Kathleen Hester never stopped trying to find out who killed her daughter.
She marched through the streets of Boston that winter in 1998. She kept calling detectives long after they stopped calling her. On Oct. 20, 2020, she died at the age of 81 without closure.
Rita Hester’s murder inspired Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual nationwide vigil that honors transgender murder victims. Hester has come to symbolize the crisis of violence facing transgender people. For Hester’s family and LGBTQ+ people in Boston and across the world, her murder also represents the disregard police and media show for Black transgender murder victims, the unsolved case casting a long shadow on Boston detectives.
All of that, however, could be changing. Earlier this year, the Boston Police Department assigned a new detective, Matthew Fogarty, to the case. On Nov. 28, the 25th anniversary of Hester’s death, the department renewed its request for information from the public about her murder.
“Rita’s murder shook the LGBTQ+ community,” the Boston Police Department said in a media statement. “The Boston Police Unsolved Homicide Unit is actively reviewing the facts and circumstances surrounding this murder.”
The police statement includes Hester’s deadname, the name she was assigned at birth before transitioning. LGBTQ+ media organizations and advocates have largely condemned the practice of deadnaming transgender people as dehumanizing.
In an additional comment to GBH and The 19th, police spokesperson John Boyle strongly encouraged anyone with information to reach out to Boston Police.
“We never lose interest and we never forget cases,” Boyle said. “That’s why we don’t call them cold cases.”
Transgender health advocate Chastity Bowick organized Boston’s Transgender Day of Remembrance event this year. She said solving Hester’s murder is critical to preventing future violence against her community.
“If they're solving her case from 1998, then that means that when something happens to us in 2023, 2024 — well, then maybe they will take it seriously,” Bowick said at this year’s vigil.
Less than half of all murders with transgender victims are solved, a significantly lower rate than the national average, according to researcher Brendan Lantz, an assistant professor in the college of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University.
“We see on average that the clearance rates are lower among trans homicide victims relative to other homicides,” Lantz said. “It’s still markedly different from our national estimates.”
The average clearance rate for murders with transgender victims from 2010 through 2020 was about 48%, according to Lantz’s research. The national average murder clearance for that same time period was roughly 62%, according to uniform crime reports from the FBI.
The disparity is even greater in cases where police have deadnamed or misgendered victims, according to Lantz’s research.
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“In the instances where the preferred name isn't used, you're less likely to see clearance,” he said. “That’s a police efficacy issue … if you're not using the right information, you're probably not investigating these as well as you could be.”
LGBTQ+ people are four times more likely to experience violence than their cisgender peers, according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
It's hard to say if things have gotten better since Hester's death in 1998, because these murders were then — and still continue to be — underreported. But the past few years have shown trans people being killed in record numbers, including more than 300 in violent incidents this year worldwide.
For Black trans women, like Hester and Bowick, the risks are even higher.
Hester’s sister Diana Hester said her family waited years for justice and asked for updates, only to be met with silence from police. Diana attributes that to the fact that her sister was Black, transgender and poor.
“They haven't really done anything,” Diana said. “With 25 years coming up, there's been absolutely nothing, and if there wasn't a damn remembrance, it still would have been the same thing.”
Boyle declined to respond to questions about the initial handling of the case or whether officers and detectives have communicated regularly with family members.
Hester was just 34 when she was stabbed 20 times in herfirst-floor apartment. A neighbor reported hearing an altercation and calling police. More than an hour passed between paramedics' arrival to the scene and Hester’s transport to Beth Israel Hospital, where she died of cardiac arrest.
Friends and family suspect Hester knew her killer or killers, because the apartment showed no signs of a break-in.
The murder shocked local transgender advocates. It came just weeks after the brutal killing of White gay college student Matthew Shepard, whose death outside of Laramie, Wyoming, drew national attention. Hester, however, was misgendered in death, even by Boston’s LGBTQ+ newspapers.
The disparity in reactions to the Shepard case and Hester’s murder infuriated transgender advocates. Shepard’s suspected killers were arrested within days of his murder, which eventually inspired a national anti-hate crime law. That stood in stark contrast to the aftermath of Hester’s murder.
Police didn’t go in person to tell Kathleen her daughter had been murdered. Kathleen was alone when she got the phone call. Diana rushed over to comfort her sobbing mother. She also accompanied Kathleen to Rita’s apartment to get her belongings a few days later.
Hester’s family and her best friend, Brenda Wynne, were left to clean and sanitize her apartment, because police do not clean crime scenes and the family could not afford to pay for cleaners. They did their best to spare Kathleen.
“That was such a nightmare,” Wynne said. “Somebody had gone there earlier and had flipped the mattress on the blood and had hidden as much blood as possible. But we didn't hide it all, and the mother found a bloody sandal, and I remember her breaking down.”
During that cleaning, the Hesters found what they thought was an important piece of evidence.
“I don't remember what it was, because it's been so long ago,” Diana said. “And [police] said they took everything they needed to take out the house. We just don't feel like they felt they really needed to do a thorough investigation.”
Hester’s was not the first transgender murder to occur in Massachusetts in the late 1990s. Two months before her killing, Monique Thomas, another Black trans woman, was killed in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. Three years earlier, two other trans women — Chanelle Pickett and Debra Forte — were both killed in the state.
According to Nancy Nangeroni, a transgender activist who scrupulously documented Hester’s life and death, Hester hadonce expressed fear in Boston’s LGBTQ+ newspaper, the Newsweekly, about what would happen if Pickett’s killer didn’t face justice.
“I'm afraid of what will happen if he gets off lightly,”Hester told the paper. “It'll just give people a message that it's OK to do this. This is a message we cannot afford to send.”
For 20 Novembers, Kathleen, Diana and her family fielded calls from reporters and advocates about Rita, recalling her life and reliving her murder.
“I just felt at one point, it was just like every year, they will contact us around November 28,” Diana said. “Nobody really helped, and it was just us being there supporting everybody else that has been victims of this type of violence. We had to stop going [to Trans Day of Remembrance vigils].”
“I just felt at one point, it was just like every year, they will contact us around November 28. Nobody really helped, and it was just us being there supporting everybody else.”Diana Hester, sister of Rita Hester
The lack of resolution began to wear on Rita’s mother, Kathleen, as she aged.
“I felt for my mother over the years … just to see the look on her face,” Diana said. “It's devastating.”
Diana herself is tired. A few years ago, she stopped asking the police for updates.
Wynne rarely grants interviews anymore — she doesn’t like talking about her feelings and wonders if they do any good. She’s also been dealing with a lot of health issues.
“You know, it would have been nice to have Rita around the last 10 years of my life that everything's falling apart,” she said. “It pisses me off that someone just takes that away from me.”
But the next generation of Hester’s family is ready to step in and push for justice. Diana’s son, Taufiq Chowdhury, remembers his Aunt Rita fondly.
“Her energy was vibrant,” Chowdhury said. “You felt it when she entered a room.”
Chowdhury, who is gay, looked up to Hester as a child, and wonders what his life might have been like had he gotten to grow up knowing her past the age of 8.
Angela Smith, Rita’s niece, wonders the same thing. She is motivated to find out who killed her. She has been in touch with detectives and said she is willing to work on the case that has exhausted her family and that broke her grandmother’s heart.
“Things are so different nowadays where people are more accepting,” Smith said. “Hopefully, this new [detective] will probably invest in what actually matters. … I feel so much more can be done. I feel more people know things.”