A beloved trans woman was brutally murdered by her boyfriend. Her story reveals a nationwide problem

Katie Sullivan Borrelli and Anthony Borrelli
1 / 10

A beloved trans woman was brutally murdered by her boyfriend. Her story reveals a nationwide problem

The story behind New York murder victim Josie Berrios is one of domestic violence and life in the transgender community.

On the day they buried Josie, those who loved her best bathed her casket in a cascade of color.

They huddled together, dozens of her closest family and friends, wearing ponchos against the heavy rain, and tossed handfuls of multi-colored sugar on the wooden box. The colors swirled atop the water-slicked casket as family and friends traced hearts and messages in the residue.

A friend played the ukulele and sang "Over the Rainbow." The crowd joined in, singing young Dorothy Gale's song about longing for a happier place, about yearning in the face of reality.

In a word, Josie's mother said, it was beautiful.

No one word could describe the 28-year-old woman they buried that day in Greensprings Natural Cemetery, near Josie's home of Ithaca. Beautiful — certainly, in spirit most of all, those who knew Josie Berrios say. She was generous, compassionate, colorful, bigger-than-life. That casket? Josie's mother Judy said they wanted it "decked out like the diva she was." 

Josie, they say, exuded light — a light extinguished by her murder June 13, 2017, at the hands of her boyfriend, Michael Davis. The man and their volatile relationship had unnerved Josie's family, and the violence she suffered at his hands is horrifyingly familiar: More than half — 55%, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — of all female homicide victims in the United States are killed by an intimate partner.

Related Video: Ad Features Dad and Transgender Offspring

Because Josie was a transgender woman — murdered in the heart of a city that prides itself on inclusiveness and opportunity — her death also carried with it the specter of another horrifying truth: 54% of transgender people have experienced intimate partner violence.

More: Telling Josie Berrios' story: How her truth was shared

More: Josie Berrios' mother details the journey to transgender acceptance

And at the heart of it all is Josie, a vibrant young woman who, despite her cheerful personality, carried insecurities that triggered a pattern of toxic choices. Though largely hidden from all but those closest to her, they'd be revealed in subtle, but more apparent, ways after her death.

Her memory has brought others forward, emboldened by Josie to be themselves. It's rallied crowds at Take Back the Night events against domestic violence. And it's inspired Josie's mother to speak out about her daughter's life — and death  — in the hopes of preventing another brutal act of domestic violence.

Even now, two years after Josie's murder, Judy says she can feel her daughter urging her to share her story.

As a performer, Josie adopted the stage name Kimbella Rosé. To family and friends, she simply went by Josie. Among her future goals: to legally change her name to Kendra Adams.

More: 'Another angel in heaven': Notes for Josie Berrios honor her as kind, a transgender advocate

Just as there's no one word to describe Josie, there's no one name that fully captures who she was. That's important, her mother says. "None of the letters could ever contain how big she is."

Josie Berrios

► Telling Josie Berrios' story:How Josie Berrrios' truth was shared

Becoming Josie and 'bigger than life'

Somewhere over the rainbow

Way up high

There's a land that I heard of

Once in a lullaby

It's one year after Josie's murder, in which her boyfriend set fire to a construction site in Ithaca's Collegetown neighborhood.

Her mother, Judy, sits on an L-shaped couch in the living room of her Ithaca home. Her curly blond hair falls to her shoulders, and a large moonstone dangles from a chain around her neck. It's Josie's.

She looks to the doorway and smiles as she pictures her daughter there, striding in: Five-foot-11 before slipping on five-inch heels, decked out in a spaghetti-strap top and jeans and colorful layers of makeup, shouting "Hi, Mom!" on her way inside. 

Friends, family and members of the Ithaca community wrote post-it note messages to Josie Berrios at the vigil held to honor her in June 2017. Throughout this story, you'll see illustrations sampling those messages to Berrios.

There was no ignoring Josie when she entered a room.

"She was so bigger than life," Judy said. 

