'Everybody knew Rita': Decades later, still no answers in slaying of Black trans woman

Editor's note: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence and misgendering against a transgender person.

Rita Hester fought like hell. The story was written in blood.

The phone had been ripped from the wall. Half a shoe print — not Rita's — marked the bloody floor. The locks on the front and back doors had been left intact, leading neighbors and police to believe her killer had been invited in.

Police don't clean crime scenes. Families can hire specialized crime scene cleaners, but Hester's family didn't have the thousands of dollars that would cost. They walked into her first-floor apartment to find blood all over the walls and the floor. Hester had been stabbed 20 times.

“I kept telling her, I said, ‘Baby, just because you are the way you are, don’t be thinking you can go up into these straight clubs thinking you can just pick up anybody.’”

Hester's siblings and her best friend, Brenda Wynne, cleaned the apartment themselves, trying to spare Hester's mother, Kathleen Hester, the sight.

"The mother was in the apartment as we were cleaning up," Wynne recalled. "Her mother found a bloody sandal."

The Hesters have been forced to relive these details for more than 20 years, because, by some stroke of fate, Rita Hester's death spurred the international movement Transgender Day of Remembrance. Every November since her death in 1998, reporters have called Hester's mother and sister Diana Hester to rehash the details and get updates on the case. And still, Hester's murder has never been solved.

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The Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual vigil for transgender homicide victims, has been instrumental in humanizing transgender people in the eyes of the media, the police and the wider public. For many in the trans community, the day is the only annual gathering they have.

And still, most transgender people can't tell you who Rita Hester was. Transgender history is rarely taught in schools, and trans issues remain largely underreported. Two decades after Hester's death, the U.S. is facing what advocates are calling an epidemic of anti-trans violence.

This year is on pace to be the deadliest for trans people since advocacy organizations like the Human Rights Campaign started tracking transgender homicides in 2013. Last year, the campaign tracked 27 transgender deaths due to violence. Just over halfway through the year, 2020 has already had 21 violent transgender deaths, according to the campaign. Black trans women, like Hester, still make up an overwhelming number of the victims. Like Hester, their lives are often distilled into headlines and then lost.

Hester was killed on Nov. 28, 1998, in Boston. Little has been reported on her life. Her mother, now 82 and ailing, faces the prospect of dying without ever knowing why her daughter was targeted other than the frustratingly obvious: She was trans and Black and beautiful.

'Everybody knew Rita'

Hester was born Nov. 30, 1963. She grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, one of five kids. There was never a time in her life when Hester wasn't "Rita," according to her younger sister, Diana. As far as Diana can recall, her big sister didn't have a particular "coming out" as trans moment.

"I kind of always knew, just the very feminine ways that she was and everything," she said, adding that her family embraced her sister's transition.

"My entire family, you know, even my nieces and nephew, everybody knew Rita," she added. "It was very receptive. Was no issue whatsoever. You know, it was fine."

Image: Rita Hester (Courtesy of John Freda)
Image: Rita Hester (Courtesy of John Freda)

Hester's mom, Kathleen, and some other relatives still often use masculine pronouns and a male birth name when talking about Hester, as if, even 22 years later, that part of their minds hasn't transitioned. It's hard to conclude that this is an outright denial of Hester's womanhood. After Hester's murder, her mother campaigned for justice alongside her daughter's transgender friends. Kathleen Hester is quoted in news articles during that time using the name Rita to refer to her child.

If anything, the old name and pronouns feel like the byproduct of a family cut off from their transgender loved one in the '90s, before pronouns became a barometer of respect for trans life. It's unclear what boundaries Hester set for her family before her death.

Hester didn't find as loving a welcome in the larger Hartford community, according to her sister.

"In Hartford, people got assaulted and got hurt and all the other stuff, but Rita had friends initially in Boston and started going to Boston," Diana Hester said. In her early 20s, Rita made the move permanent. In Boston, she could also her make gender transition permanent.

Hester found community in unlikely places for a Black trans woman in the '90s in Boston, according to friends. She was deeply embedded in the city's rock scene and hung out in her neighborhood's straight bars.

Hester lived large and loved big, friends said. She frequently traveled to Greece for vacation and kept a cat and a boa constrictor as pets. She left her house in disarray. She and her friend Brenda Wynne were always making a racket in Hester's first-floor apartment on Park Vale Avenue in Boston's Allston neighborhood, Wynne said. The two were constantly laughing and gossiping and cooking.

"I ordered a large pizza, and I came out, and she ate the whole pizza on me," Wynne recalled, laughing. "And then we went out to eat, and she wouldn't let me try one oyster. ... But yeah, she would eat you out of house and home."

Hester spent a good deal of time at Jaques, a gay bar known for its drag shows. Johnny Freda, who has tended bar there since 1973, remembers her well.

