Mercedes Williamson. Crystal Jackson. Britney Cosby. Muhlaysia Booker. All were LGBTQ+ individuals whose lives were tragically cut short at the hands of violent perpetrators. But beyond the headlines, they were living, breathing human beings leading full, rich, and complicated lives.
It’s those lives, and not simply the manner of their deaths, that journalist Dometi Pongo wishes to highlight in his series, “True Life Crime,” which puts a spotlight on grim and often unsolved murders of young people across the United States, many of whom are on or near the social margins.
“I hope to contextualize how important it is to acknowledge the humanity of each victim,” Pongo tells GO Magazine. While other true crime shows may focus more on the crimes themselves, and the investigative process, “True Life Crime” examines the context behind how and why these crimes were committed. “It’s not just ‘Who done it?’ It’s ‘Who done it? Why did they do it? And how did this person’s identity factor into what made them eventually become a target?’”
The series dives into these questions immediately in the second season premiere, which examines the murders of Britney Cosby and Crystal Jackson. The women’s bodies had been found in an abandoned parking lot on the Port Bolivar peninsula off of Galveston, Texas, in 2014. Investigators learned that Cosby and Jackson were girlfriends, leading them initially to suspect that their sexualities may have played a role in their deaths — especially after they learned that Jackson’s father, a conservative preacher, had been adamantly opposed to his daughter’s same-sex relationship.
Also troubling is the case of Muhlaysia Booker, a Black trans woman who was found murdered in Dallas in 2019, a month after being assaulted in a violent transphobic attack that went viral. Booker was one of numerous trans individuals who’d been killed in Texas which, in 2019, led the nation in trans murders, with over half of those committed in the Dallas area.
“It begs the question, is this an issue of pervasive transphobia? Is this one serial killer?” Pongo asks. “But what’s more chilling is that at the end of the episode, you find out that it wasn’t a serial killer. And that is even more concerning.”
As it turned out, the man who was ultimately charged with Booker’s murder has not been connected to the murders of other trans women in the Dallas area, although he was also charged in the deaths of two unidentified individuals, neither of whom are trans. While the motive for Booker’s death remains unknown, one possible avenue the show explores is that she was the victim of “trans panic.” At the time of her death Booker, who was a sex worker, had been out hustling. She was last seen getting into a vehicle that matched the suspect’s. It’s possible that her killer shot her after discovering her trans identity.
But as an individual, Muhlaysia was more than her gender identity, which Pongo says was a point her friends and family wished to emphasize. “She wasn’t just another murdered trans Black woman. That’s who she was, but she also wanted to be a journalist, she also wanted to be famous, she has this bodacious personality that came across in her Facebook videos,” he says. “So if nothing else, we’re going to show the world who Muhlaysia was, and is.”
Friends and family, both blood and chosen, of the victims are a key element in each “True Life Crime” narrative, providing a detailed picture of who these individuals were, what they hoped for and feared, and what they had wished to accomplish with their lives before these were taken from them. One of the biggest surprises, Pongo says, was how positively family and friends responded to his inquiries. “I think that talking about these cases was as cathartic for them as it was for me,” he says. “You know, you’re talking to someone about the worst day of their lives. And you don’t know how open they’ll be. You don’t know how receptive they’ll be.”
“True Life Crime” also contextualizes the work of police investigators — whether this means walking through cases with the investigators themselves, as in the case of Jackson and Cosby, or exposing the work of those who are inept or the perpetrators of violence themselves. Pongo, who began his journalism career in Chicago and has extensive experience covering police misconduct, knows the matter isn’t so simple. “The show shows the diversity in skill set that we see with law enforcement, and everything isn’t black and white,” he says. “I know sometimes police feel like they’re being targeted. No, there are good journalists, there are bad [journalists], good cops, bad cops.”
This complexity is reflected in how families, friends, and communities react to law enforcement, and whether or not they will find justice for their lost loved ones. The reaction can sometimes depend on the racial makeup of the communities. In the case of Darrien Hunt, a Black man shot by Saratoga Springs police officers in Utah while carrying a decorative sword, the predominantly white community took the officers at their word when they said Hunt had lunged at them. However, Pongo says, surveillance footage “appears to show otherwise.”
In the case of Muhlaysia Booker, Pongo tells me that some of her loved ones still don’t believe the man in custody for her murder was responsible, in part because the man who assaulted her in the attack gone viral had been out on bail at the time she was killed. His whereabouts at the time were accounted for, but the fact that he’d been released from custody just before Booker was killed is for some just too much of a coincidence.
When it comes to investigations involving marginalized individuals, “there isn’t the same level of attention to detail that you get when someone from the majority population goes missing, or is murdered,” Pongo says. For trans persons, statistics might be skewed because they are dead-named and, for those who are ostracized from their families, there may be no one around to put pressure on police to solve their murders. The same goes for others on the margins, such as those who are disabled, are sex workers, or who have substance use issues. “You find that those cases don’t get the same level of detail, and that investigational rigor that you’ll see with other cases.”
With many of the cases involving trans individuals, one common denominator Pongo has seen is, sadly, the fact that many of the victims not only knew their killer, but were involved in a relationship with them. The perpetrators, he tells me, often identify as straight, and being in a relationship with a trans woman challenges their own perceptions of masculinity. “Rather than process those feelings, they lash out for fear that someone will find out about their relationship.” Numerous LGBTQ+ advocates he’s spoken to have theorized that this toxic masculinity leads perpetrators to strike out at their partners, as if literally fighting what they hate about themselves. This, he says, is believed to be the case in the murder of Mercedes Williamson, and “links to a broader discussion we need to have in this country about toxicity and how we define ‘manhood’ … across all cultures.”
Which brings us back to the purpose for “True Life Crime:” to help us in general think more critically about those we might not otherwise think about. For Pongo, who identifies as being outside of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s important that he uses his voice as a journalist to bring their stories to light. “I hope we use this show just to shed light on how real this issue is,” he says. “It’s not a matter of there being just a societal shift for the sake of a societal shift; it’s a societal shift for the sake of actual lives being at stake. And I hope we get that across.”
At the very least, it may help us see others, whoever they are, as human beings. It’s a simple enough message, and yet one that still needs to be said.
“True Life Crime” airs on MTV Tuesdays at 9 p.m. E.T. or anytime on streaming for subscribers.