That's part of what she and so many others loved about Josie, that wild energy, ever-present smile and infectious laughter she'd had since she was a child.

Josie, right, with her sister, Gigi, on a train ride.

Josie, who was assigned as male when she was born on April 28, 1989, and given a masculine name, was 4 when Judy and her husband, Marlon Berrios, who is Josie's biological uncle and whose family hails from Puerto Rico, adopted her. They were 20 and 21, respectively, living with Judy's mother and with no children of their own.

That would change in the years to come, as the Berrios family moved to a new home a few miles west of downtown Ithaca and welcomed into it Josie's younger sister, Gigi; Judy and Marlon's son, Chantz; and their daughter, Raylin.

More: A beloved trans woman was brutally murdered by her boyfriend. Her story reveals a nationwide problem

Josie, their eldest, always dressed to a "T," in button-up shirts or crewneck sweaters. She was a creative child, fashioning dresses from pencils and paper napkins, and doing "every craft in the world you can think of" with Judy.

As young parents, Judy and Marlon weren't sure what to make of it when Josie started asking for an Ariel doll from Disney's "The Little Mermaid" for Christmas. Judy asked herself, "Why am I going to make this kid feel like she's doing something wrong just because she wants to play with a doll?"

Josie's friends at Job Corps helped her get ready for a dance when she was 16.

At Caroline Elementary School, situated on a rural stretch of Route 79 in the Town of Caroline, Josie was picked on by some of the students for dressing up "like the mom" in a playhouse area of their classroom.

Josie was fun-loving, said her childhood best friend Ashley Austin, and antics were routine. Austin recalled racing Josie through the hallways in a wheelchair after she'd hurt her leg.  

"Her laugh was infectious," Austin said, "and her wild energy just radiated from her."

As a teen, Josie joined a theater group. She began wearing her hair longer in braids and resisted the obligation to wear suits for formal occasions. Many of her classmates at Lehman Alternative Community School liked her, Judy said, but she still seemed to "have a tough time with people."

Raising Josie wasn't always easy. She'd always had the attitude of the loud, fierce woman she grew up to be, and it sometimes got her into trouble. Judy sent her to counselors and therapy sessions, hoping it would help.

As a 16-year-old, she dressed smartly in a black-and-white suit for a family wedding, then made a firm, true statement to her loved ones: "This is the last time you will see me in a suit and tie."

Josie didn't care what anyone thought about her, Marlon recalled, and she knew who she wanted to be.

That was also the year Josie was sent to train with Job Corps in Oneonta, a career education program administered through the U.S. Department of Labor. 

Judy Berrios says she's always wondered whether that was the right choice, but of one thing she's certain: It gave her daughter the space to become who she wanted to be.

"She was able to transition out of town" and return fully expressing and embracing her female identity. 

Returning to Ithaca as an 18-year-old, this ball of energy with a sharp tongue, a fierce attitude and a big dream — to attend cosmetology school — introduced herself as Josie to the world.

It was 10 years before the world would lose her.

Michael Davis, Josie and a pattern of abuse

In 2017, Josie was entangled in a tenuous relationship with a 45-year-old man named Michael Davis.

There were arguments. There were fights. And there were threats.

Josie wasn't happy in her relationship with Davis, her friend of 10 years told police. 

She'd seen them argue, and told police Josie went on "dates" with other men for money. Sometimes Davis would go with her; sometimes the "dates" made him angry, the friend said.

"They were always fighting," she told police, according to records.

Davis also carried a criminal record of three decades that spanned four New York state counties: 40 arrests since 1987, 26 convictions. 

When questioned by police, Davis' ex-wife had even said she was scared of him. She annulled their marriage after finding out he was already married to another woman.

As police recounted after interviewing her: "Davis told her that he had done things and not gotten caught. One of these things was to burn down a house."

Since May 19, 2008, Ithaca police had been investigating a fatal fire at 506 W. Clinton St., which killed 29-year-old Michelle Morey in the burning residence.

