It was time to tell him. He clearly didn’t know.
They had been in the motel room for about two hours, drinking vodka and smoking a little pot. Now he was sitting next to her, trying to kiss her while she gently held him off.
“There’s something I’ve got to tell you first,” she said. But then she didn’t. She didn’t want to ruin the moment. He began to guess instead.
“Are you married?” No, she wasn’t.
“Do you have kids?” No.
“Whatever it is, I don’t care,” he said. He was really the sweetest guy.
It was a chilly December night in 2014, just a week before Christmas. They had met that afternoon at the drive-thru window of El Nopalito #1 in New Braunfels, where she had worked off and on for the last fifteen years. Her name was Aliah Hernandez, and she was 38, though she looked younger, tall and shapely, with long black hair. His name was Cameron. He was just a baby, she could tell, in his early twenties, with dark curly hair and a goatee. Too young for her, really, but he was attractive, and he obviously thought she was too. “You’re so beautiful,” he told her. “We should go out.” She’d been single for awhile, and the prospect of a date, or even a hookup, seemed good to her. So she gave him her number.
Cameron had begun texting her around eight that evening. Could she come to his house and chill? She didn’t get off until ten, but she agreed. Around ten, another text. His dad was at the house; could they meet at her place instead? That wouldn’t work, since she lived with her brother. How about a motel, he suggested. If she got there first, he said, check in, and he’d pay her back. She got home, showered, and got ready. She did get to the motel first, a little after midnight, but he showed up not long after, and they’d begun getting to know each other.
But she hadn’t gotten up the courage to tell him what he needed to know. Finally he began to show the first hint of impatience. “Well, tell me what you have to tell me.” So she told him.
When Officer J. Lopez of the New Braunfels police arrived at the motel at three-thirty that morning, he found Aliah slumped in the lobby, half-conscious. There was blood on her mouth and hands, and her face and neck were grotesquely swollen and bruised. Her left ear had been partially ripped off, and dangling cartilage was clearly visible. Lopez squatted beside Aliah and asked what had happened. She could barely speak, mumbling something that sounded like “Carmen.”
“He hit me with everything,” she whispered.
Officer Lopez asked for her ID, and she managed to find her Mexican passport. He began to jot down her particulars but then stopped short, looking down at the battered woman next to him. The given name on the passport was not Aliah but Blas. Under “Sexo,” he saw, the passport was clearly marked M.
The victim was transgender.
It was nearly four in the morning when Aliah arrived at the hospital. The inside of her throat was so swollen that she was having trouble breathing, and the ER doctor worried that there might also be damage to her neck or spine. She was airlifted to the Brooke Army Medical Center, in San Antonio, where ICU doctors worked to stabilize her.
Eventually Aliah was able to speak well enough to tell the police where Cameron worked: a Mexican restaurant in Gruene. A detective named Rick Groff found him there and asked him to come to the station. His full name was Cameron Wright, and he was a known quantity to the police. He’d been arrested for misdemeanor theft a few years back and had done a short stint in jail for driving without a license.
The first minute of Detective Groff’s videotaped interview with Wright shows a square-jawed young man in a flat-brimmed ball cap, well muscled under his long-sleeved green T-shirt, right hand resting absentmindedly on the crotch of his blue jeans, as he waits alone in a tiny interrogation room for his inquisitor to join him. When Groff finally entered the scene, his technique was textbook good cop. It was just a voluntary interview, he told Wright. He was not under arrest, he could leave anytime, the door was closed only for privacy. Wright relaxed visibly and seemed even more relieved when the detective downplayed the severity of the crime. Someone had gotten hurt and had gone to the hospital, he reported, but it looked like she would be getting out soon, so not to worry. And then came the subtle coaching toward a confession: “I understand people make mistakes, and I think that’s what happened in this situation.”
It worked. Wright corroborated almost every element of Aliah’s story: they’d met at the drive-thru and arranged to get together. Nothing sexual had occurred, but he’d become enraged when she told him she was transgender, and he had beaten her. Wright denied that Aliah had ever lost consciousness, but he confessed to hitting her multiple times. And he admitted something else that suggested that he knew he’d committed a serious crime: he’d stolen Aliah’s phone and deleted the text messages on his own device to hide evidence that the encounter had ever taken place. The stolen phone was gone—he’d thrown it away once he’d left the motel, he told Groff—but he agreed to turn over his phone so that it could be examined.
Groff completed his report for a felony assault, punishable by up to twenty years in prison, and turned it over to the district attorney’s office. “You’re in luck,” an officer told Aliah, who spent two days in the hospital, during which doctors snaked a camera down her throat to assess the damage and surgically repaired her ear, using a plastic bolster to restore its natural shape. “Looks like this guy is going to go to prison.”
