Aliah never finished high school. In her junior year, she was deported following an immigration raid at the restaurant. She found herself on the streets of Nuevo Laredo, dead broke, with no place to stay and no way to hire a coyote to get her back across. She decided to swim the river, only to be captured and immediately returned to the other side by Border Patrol. With no better plan, she simply tried again the next night, and the night after, until she finally made it safely across. Aliah made her way back to New Braunfels, but she never returned to her classes. “School is not for people like us,” her brother told her. “We are here to work.”

But her English was much better now, and she found a full-time job at El Nopalito, where she eventually worked her way up to the position of manager. She missed her family, but she had Sami, and she had a dream to pursue too. At 25, she began transitioning, beginning with injections of estrogen purchased on the black market that she had discovered in San Antonio. It wasn’t cheap: three shots a month, at $30 each. But that was nothing compared to the surgery. She planned to start with breast implants to give her the figure she wanted and plastic surgery to make her face look more feminine. She figured she needed about $50,000 to make her dream a reality.

The owner at El Nopalito liked her—she was a good manager—and supported her even as the estrogen began to take effect. Reactions from customers were more mixed. Comal County was no Juan Martín, but it was still a conservative place, both socially and politically. For decades, the county has been represented in Washington by Republican Lamar Smith, a Christian Scientist who made his name as an anti-immigrant crusader in the nineties. (Comal County has a sizable and growing Hispanic community, 27 percent of the population, but one that is conspicuously marginalized politically, with no elected officials in county offices.) Comal’s state senator is Donna Campbell, a pro-life physician and one of the legislature’s most conservative members. From time to time a customer would turn Aliah away as she approached a table; occasionally the owner would toss those customers out if he was already in a foul mood.

Once Aliah got her breasts, she began to look and feel like the person she wanted to be and discovered, to her delight, that many customers didn’t look twice as she went by—she was simply an unusually tall woman with a nice figure.

Sami was transitioning too. Now when they went to clubs, they danced and had a good time, instead of sitting in the dark by themselves. Aliah had spent her teenage years toiling away in the back of Mexican restaurants, living with her brother, and sending all her money home. Now she was making up for lost time, but there was something missing. She wanted love.

In 2010 she moved to Las Vegas, a place she’d visited once or twice before. It was the anything-goes attitude, the utter lack of judgment, that drew her back. It made her feel free. She began making good money waiting tables at a high-end restaurant, more than she’d ever made in New Braunfels, and the Vegas club scene was even better than San Antonio’s. When men approached her in bars, she made a habit of telling them straight away that she was transgender. Some walked away, but some didn’t, and eventually she met the man who would become her first real boyfriend, the first man with whom she’d ever really been in love. They lived together for several years, but he was an alcoholic, and eventually the relationship soured. Aliah found herself depressed, isolated from her friends and family back in Texas and Mexico, so much so that she decided to make a drastic change. She moved back to Mexico. Her parents were shocked at her appearance—her mom seemed to think she’d only grown her hair long and begun wearing women’s clothes—but they accepted her, and her siblings, now all grown, with families of their own, did too.

Neither of Aliah’s parents had ever been on an airplane, and with the money she’d saved, she flew the three of them to Cancún for a beach vacation. It felt different to be in Mexico now that she had a little money of her own. But in some ways, she found, she was still an outcast. “We don’t want people like you here,” the bouncer at a Cancún club told her. In Vegas, she’d gone into any club she pleased; she’d even been pulled out of the line, along with other well-dressed women, and ushered to the front by the doorman. Still, she enjoyed being near her family again and thought maybe she could stay in Mexico. She took a few classes at a beauty school in Celaya, a city not far from Juan Martín, but decided it wasn’t for her. She considered opening a bar of her own, but when word got out, local gangsters stopped her on the street and demanded a monthly percentage. In the end, she decided to go back to New Braunfels. It wasn’t Vegas, but at least she’d have her friends, her brother, and a job waiting for her at El Nopalito.

This time she had the money to hire a coyote, but the trip was no less harrowing. It took a week to get across, beginning with four days at a safe house in Nuevo Laredo, followed by a furtive nighttime crossing of the river in a boat, then an all-night hike through the desert around an interior checkpoint north of Laredo.

Back in New Braunfels, she did manage to get back on at El Nopalito, but only as a server this time; a new manager had taken her place. She’d been home a few months when she saw Cameron Wright at the drive-thru window. She made the date with him, and then she broke her rule about dates. Why didn’t she tell him up front or at least text him before he got to the hotel? She just needed something good in her life. “We are all looking for love,” she liked to tell her friends.