"She was a happy person," Freda said. "She would get up and dance. ... She was out for good times."

But friends at Jacques also worried that their beautiful, undaunted friend might end up in trouble.

Image: Melina Wilson (Kate Sosin / for NBC News)
Image: Melina Wilson (Kate Sosin / for NBC News)

Melinda Wilson, a fixture of Boston's trans community, said Rita's habits made her nervous.

"Our life is difficult, it really is," Wilson said of being a Black trans woman in Boston. "Our lifestyle is dangerous, to tell you the truth."

She wondered whether Hester was too casual about the freedoms the city offered. Rita had a magnetic presence, friends said. It was hard to imagine anyone disliking her. And her natural beauty granted her some privileges that many trans people just didn't have.

"I kept telling her, I said, 'Baby, just because you are the way you are, don't be thinking you can go up into these straight clubs thinking you can just pick up anybody,'" Wilson said.

Hester did find close friends in straight clubs. She met Wynne on one of Wynne's first bartending shifts in 1990 at Bunratty's in Allston. Back then, Bunratty's was a haven for artists and rockers, the exact type of place where Hester would hang out. The bar was also just a three-minute walk from Hester's apartment.

"I see her street was blocked with cops, and I'm like, 'What happened?' and I have a bad feeling."

When Hester walked into Bunratty's the day she and Wynne met, some of the regulars started snickering.

"I go down, and I give them attitude and give her a welcome and ask what she wanted — and, of course, she ordered a mudslide," Wynne said, laughing.

It was a few months before the two ran into each other again. After that, Wynne said, they were practically inseparable.

Wynne is white and cisgender. She has bright red hair. Rita was her first transgender friend, but that didn't matter, Wynne said.

"You meet your best friend in life, and as soon as you meet them, it's like you've known them your whole life, and you just hang out," she said. "It's very normal and comfortable that we had that, like, right away. It was nice."

The two were so close that Hester spent Thanksgiving with Wynne and her family on Nov. 26, 1998. It was the first time Hester hadn't gone home for Thanksgiving and the last time she would celebrate the holiday.

Nov. 28, 1998

Local police called Kathleen Hester at her home in Manchester, Connecticut, late on the evening of Nov. 28, 1998, two days before Rita Hester's 35th birthday. They told her that the Boston Police Department had called with some bad news.

Diana Hester said: "She was home alone at the time, and basically, they just called and told her that her son was murdered. Nobody came to the home or anything."

Diana Hester had come back from a concert. It was well past 10 p.m., and her son, Taufiq, then 7, was already asleep. She was standing in the bathroom when her husband told her that her mom was on the phone.

"I just heard her screaming, and I couldn't really make out what she was saying," she recalled.

She rushed to her mother's house, 15 minutes up the road, to console her.

Related: Memphis-based My Sistah's House is one of several trans-run groups working to create long-term housing solutions for Black trans people in the South.

At Wynne's apartment in Allston, the TV flickered as she slept. Hester had been due hours earlier to watch figure skating competitions, but she never showed. The two had spent that Saturday morning playing racquetball. Hester left Wynne's house around noon.

At 4 p.m., Hester called a friend, another trans woman who lived in Allston. Hester told the friend — who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she has feared for her life since Hester was killed — that she was headed to the Silhouette Lounge, a dive bar just around the corner from her apartment. The friend took a nap before heading over to meet Hester shortly after 7 p.m.

"I walk to the Silhouette, and I see her street was blocked with cops, and I'm like, 'What happened?' and I have a bad feeling," the friend recalled.

When Hester didn't return to Wynne's apartment that night, she assumed Hester had met a guy at Silhouette and just forgot to call her to cancel. That happened sometimes, according to Wynne, who said she went to bed without giving it a second thought.

Officers responded to a call about a fight at Rita's address at 6:12 p.m. on Nov. 28 and were dispatched 7 minutes later, according to a Boston Police Department report. When they found Hester, she was still alive on the floor. She had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest. More than an hour passed between the time police were dispatched and an ambulance took her to Beth Israel Hospital, where she died of cardiac arrest.

A next-door neighbor would later tell the Hesters that she had called police. "They took a long time to enter the apartment when the back door was opened," Diana Hester said the neighbor told her.

The police report listed Rita Hester as a male by the name of "John Doe."

The makings of a movement

In October 1998, just weeks before Hester was killed, another anti-LGBTQ murder rocked the nation. A gay white college student, Matthew Shepard, was fatally beaten and tortured in Laramie, Wyoming. The heinousness of Shepard's murder catalyzed a mainstream movement against homophobic violence.