But he didn’t. In the months that followed, as Aliah gradually recovered from her injuries, she kept waiting to hear news of his arrest, but the call never came. Three and a half years after the attack, Wright has been charged only with a misdemeanor, and even that case is still pending. (Contacted by Texas Monthly, Wright’s attorney declined to make him available for an interview.)
Meanwhile, as Aliah has struggled for resolution, the rights of transgender people have come under fire across the state and the nation. The 2017 Texas legislative session was consumed by debate over the so-called bathroom bill, a measure meant to require people to use public facilities that corresponded with the gender on their birth certificates. Intended ostensibly to protect girls and women from being accosted by men posing as women, the campaign went national, and legislatures across the country debated similar measures.
Then came President Trump’s decision to ban transgender people from serving in the military, followed by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s announcement that her department would no longer consider discrimination complaints based on a person’s gender identity. LGBT advocates have tied the political battles to a concurrent spike in violence against their communities: nationwide, there were 52 hate-related murders of LGBT people in 2017, a twenty-year high. A disproportionate number of those killed, 27, were transgender, including 4 in Texas.
Ensuring that each of those victims gets justice is a local issue, a job not for legislators and cabinet officials but for cops, prosecutors, and jurors—ordinary Texans like the farmers and ranchers in rural Comal County, around New Braunfels. Of course, a crime is a crime, no matter where it occurs in the state. But every community also has its own unwritten code—an understanding about who belongs and who doesn’t, who is worthy and who isn’t. Juries convened to judge perpetrators can wind up judging victims too.
Prior to that terrifying night in December, Aliah hadn’t had much experience with the police. In Mexico, where she’d grown up, cops usually made problems worse, and she had avoided them since arriving in Texas in 1991, because she was undocumented. But the New Braunfels police seemed to be on her side, at least at first. Not long after she learned of Wright’s confession, however, Aliah began having trouble getting detectives on the phone. When she finally did, she was told the case couldn’t move forward because prosecutors were still waiting for her hospital records to be sent from San Antonio. Weeks went by, and she finally decided to drive down and pick them up herself, delivering them personally to the police department.
On March 30, 2015, Aliah had her first meeting with Jennifer Tharp, the Comal County district attorney. Tharp’s election back in 2010 had made history—at 32, she was the youngest DA the county had ever elected, and the first woman—and she seemed to have a bright political future. In 2015 she was named Prosecutor of the Year by the State Bar of Texas, which singled out, among other things, her work as a victims’ rights advocate. Tharp had very little trial experience when she was first elected, but her chief felony prosecutor, Sammy McCrary, is a twenty-year veteran prosecutor and a holdover from her predecessor’s staff. Under McCrary’s influence, Tharp’s office has developed a reputation for aggressive prosecution. At the same time that Aliah’s case was under investigation, McCrary was pursuing a murder charge against a sixteen-year-old who had punched a classmate in the school hallway, accidentally killing him.
Aliah had been the victim of a violent crime too, yet she was beginning to suspect that her case was not a priority, a feeling that her meeting with Tharp did little to dispel. Tharp was petite and blond, a picture of professionalism in her nicely tailored suit. She nodded respectfully when Aliah explained that she no longer used the name Blas, which was on all of the police reports and other documents in the case file. The DA asked Aliah what outcome she was looking for in the case and agreed that prison time was warranted. But she couldn’t tell Aliah when her assistant prosecutor would be presenting the case to a grand jury so that it could move to trial. She finally had the hospital reports, thanks to Aliah, but now Tharp said she was waiting on a forensic analysis of Wright’s cellphone, which she described as a key piece of evidence.
Six more weeks went by without an arrest or indictment, and Aliah decided to take her story to Univision San Antonio, the Spanish-language news channel. After taping an interview with Aliah, the reporter contacted the district attorney’s office but was denied an interview. However, Aliah immediately got a call from Tharp—she wanted to meet first thing the next morning. As Aliah remembers the meeting, Tharp was not pleased about the prospect of a TV news report. Prosecutors would be taking the case before a grand jury soon, she told Aliah, and she wanted no more media. The Univision report aired in late May but didn’t lead to any follow-up coverage from other stations or the local papers.
In July, Tharp called Aliah in for a third meeting. This time Aliah brought her best friend, Sami Vela, with her for emotional support, along with a counselor from the Department of Public Safety who had been guiding her through the process of getting the state to help with her hospital bills, which totaled over $22,000. Tharp had bad news. The case had been brought before a grand jury twice, she said—first by an assistant prosecutor, and then by Tharp herself—but both times, the jury had declined to issue an indictment. Tharp had filed a misdemeanor charge instead, for which no grand jury approval was needed. Wright had been charged not with assault but “interfering with an emergency call”—stemming from his theft of Aliah’s phone, which had prevented her from calling the police. The maximum penalty was a year in jail.