In the months that followed the grand jury’s refusal to indict her attacker, Aliah stewed. Interactions with investigators that had seemed vaguely troublesome at the time now struck her as far darker in retrospect: the chumminess of the detective who had interviewed Wright; a passing comment from a cop that Wright seemed like an all right guy who was trying to get his life on track; Tharp’s coldness after the Univision interview. She felt certain now that nobody had ever really cared about her case. She had risked her life to get back here because she thought it was a safer place for someone like her, but now it seemed like she had been wrong. Still, she wasn’t going to let the case go.

Aliah remembered waking up and looking for her phone, not being able to find it, and dragging herself—half walking, half crawling—to the lobby.

Aliah found the name of a gay attorney in New Braunfels who agreed to meet and discuss her situation. The attorney told Aliah what she had already guessed: that it was rare for a grand jury to issue a no-bill—that is, a refusal to indict for a crime presented by prosecutors—and it almost never happened in Comal County, where grand juries were typically made up of law-and-order conservatives. The entire process heavily favors the state. Prosecutors must convince only nine of the twelve grand jurors that there is probable cause to believe a crime has occurred, a much lower bar than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard employed later by a trial jury. For a grand jury, the accused isn’t even there and has no right to present evidence; grand jurors hear only from the police or any other witnesses prosecutors want to call. A good prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich, as the old saw goes. In Aliah’s case, Tharp had Wright’s statement to police, his clumsy effort to conceal the crime, and gruesome hospital photos. What more could she possibly need?

The attorney suggested she look for help outside of Comal County, and Aliah found Lambda Legal, a nonprofit known for its work on behalf of LGBT clients. After months of unreturned calls to Tharp’s office, Aliah’s Lambda attorney, Stefan Johnson, eventually managed to collect the entire file on the case, which he turned over to an FBI agent in San Antonio, who agreed to look for any possible federal cases that might be brought on Aliah’s behalf. Meeting with federal authorities, Aliah finally felt that her case was being taken seriously, but looking over the evidence collected by the police was more difficult than she had anticipated. It was the first time she had seen photos of the crime scene. The room was in disarray—both beds knocked askew, blood on the carpet and the bathroom linoleum.

As she studied the pictures, the night began to come back to her. In her recollection, Wright had grabbed her wrists first. She remembered thinking that if she could only make it to the door and out into the parking lot, she’d be okay. But his grip was like iron. “I hate you fucking people!” he shouted, and she was still trying to talk him down when he reared his head back and butted her in the forehead. That’s when she knew she was in for a beating. She remembered him taking the phone out of her hand at one point as she tried to call for help. Then he was on top of her, whaling away until she lost consciousness. She remembered waking up and looking for her phone, not being able to find it, and dragging herself—half walking, half crawling—to the lobby.

Now the agent showed her something else. Blood had pooled in the narrow space between the wall and the bed farther from the door, suggesting that she had lain there for some time. She remembered that he’d beaten her near the door, and then she had crawled toward the bathroom, but she had no recollection of having been behind the bed like that.

In the end, there was nothing the FBI could do for Aliah. Attacks like this were alarmingly common, and federal authorities were well aware of the problem—in the two and a half years following Aliah’s beating, 58 transgender women had been murdered nationwide, according to a running tally kept by Lambda Legal. But these were crimes for state prosecutors. The feds would get involved only in a civil rights case, and proving that Aliah had been discriminated against by Comal County—or that she had been the victim of a hate crime—would be a tall order. Her only recourse, it seemed, was convincing Jennifer Tharp to act.

The motel in New Braunfels (now renamed), where the assault occurred.

Photograph by Callie Richmond

I met Tharp in her office at the Comal County Courthouse Annex building in late February. She was cordial but brusque. More than anything, she seemed tired. She was nearing the end of a primary campaign in which she had drawn three credible opponents—two former Comal County prosecutors and a well-respected New Braunfels defense attorney. A backlog of untried felony cases—a product, her opponents argued, of Tharp’s unwillingness to offer reasonable plea deals—had become the key issue in the race. One of her challengers had earned the endorsement of the local sheriffs’ association, a smarting blow for the incumbent.

Tharp insisted there wasn’t much she could say about why Aliah’s case was no-billed, since grand jury proceedings are kept strictly confidential by law. In fact, sometime between our initial phone conversation—in which she told me that she personally had taken the case before a grand jury—and our interview two weeks later, Tharp decided that the process was so secret that she could not even reveal whether the case had been presented to a grand jury at all, notwithstanding the fact that she had already confirmed as much.

We were joined, to my surprise, by Tharp’s chief felony prosecutor, Sammy McCrary. Lean and intense, McCrary is very much Tharp’s right-hand man, and her continued deference to his judgment is widely considered—by the county’s defense attorneys, at any rate—to be the chief reason for the office’s hard-charging reputation.