Ithaca firefighters found Morey dead on the second floor of the side-by-side, two-story duplex. Davis had been associated with people who lived in that house, including Morey, police learned nine years later.

Morey died of smoke inhalation, but authorities weren't able to determine the cause of the fire. The investigation of Josie's homicide yielded for police some leads to suggest Davis might have set the 2008 fire, according to police records, but he was never charged in that case.

According to police documents, Josie's friend told police Josie was afraid Davis was trying to kill her.

The week before her death, Josie had visited a friend staying at the Ithaca Meadow Court Inn and discussed her troubled relationship with Davis. 

One night, Josie told her friend, she suspected he had spiked her drink and stolen $500 from her. She didn't hear from him for three months.

Then, improbably, they reconnected.

Josie's friend advised her to escape the relationship.

Josie told her: "(It's) hard to walk away from someone you love."

On June 12, 2017, Davis had a different message for one of his own friends, according to police.

He was "sick of Josie," he said. And he had to get rid of her.

'As a transgender person, she had increased risk'

 

Somewhere over the rainbow

Skies are blue

And the dreams that you dare to dream

Really do come true

 

"There are some ways in which (Josie's) story is categorized as partly about her gender identity, and in some ways her story is very similar to many other women," said Luca Maurer, the director of Ithaca College's Center for LGBTQ Education, Outreach and Services. "Josie experienced this because she is a woman. And as a transgender person, she had increased risk."

In 2017, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported 27 transgender and gender non-conforming people were killed in the United States. Josie was one of the 22 transgender women of color.

Even in Ithaca, home to movers in LGBTQ history such as HIV/AIDS activist Cleve Thomas and musician Julius Eastman, and where a peer-led transgender support group has existed since 1995, Josie at times confided to her mother that she struggled to feel accepted as a transgender woman.

Josie's parents never heard the word "transgender" when their daughter was growing up. Neither had Josie. Today, her father Marlon Berrios notes, television has broadened its scope to include LGBTQ characters, even in children's programming. 

Josie didn't have that. She had no point of reference, no one to whom she thought she could relate.

"She didn't have any friends like her," Josie's aunt Jody Lawrence said. "Not a single one."

In its fourth season for 2018-19, CW's "Supergirl" debuted its first transgender character, Nia Nal, played by transgender actress Nicole Maines. The character is also a superhero called Dreamer, a crime fighter dressed in a shiny silver and blue suit who boasts seemingly magic powers rooted in dreams and is also adept at hand-to-hand combat.

"Imagine," Jody said, "if Josie had someone like that on TV growing up."

An estimated 0.6% of adults, about 1.4 million, identify as transgender in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

In a 2015 National Center for Transgender Equality survey, respondents' unemployment rate was three times that of the national average, 29% of respondents were living in poverty, and 30% experienced homelessness at some point in their lifetime.

Josie had been taking steps to combat those statistics.

After she graduated from Job Corps, certified in data processing, Josie moved back and forth between Ithaca and New York City. In the city, she hoped to find the acceptance as a transgender woman she longed for in her hometown. 

Instead, as much as her family can surmise, she found toxic influences that pushed her toward drug use, embittered her relationships and led her to a boyfriend who, much like her killer, Michael Davis, had a sordid criminal history.

Josie was working toward dreams just out of reach

She came home to start anew.

But it's tough, Judy says, to build yourself up when you're surrounded by people bringing you down.

Friends, family and members of the Ithaca community wrote post-it note messages to Josie Berrios at the vigil held to honor her in June 2017. Throughout this story, you'll see illustrations sampling those messages to Berrios.

In 2017, Josie was sharing an apartment on Ringwood Road in Dryden, about seven miles from Ithaca. She didn't have a driver's license and had bounced around part-time jobs at Piercing Pagoda, Bath & Body Works and Dunkin Donuts.

Some nights, she couch surfed instead of finding a ride home.

Josie Berrios, right, was "bigger than life" her loved ones say.