Aliah couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She’d been deferential during every visit with Tharp, especially after the Univision interview that had drawn the prosecutor’s ire. But now she found her voice. “What if it had been your family member beaten up that night?” she asked angrily.
“There’s really nothing else we can do,” Tharp replied.
Aliah rose and walked out. She remembers the DPS counselor turning to her and saying that she needed to get some help, because these people weren’t going to do anything for her. Aliah thought of all the cops she had waited on at El Nopalito; she’d even seen Tharp come in for breakfast from time to time. In fact, though she doubted the DA would remember, she’d actually gone to high school with Tharp. She’d still been a skinny kid named Blas in those days, an invisible wallflower, a nobody. And now? Somehow she’d become less than nobody, a person you could beat up and leave unconscious in a motel room with scarcely any consequences.
On her very first day of school in Juan Martín, the small farming town in central Mexico where she’d grown up, Aliah was forced to make a choice. Her teacher directed the class to split into two groups—boys on one side, girls on the other. Aliah, then known as Blas, wasn’t sure on which side of the room she belonged. At home she had ten siblings, five brothers and five sisters, and the boys were expected to help their father care for the family’s livestock when they became old enough. But it was her sisters’ future, preparing meals and keeping the house, that Aliah envisioned for herself, so in the classroom that morning, she walked over to the girls’ side. The entire class erupted in laughter. Her sisters gently but firmly redirected her to the boys’ side, and she reluctantly obeyed. Now she knew for certain what she had already begun to suspect—that she was different. And the town knew too.
Almost everyone in Juan Martín was a practicing Catholic, and the community was very conservative, dominated, not unlike Comal County, by farmers and ranchers. For the next decade, Aliah would be taunted, bullied, and humiliated relentlessly. People threw rocks at her on the street and called her maricón and puto. When she was nine, she was raped. She considered killing herself.
Instead, at fourteen, she told her mother she wanted to go to the United States. Lots of people in Juan Martín worked in El Norte and sent money home, including two of Aliah’s brothers. Joining them wouldn’t just be good for her; she’d seen the difference the money they sent home had made for the entire family. It was the responsible thing to do. Aliah had never discussed her gender identity with her parents, yet her mother knew that her child wasn’t leaving just to find work. She implored Aliah to wait until she was older, no matter how unhappy she was in Juan Martín. But eventually, just before Aliah turned sixteen, she relented.
They learned about the secret that allowed San Antonio’s transgender community to thrive—black market estrogen imported straight up I-35 from Nuevo Laredo.
A brother in New Braunfels found Aliah a job at a Mexican restaurant. She was free from the constant harassment of her hometown, but she dreamed of something better. She needed to learn English, and she wasn’t going to get that busing tables. She heard about adult education classes at New Braunfels High, but to her surprise the principal there insisted she get a proper education and enroll full-time, even though, by then, she was nineteen. She reluctantly agreed, though she kept her evening shifts at the restaurant. She found herself a ninth grader, then still known as Blas, sitting at the back of classrooms filled with kids with whom she could barely communicate.
Among them were a pair of blond-haired sisters who seemed to run the school. The older of the two was a talkative basketball player named Jennifer Tharp, and the younger was a cheerleader. They looked just like each other, slender girls with high cheekbones and eyes that crinkled when they smiled. They were the type of girls Aliah probably wouldn’t have talked to even if she could have, scions of the town’s upper crust, who were mostly fair-skinned descendants of the Germans who’d settled this part of the state. These were the kind of white girls whose families organized Wurstfest every fall and ran the Chamber of Commerce and owned the businesses on the bustling courthouse square. The kind of girls that Spanish-speaking teenagers like Aliah called güera, but not in a derogatory way—more envious, truth be known. Aliah, as it happened, envied more than just Jennifer Tharp’s hair.
She hung out instead with a long-haired, soft-spoken boy named Sami Vela, who became her best friend. They shared the same secret: they were girls born into boys’ bodies. The pair began driving to San Antonio on weekends to visit the Strip, a collection of gay bars along North Main Avenue, not far from San Antonio College. One night they found themselves at a club called the Saint Showbar, which was known for its weekly drag shows. Aliah watched in wonder as the parade of women who had once been men strutted and danced. They were beautiful, their faces soft and smooth, their hips narrow, their busts filling their fabulous dresses, and then some. Afterward the two friends mustered up the courage to meet some of the performers, including a star on the international circuit who had recently won a drag contest in Thailand and sometimes worked in television. Eventually they learned about the secret that allowed San Antonio’s transgender community to thrive—black market estrogen imported straight up I-35 from Nuevo Laredo to the Strip. It was an underground pipeline that paralleled the network that brought in cocaine, meth, and marijuana, except this trade didn’t hook you—it set you free.