for fashion, was shot in the head in the central mountain town of Corozal. Her car was missing and there were no signs of a break-in.

The case has grabbed headlines and renewed complaints that Puerto Rico has never invoked a 2002 hate crime law covering crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

In the last five months alone, there have been five instances where the statute could have been used, said Pedro Julio Serrano, a spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

"The law is very clear and we're asking authorities to investigate without prejudice," Serrano said.

The grisly scene at Santiago's home raised suspicion that she may have been targeted because of her gender identity. A common characteristic of hate crime killings is excessive violence done to the victim, and there was so much blood spattered on the walls and floors that police initially believed Santiago had been stabbed repeatedly.

"Even if Ashley's death was also a robbery, there could be the angle of hate. We need that to be investigated," Serrano said.

Sgt. Luis R. Castro, whose homicide division in the neighboring town of Vega Baja is handling the case, said police will investigate the case as a hate crime if the evidence warrants, but they have not yet made that determination. There are no announced suspects, and an autopsy is pending.

Activists said they don't want Santiago's case to slip into the shadows like other recent killings where they unsuccessfully pressed authorities to invoke the statute.

In November, the body of gay teenager Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was found decapitated and partially burned in another small town. Prosecutors say the alleged killer confessed to stabbing Lopez, who was dressed as a woman, after discovering he was a man. The suspect is facing a charge of first-degree murder, but not a hate crime.

In legal terms, the difference is a matter of punishment: A hate crime conviction results in the automatic imposition of the maximum sentence for the underlying offense. For murder aggravated by a hate crime charge, that's life in prison in Puerto Rico.

The Santiago case has also put the often-ignored transgender community in the public spotlight in Puerto Rico.

Some local media have referred to Santiago as a "he," prompting activists to complain of a lack of respect for the victim.

"That's how she lived, and her family and friends accepted her for who she was," Serrano said, adding that Santiago had begun the process of physically becoming a woman by having breast surgery and taking female hormones.

Named Juan Antonio at birth, Santiago began identifying as a girl while a teenager, her mother said.

Carmen Ocasio told the newspaper Primera Hora she did not think Santiago had any enemies and was at a loss to explain the killing.

"I lost my daughter," Carmen Ocasio told the paper. "I'm in shock. Why would someone kill Ashley, why?"

Dozens of sobbing mourners attended a memorial service Friday in Corozal, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Santiago's image.

Puerto Rico is a relatively welcoming place for gays compared with more socially conservative Caribbean islands where homosexuals often live in hiding.