After he robbed her at gunpoint, Larissa’s attacker texted her to say that no one would care about what happened to a black transgender woman in Alabama.
“Yea yea they ain’t gone come for a tranny,” the man texted her, according to messages shown to The Daily Beast. “U a back page prostitute who really gone give AF.”
Larissa had invited the man, who she identified to The Daily Beast as Denzell Thomas, into Room 230 at America’s Best Inn in Homewood, Alabama, on Sept. 20. He had answered her ad on Backpage.com for sex. Usually, she makes clients pay up front and pats them down for protection, Larissa said, but this was their fourth time together so she let her guard down.
He’d seemed nice, Larissa said, “like he was just getting off work.”
After they were done together, he went to the bathroom to clean up and she asked him to pay.
“Once he came out, it seemed like he was about to pull the money out of his pocket, but what he pulled out was a gun,” Larissa said. “He pointed at me and said, ‘Bitch, shut up, where is the money?’"
Larissa told him she had no money and tried to think of a way to signal her friend Jessica Mays in the room next door, but Thomas already ordered her to the floor. She considered trying to use her legs to kick the gun from his hands, but decided the risk was too great.
“You say anything before I’m out of this door, I’m pulling the trigger,” Larissa quoted him as saying before he ran off with her purse that contained $20, her gun, identification, and a bracelet her grandmother gave her before she died.
He fled and she followed, naked. When Larissa got downstairs, she saw him pulling away in a car with another person.
Larissa didn’t skip a beat. She said she called the police in Homewood, near Birmingham, to report her gun stolen. And Larissa said she gave officers the number she was texting, so they could try to identify the man.
But she pursued her own leads.
“Bitch the police already got yo tag hoe,” she texted the man after their encounter, according to text transcripts Larissa provided to The Daily Beast. “You [think] you can’t be touched but I’ma show you.”
Larissa now saved him as “Robber Bottom” in her phone—for his preferred position and what he did to her, she said. She told Robber Bottom, falsely, that she had his face on camera in an attempt to make him return her property, Larissa said.
Robber Bottom texted Larissa that he had her address and license plates, and that he would send someone to rob her if she showed up on Backpage again. And she told him she had his name.
“Lol yea yes what my name is then,” he texted.
“Man I ain’t got to tell you shit,” she said. “The police do this for a living.”
At 11:24 p.m. on Sept. 20, according to the timestamps on the texts provided by Larissa, she dropped his name on the man she’d called Robber Bottom: “Thomas Denzell.”
He replied 20 minutes later.
“Lol not me. Good try tho.”
Three days later, Jazz Alford was at King’s Inn motel, an eight-minute drive from where Larissa worked. Alford, also a transgender woman, was passing through town from North Carolina en route to Atlanta and had posted an ad on Backpage earlier that day.
“Just a quick video to let you know that this is my last night here,” she said in a video posted to the site. “So come check me out before I leave.”
She blew a kiss at the camera before signing off. Jazz couldn’t have predicted the irony of that meaning.
A motel maid found her body later that day, according to her family. She had been shot to death.
“She was loving and giving, and she would give you whatever she had if you needed it,” Deedee Vaughn, a friend from North Carolina, told The Daily Beast.
Vaughn said that Alford was ambitious and friendly, but also introverted.
“She liked church a lot,” Vaughn added. “We would be going out to like nightclubs, and she would come pick us up and be playing gospel music and stuff.”
Toya Milan, a close friend, told AL.com that Jazz was a college graduate who worked as a call-center representative for an airline company and also advertised for sex. Jazz lived in North Carolina, but friends say she was passing through Alabama on her way to visit Milan in Atlanta when her car broke down. She placed an ad on Backpage.com while stranded in Birmingham. (Milan and Mary Alford, Jazz’s mom, told The Daily Beast they weren’t up to talking.)
Police and news reports initially referred to Alford by the name she was given at birth, a practice transgender advocates term “dead-naming.” Trans women told The Daily Beast that because Jazz wasn’t from the area and was initially identified by that name, it took them several days to realize one of their sisters had been killed.
She was buried in North Carolina on Oct. 1, Milan told AL.com.
Jessica, who’d been in the room next door when Larissa was attacked, was shot two days after the funeral.
“I can’t talk,” she told The Daily Beast via Facebook Messenger. “My mouth is wired shut.”
A 9 mm bullet shattered her jawbone and pierced her throat.
Darius Foster, her boyfriend, told AL.com he found Jessica in her home on Oct. 3. Local news media reported the attack as a home invasion and said Foster arrived shortly after the attack and tried to chase down the suspect’s white van.
“She came out on the porch screaming ‘Help me,’” Foster told AL.com “It was bad. There was nothing pretty about it.