Josie was a frequent stage presence at The Range bar in Ithaca with the House of Merlot drag performance group she helped found. 

Though Josie was a woman, not a man dressing as a woman as many other performers were, performing gave her an opportunity to step outside the typical dress code of everyday life. On stage she could be bold, putting on extra makeup and dressing up in fun costumes.

She had solid plans, detailed dreams: to legally change her name to Kendra Adams and get her driver's license, then to apply for cosmetology school and become a licensed professional.

Something always seemed to get in the way. 

She had no transportation to the Rochester cosmetology school, she fell behind in the paperwork, and there were constantly more immediate needs for the money she and Judy had set aside.

"(Transgender people) need opportunities," Maurer said, "and in my mind, those opportunities are things many transgender people face barriers to: public employment, education, easy ability to obtain identity documents. It's not because of you and your identity; it's because of the conditions around you."

When Josie met Davis, her sister, Gigi Berrios, took stock of his age, his cryptic past and his unsettling behavior. She distrusted him immediately.

"Something wasn't right," Gigi said. "His vibe was like he wasn't right in the head. You could tell by the way he stood; something wasn't right about him."

At her most fearful, Josie's mother worried something terrible could happen. On June 13, 2017, her nightmare came true.

"That's one 'I told you so' a mother should never have to say," she said.

Becoming a positive force in the LGBTQ community

 


Someday I'll wish upon a star

And wake up where the clouds are far behind me

Where troubles melt like lemon drops

Away above the chimney tops

That's where you'll find me

 

After Josie's murder, some 300 people gathered in the dregs of a torrential downpour on the Ithaca Commons to celebrate her life.

They wrote messages by the dozen on multi-colored Post-Its, sharing their memories and their grief.

"She always made me smile when I was down."

"She was the sunshine and center of every room."

"She made everyone feel so welcome."

"Just being there amongst so many people from so many aspects of her life that cut across all areas and experiences in the community, was really just amazing," Maurer said, "and really was a testament to how many lives she touched."

Until then, Judy hadn't realized what a positive force Josie had been for so many. She'd been a shoulder to cry on, a smile lifting them up, a fierce protector.

"I got the broken one," her mother said. "I got the vulnerable one, the one that needed assistance, the one that needed guidance and the one that could feel like she could talk to me about her woes."

Josie's community was diverse: They were her classmates growing up, the neighborhood families who'd always known hers, her coworkers at various jobs, and her fellow performers with House of Merlot.

Kimbella Rosé, the name Josie used on stage, was a commanding, energetic presence during her performances. 

She was confident in herself and took the time to spark that confidence in other performers, as House of Merlot founders recalled in a memorial Facebook post: "A proud trans woman of color, she always tried her best to make new performers feel comfortable in our spaces. She recognized the realness in all of us without question and made us feel beautiful."

A photo of Josie Berrios, whose stage name was Kimbella Rosé, was placed in front of the stage during a drag show held in Josie’s memory June 22, 2017.

That was typical of Josie, her childhood friend Ashley Austin says: "She would stand up to anyone for anybody."

Josie and Austin attended different schools after they finished fifth grade, but Josie wasn't an easy person to forget.

"What I will always remember most about Josie was how loving, sassy, vivacious and kind she was," Austin said. "She was a beautiful and caring friend."

When it came to defending her friends, Josie was steel.

Soon after the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando in 2016, Josie's friend Vanessa Taylor, who is also a transgender woman, accompanied her to an Ithaca bar where an event was being held to commemorate the victims. 

When Taylor had to use the bathroom, Josie offered to go with her. Heading toward the women’s room, Taylor recalled, two drunk college-aged young men "started giving me garbage."

Before Taylor said anything, Josie stepped in and fired back: “She’s going in the ladies' room and you’re not going to have a problem with it — are you?”

A painting honoring the life of slain Ithaca resident Josie Berrios. A trans woman, Berrios was a well-known Ithaca performer who was murdered in June 2017.

