Tracking Atlanta’s trans murder cold cases through the decades

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Metro Atlanta’s missing and murdered transgender and gender nonconforming victims are not forgotten. Thanks to a pair of forensic genealogists in Massachusetts, trans cold cases across the U.S. are finding new life.

The Trans Doe Task Force is personal for Anthony and Lee Redgrave, who are both trans. The couple founded the project in 2018. They use genetic genealogy to identify trans and gender nonconforming “Doe cases” gone cold.

They’re tracking five cases in Georgia and 174 across the world. The Georgia cases include victims found in Atlanta, Cobb County and Eatonton going back as far as 1978.

“Every day I wake up and think that I could be one of those people on this list,” Anthony told Project Q Atlanta. “For that and the fact that we’ve continued to survive, we have to continue going back to the people who didn’t make it.”

The Redgraves created a company to provide private genetic genealogy services in 2015. In 2018, someone murdered a good friend and trans activist named Christa Steele-Knudslien.

“It sort of was a situation where it was the stars aligning because we were dealing with Christa’s death and also it was an anniversary of another trans friend’s suicide,” Lee said. “It felt like what do we do with all this grief and frustration that we have with all this death that keeps happening in our community?”

They joined the all-volunteer nonprofit DNA Doe Project.

“We worked two cases with them then started looking for trans cases, because we just knew that they had to be out there,” Lee said. “We assumed we’d be able find maybe a few, then we just kept finding more and more.”

Anthony and Lee Redgrave of the Trans Doe Task Force (Photos courtesy the Redgraves)

Small details tell larger story

Among cases in Georgia, Trans Doe Task Force wants to identify someone found in an alley behind an Atlanta building in 1985. The victim was assigned male even though they wore panties traditionally worn by women.

In another case, a person was found dead inside a train car carrying coal at the Georgia Power plant in Eatonton in 1978. They wore long fingernails and curled eyelashes (top photo left) but police assigned them as male.

Little details like that are what the Redgraves are looking for as they search the database of the missing and murdered for cases to add to their map.

“We look for contextual clues when limited information is released,” Anthony said.

Yet another Georgia case involves a person shot in DeKalb County in 2017. Assigned male, they wore a wig and bra and gave their name as Justine. Police claim the person was shot after attempting to burglarize a home.

“But we really lack details here, and this could have been somebody who was homeless and trying to find someplace to stay because they were outdoors, or somebody who was trying to survive, or a case of misinterpretation on the part of the homeowner,” Lee said.

There was only a postmortem image of Justine available, so Anthony created a new forensic image (top photo center). The Redgraves included Justine’s in a series of case writeups posted to the r/UnresolvedMysteries subreddit last November to mark Transgender Awareness Week.

Forensic facial recreations and DNA genealogy are tools of the trade for Trans Doe Task Force.

From side project to nonprofit

What started as a side project for the Redgraves with a group of grassroots activists is now a nonprofit organization. Three years in, solving cases is a rare occurrence in their line of work.

“The biggest reason we haven’t had more cases solved with DNA so far is because it’s very difficult to get [police] departments [and medical examiners] to submit the cases to us — usually because of budget reasons,” Lee said. “We’re hoping that incorporating as a nonprofit will help with that. We’re hoping to fund these cases for the departments going forward.”

Meanwhile, TDTF keeps scouring records for other unidentified transgender and gender nonconforming victims.

“We have the ability and knowledge and experience, so we feel a responsibility to do this because nobody else was doing this work,” Anthony said.

Visit Trans Doe Task Force online.

(h/t Xtra Magazine)

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