They'd known each other and, after he left, “[Thomas] called and told her that he’d forgotten something,” Larissa said Jessica texted her in the days after the attack. “She said he came in, he hit her with the gun, and he shot her in the neck. Then he waved bye-bye.”
Sinseriti Banks, who calls herself Jessica’s “trans mother,” told The Daily Beast that Jessica had just moved into her new house—the one she was attacked in—the week before. Jessica was set to start a new job the day after the attack, Banks said.
“She was just about to get her name legally changed,” she added. “And now all this stuff has occurred, and now it’s put her at a really bad standstill.”
Now Jessica has a feeding tube in her stomach, Banks told The Daily Beast, adding that she only communicates through writing.
“She’s lucky to be alive,” Banks said. “They’re not sure if her esophagus is damaged. They’re not sure if she’s going to be able to talk.”
“It hurts a person to know that he wasn’t there at that moment, to protect her,” she said of Foster.
Jessica’s injuries are so severe that Banks said she will require reconstructive surgery, but her family is by her side. “They just want answers, and they want justice,” Banks said. She set up a GoFundMe to help with Jessica’s expenses.
Jessica’s mother, Delvina, told The Daily Beast that there are still surgeries ahead, in particular to fix her jawbone.
“It’s just horrible how people try to take other people’s life,” she said. “It baffles me.”
Larissa said she was called into talk to Birmingham police after Jessica’s boyfriend gave them her call history. When police showed Larissa one number from the phone, she instantly recognized it as Thomas, a.k.a. Robber Bottom, and identified him to police.
Thomas was arrested and charged him with attempted murder and robbery for his attack on Jessica on Oct. 5. A judge set his bond at $200,000, and AL.com reported that he was awaiting trial on unrelated weapons and drug charges from the summer. (Sean Edwards, the Birmingham police spokesperson, told The Daily Beast that the department does not release prior criminal histories and would not comment on how Thomas was identified.)
Birmingham police say they also connected him to Jazz’s murder. He was charged with it two days later, and this time, a judge issued a no-bond order in the case.
“I’m still mourning of course, but I am so filled with joy right now because this monster is off of the streets and he can’t harm anybody else,” Milan, Jazz’s friend, told AL.com.
The Daily Beast reached out to an attorney the court said was assigned to Thomas, but he said he was unaware of the assignment.
Larissa’s attacker told her that no one would care that someone robbed transgender sex workers of color. Unfortunately, too often, he would have been right.
Jazz was, by one count, the 22nd transgender person murdered in 2016. Many of those murders remain unsolved. The count makes 2016 a deadlier year for transgender people than 2015, but it’s not clear whether that is because of an uptick in violence, or the result of more victims being accurately reported as transgender. The majority of them are women of color.
Likewise, sex workers have historically been easy prey for serial attackers. The murders of eight sex workers from a poor area in Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana, between 2005 and 2009 remain unsolved, as do the murders of more than a dozen women on Long Island’s Gilgo Beach over the last 20 years.
But in Birmingham, Larissa might have made all the difference. She lived to ring the alarm bells, and was unafraid.
“My mom always told me that even if someone comes at you like that, they always target the ones who are very afraid,” she said. “When they come in, [most men are] more afraid of us. They think we’re the police.”
Larissa had alerted her sisters about the robbery after the attack and even posted the number on Facebook, hoping that awareness would mean they wouldn’t be caught in the same situation. Jazz, however, had no way of knowing. She wasn’t from the area. She was from North Carolina, just passing through.
When she was killed, police identified her as a man. Larissa and her sisters had no way of linking the attacks, just three days apart.
The police in Homewood still haven’t charged Thomas with Larissa’s robbery. Multiple messages to their spokesman, Sgt. Doug Finch, went unanswered. With the murder and attempted-murder charges, this count probably won’t make a difference with his sentence if he is found guilty, but it would acknowledge the harm done to her.
“They told me that they couldn’t because at the time they didn’t have really any proof,” she texted this reporter after our interview. “I think it’s mostly because they probably knew we were on backpage.”
Larissa stopped posting on Backpage after the incident. She didn’t do it often, anyway, and wants to focus on her dream of being a surgical technician. She recently graduated from a college program that prepared her for that path.
“The girls who took the certification with me, I was the only one who passed,” she told The Daily Beast.
“I’m really excited because it’s really breaking the mold of trans people as sex workers and sex objects,” she added. “I’m not going to say I never did it in the past, but that’s just the reality.”
Larissa said she and her boyfriend of four years talk about having kids all the time and plan to adopt. And she wants to use her voice to make movies, like a documentary about transgender women in Birmingham. (She’s looking for partners who can help make that dream happen.)
When this reporter told Larissa that her actions to help arrest the suspect in these crimes were heroic, she shrugged.
“Anything for my sister and for girls like me,” she texted.