Tharp was deferential to McCrary in our interview as well. Although her lieutenant had never actually worked on the case in question, Tharp let him explain to me why the case wasn’t a “slam dunk” for the prosecution, despite the damning evidence available. The problem, as McCrary saw it, was that the case involved a “nontraditional” victim—in fact, the first transgender victim in Comal County that either prosecutor could remember. “We typically get conservative jurors here. This county is known for that,” he said.

I asked what a prosecutor could do to work around prejudice against certain kinds of victims.

“ ‘Work around’ it?” Tharp replied.

“I don’t know that I’d try to work around it,” McCrary interjected. “If twelve citizens of this county don’t want to do something, then so be it,” he said. “I’m not going to ‘work around.’ No, I would never do that.”

McCrary knew the case was a loser from day one, he told me. As he saw it, the severity of the beating wasn’t the decisive fact. The case instead hinged on whether or not, at the time the date was arranged, Wright knew the victim was transgender. “If the grand jury believes that the defendant knew that the victim was a man and went to the hotel and then just twisted off and beat up this person, I think you can get a conviction,” he said. “But if the grand jury believes that he truly thought he was meeting a woman . . . and somewhere in the middle of that, he found out that it wasn’t, and he was surprised by that and did what he did—I don’t think you’ll ever get a conviction.”

McCrary was suggesting that a grand juror might expect Wright to have a hostile reaction in that scenario. But Wright hadn’t just struck Aliah once and left the room, I pointed out. He had beaten her unconscious while telling her, “You’re going to die tonight”—a fact that he didn’t deny to police. The grand jury had let a serious crime go unpunished. What if Wright did it again? “Can we all agree that Cameron Wright is a dangerous person?” I asked.

We couldn’t.

“I can agree it was a horrific beating,” McCrary said. He went on to describe other reasons the case was a loser, besides the victim being “nontraditional.” Aliah, not the defendant, had brought vodka and marijuana to the room, he pointed out, a fact that would allow a defense attorney to weave a tale of seduction: a degenerate luring an unsuspecting man to her room and plying him with whatever it took to get what she wanted. But there were obvious problems with this narrative. Wasn’t it Aliah who had prevented anything sexual from happening in the first place, I asked? “There’s more than one way a jury could look at that,” McCrary countered.

Aliah was also undocumented, he noted, a fact that a defense attorney bent on undermining her credibility might mention in front of the jury, even if it weren’t legally admissible or relevant to the case. Now he was beginning to sound like a defense attorney himself, though it wasn’t clear whom he was defending: Wright, for his savage act of violence; the grand jurors, for declining to judge him for it; or the district attorney’s office, for failing to persuade the jurors that they should.

If there was no getting around the prevailing community values of the grand jury, then why take a second stab at it, I asked? Why did Tharp decide to take the case to the grand jury a second time and to present it herself? Tharp was silent for several seconds. Finally she said, “Personally, I felt strongly that what happened to her was wrong.”

“He definitely went to an extreme with the beating,” McCrary conceded. But the deciding factor, he insisted, was still whether Wright had known what he was getting into when he had initiated the date. “I think if he knew and went and did it, you get a conviction. If he didn’t know and did it, I think you lose. That’s my assessment of the case.”

Last fall, Aliah quit her job at El Nopalito and moved to a town nearby (she wants her location confidential). She hadn’t felt safe in New Braunfels since the attack and had stopped going out with friends. Eventually she decided she couldn’t stay there at all. Wright, meanwhile, was still at large. He’d been arrested twice in the intervening years, for driving without a license, but was turned loose each time. Originally Tharp was seeking three hundred days in jail for the misdemeanor charge she had filed back in the summer of 2015, but the case had been postponed repeatedly, and with each delay the offer had gotten more and more lenient. Now her misdemeanor prosecutor was seeking probation with just ninety days jail time.

Aliah told me she hadn’t been the same since the attack; she was more reticent, more leery of meeting new people. At the same time, however, the experience—working with Lambda Legal, hearing about the rallies in Austin against the bathroom bill, being taken seriously by the FBI—had made her feel oddly empowered, like she was part of a movement. “People like me, we are human beings,” she said. “I want to tell my story to everyone, and I want to tell everyone like me: Don’t go to Comal County. We are not safe there.”

On March 6, boosted by an endorsement from Congressman Lamar Smith, Jennifer Tharp won the Republican primary, narrowly avoiding a runoff. With no serious Democratic opposition, she’ll begin a third term in January. As it happened, Wright was scheduled for a plea hearing at the courthouse the very next morning, his ninth such setting over the last two years. The result was the same: nobody appeared. The district attorney’s office had agreed to another postponement. Justice, such as it was, would have to wait.