The hecklers, visibly flinching upon being confronted, fell silent. 

"I think that because Josie had a tough life, she tended to champion the underdogs a little bit and people that maybe didn’t fit with the norm," recalled Taylor.

Josie never outright told Taylor she'd faced challenges in life, but Taylor had her suspicions.

"Life," Josie had told her, "doesn’t always give you sunshine, lollipops and rainbows."

What happened the night Josie died

Davis' guilty plea in Tompkins County Court to second-degree murder in 2018 left little chance that any explanation for why he committed this crime would ever come to light.

But law enforcement officials learned the story during their investigation. Davis walked them through his version of that night when they questioned him after Josie's death.

Josie had helped land Davis his night job as the "fire guard" at a Collegetown building on Dryden Road that was under construction, he told two investigators at New York State Police barracks in Dryden.

Josie Berrios, right, and Michael Davis, left, seen on surveillance video at Wal-Mart in Ithaca the night of June 12, 2017, in the hours before Josie Berrios was murdered.

But after just two nights of working, he was already in trouble. There had been complaints the "fire guard" was nowhere to be found on site, according to police reports.

The complaints were enough to bring Davis’ boss, Maurice Hamm, to Ithaca and take selfies of himself and Davis — just to prove Davis was at work.

The night of June 12, 2017 — hours before Josie died — Davis and Josie showed up at the site together around 6; Davis grabbed a newspaper and did his rounds, then they left to make stops at Walmart and Wegmans.

While at Wegmans, Josie’s cellphone was flooded with messages from Hamm asking where they’d gone. Davis and Josie caught a bus to get back to the site quickly.

With Davis back at work, Hamm and Josie stopped by a 7 Eleven on College Avenue around 10:16 for snacks, and Josie went back inside 10 minutes later to buy some cigars. Together, they walked back toward the building.

Sometime after 11:30 p.m., Davis said, his boss texted Josie, told her Davis had been fired and Josie could have the job instead.

Davis told police he spent the next 90 or so minutes — the time in which Josie was killed — walking from the Collegetown site to East Hill Plaza.

Around 1 a.m., he said, he hitched a ride home.  

A passerby's account would refute that: The witness had seen Davis walking on Ellis Hollow Road around 5:45 that morning.

One of Davis’ housemates, Joy Gray, was awakened by Davis entering the house sometime between 6 and 8, after sunrise.

Gray met Davis in the kitchen.

He told her he’d "caught another body," she told police.

He said Gray "would not have to worry about Josie stealing from (her) again" and that "he did something to the body that would make it hard to identify," Gray told a Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office investigator.

If police turned up at their door, Davis said, Gray was to say they had been together between 1 and 1:30 that morning.

Hamm, he claimed, was the last person Josie had been with — at the 7 Eleven. Davis wanted to drive to his other apartment in Enfield for a while to avoid contact with police.

But once authorities caught up with Davis late on the morning of June 13, he texted his Adult Protective Services worker: "I think this has to do with one of Josie’s tricks," and "I am starting to think this is a set up and I am getting agitated."

The APS worker told Davis to “stay calm,” assuring him, "You did nothing wrong."

But by then, police had already started building their case in the murder of Josie Berrios. 

How police found the crime scene

Along with his boss, the general foreman of the construction job on Dryden Road had just returned from breakfast on June 13, 2017, when they heard about the fire on the sixth floor of the building.

A worker had been installing an electrical box in an office space when he noticed a burned, circular pattern on the carpet at the base of a charred door.

The door was locked.

A crime scene investigation photo of the doorway leading to the office where Josie Berrios was killed in an intentionally set fire in June 2017 at a Collegetown building in Ithaca.

The foreman arrived and, peering through the soot-stained glass, made out the shape of a body under a table. 

The workers kicked in the door and dialed 911 as one of the workers checked the body for signs of life.

As the investigation unfolded, the fire was ruled arson. Josie's body was taken to the Onondaga County Medical Examiner’s Office for an autopsy conducted on June 14, 2017.

She died from smoke inhalation and burns caused by the intentionally set fire, according to the medical examiner. Her death was declared a homicide.

At the crime scene, investigators found a gallon can of Tru Fuel 50:1 2 cycle gasoline and something else: Davis' duffel bag.

Surveillance video from earlier that night showed him in uniform carrying the bag, then showed him leaving the area without the bag and no uniform.

During a search of Davis' home, police found a plastic shopping bag with corduroy pants and a T-shirt. Both smelled like petroleum. 

Investigators believed they'd linked Davis to Josie's murder. Less than 24 hours after the crime, he was arrested.

The light and legacy Josie left behind

On the surface, Josie's murder seemed to carry all the trappings of a hate crime: a victim who identified as a transgender woman of color had been slain in horrific fashion.

Despite the public's initial perception, the Tompkins County District Attorney's Office determined there was no evidence that hate was the motive in Josie's homicide.

The true motive was clear, prosecutors maintained: domestic violence. 

"Josie's life was not tragically taken from her by anything she did or did not do," said Andrew Bonavia, the deputy district attorney who led Davis' prosecution. "As was the case here, the only person responsible for domestic violence, in whatever form, is the abuser."

Friends, family and members of the Ithaca community wrote post-it note messages to Josie Berrios at the vigil held to honor her in June 2017. Throughout this story, you'll see illustrations sampling those messages to Berrios.

Josie's family agrees, and they hope the community takes the true story to heart. 

What truly matters, Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten said after Davis was sentenced in March 2018 to the maximum penalty of 25 years to life in prison, is that Josie "was loved and she was wanted."

"She was a bright light in our community who helped countless people with her positive energy, confidence and courage," Van Houten said. "She will never be forgotten."

In the time since her daughter's death, Judy says she's let Josie's energy direct her actions: sprinkling colored sugar on Josie's casket at her funeral; agreeing to speaking engagements like Take Back the Night, an event challenging domestic violence; and telling her daughter's story.

"I have this belief like, 'I need to speak for her,'" she said. "She wants me to tell her story; she wants me to be her voice."

In her Take Back the Night speech, Judy compared Josie and her killer. Both faced hardships in life, but Josie's memory is one of love, of standing up for people, of being their friend. 

She shared a Native American parable with the crowd, about a grandfather discussing an internal fight of two wolves — one good, one evil — inside of him. When the grandson asked which would win, the grandfather replied, "The one you feed."

"We can simplify this," Judy said, "Love or hate? Which will you choose to feed? ... Josie chose love. She loved and accepted everyone. So, I say choose love. Because together, with love, we can dismantle the systems that have broken our hearts."

Over the rainbow

 

Somewhere over the rainbow

Bluebirds fly


Birds fly over the rainbow

Why, then, oh why, can't I?

 

On the day of Josie's funeral, in the pouring rain, Pastor Shirley Reeves placed a cross made of flowers atop the casket, prompting the mourners to then add single-stem flowers of their own, one atop the next. 

"She would've loved it," Judy said.

The final strains of "Over the Rainbow" played as the crowd sang along.

At Josie Berrios' funeral, friends and family drew messages and pictures in colored sugar on top of her casket.

In the "Wizard of Oz," just before Dorothy begins to sing the iconic song, she wonders wistfully: "Someplace where there isn't any trouble ... do you suppose there is such a place, Toto? There must be. It's not a place you can get to by a boat or train. It's far, far away ... behind the moon ... beyond the rain."

Josie's mother says her daughter always carried with her a bright energy, but since her death, Judy believes that energy has manifested itself in powerful ways. 

Two years ago, those who loved Josie best bathed her casket in a cascade of color, sang their farewell, then lowered her body to its final resting place.

As they did, the rain abruptly stopped.

This article originally appeared on Ithaca Journal: A beloved trans woman was brutally murdered by her boyfriend. Her story reveals a nationwide problem