Still, for many transgender people in Massachusetts, such crimes were all too familiar. In November 1995, Chanelle Pickett, a Black trans woman, was strangled to death in Watertown, 10 miles west of Boston. The same year, Debra Forte was stabbed to death in Haverhill, which sits on the New Hampshire border. And in September 1998, just two months before Hester's death, Monique Thomas, another Black trans woman, was killed in Dorchester, just south of Boston. Forte's and Thomas' killers were convicted of murder.

According to Nancy Nangeroni, a transgender activist who carefully documented Hester's death at the time, Hester had once remarked to a local paper, In Newsweekly, that she hoped Pickett's killer, William Palmer, would 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."

In 1997, Palmer's attorney used the "trans panic defense," and Palmer was acquitted of murder. The lawyer argued that Palmer's homicidal reaction was justified because he discovered during sex that Pickett was transgender. Palmer was convicted of assault and battery and served two years.

Three years and eight days after Pickett's murder, Hester was slain.

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On Dec. 3, 1998, Bay Windows, an LGBTQ newspaper in Boston, reported that a "transgender man" had been killed in the city. The story misgendered Hester throughout and put her first name in quotes, like it was a nickname.

Mainstream newspapers like the Boston Herald and The Boston Globe — the latter referring to Hester in 1998 as "a man who sported long braids and preferred women's clothes" — had long been misgendering trans people, but that LGBTQ media actively refused to correct their coverage proved to be the breaking point, said Gunner Scott, former executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Action Coalition.

"The worst part was the gay community ... in contrast to how Matthew Shepard was kind of uplifted, and that has continued to this day," Scott said.

Another Bay Windows article from Dec. 10, 1998, referred to Hester as a slain "Allston man" and used her former name, even after Kathleen Hester was quoted in the article using the name Rita. Subsequent articles in Bay Windows detail the discontent of transgender people over the paper's coverage while continuing to misgender Hester. Jeff Epperly, the paper's editor at the time, refused to change course.

"I had the lofty goal of defending journalistic independence," Epperly said recently of his thinking at the time. "Rita may have been killed because she was a man who lived as a woman. Therefore I insisted that her status as what I saw as a man living as a woman was germane to the story."

Epperly said he stuck at the time to The Associated Press Stylebook — a widely used guide followed by newspapers across the country, which then recommended that reporters use only a trans person's new name and pronouns if they had undergone gender confirmation surgery — because he wanted the paper to hold up against mainstream outlets and win awards. He now calls the decision "indefensible."

Days after Hester's death, 50 transgender people and allies marched from the Boston Herald headquarters to Bay Windows' offices to protest. By the time they got to their destination, everyone had gone home except for a young sales associate named Sue O'Connell.

"I felt it was important that if they were going to protest that they actually see someone from the paper there," said O'Connell, who has since become Bay Windows' co-publisher. "It was a large crowd, and they were very, very angry."

The same year, inspired by Hester's murder, Gwendolyn Ann Smith created a web project called Remembering Our Dead to honor transgender homicide victims. The following year, she founded the Transgender Day of Remembrance and planned marches to honor the victims in Boston and San Francisco.

"When the Transgender Day of Remembrance first began, trans people were nameless victims in many cases," Smith wrote in 2014 in The Advocate. "Our killers would do their best to erase our existence from the world. And law enforcement, the media and others would continue the job."

"We don't like the connotation of 'cold.' We call it 'unsolved.'"

Leading the charge against the media's misgendering trans people at that time was transgender activist Nancy Nangeroni, who scaled down her hours as an electrical engineer to advocate for justice for trans homicide victims on her website and radio program, GenderTalk. In 2000, to mark the second anniversary of Hester's death, Nangeroni interviewed Kathleen and Diana Hester on GenderTalk. Kathleen Hester sounds like she's crying throughout.

During the interview, Kathleen Hester recalled when she was very ill after having been diagnosed with diabetes and Rita held her and told her she needed to get better.

"Ma, please take your medicine and take care of yourself, because I want you to be here a long time with me," Rita Hester said, according to her mother.

At one point, Nangeroni asked whether there was anything the trans community could do for the Hesters. Kathleen Hester encouraged listeners to donate to increase to $5,000 the reward being offered for information leading to an arrest in her daughter's murder.

"Since this has happened ... the police don't seem to be doing anything at all," Kathleen Hester said in the interview. She gave out her phone number and urged anyone with information on her daughter's killing to call her.

Diana Hester said at the time: "Basically, what the Boston Police Department has stated is this is a cold case now. They're not really diligently working on it at this point."

A legacy cemented, a name lost

Not much changes in places like the Satellite Bar and Lounge in Allston. Popcorn from the machine is always free. The photos stuck to the walls reflect a kind of familial commitment from customers. This is the Cheers of Allston. The student crowd turns over; the regulars just age. A missing face goes noticed, even two decades later.

Rita Hester used to sit here.

It's a Friday night at the end of November, and the student crowd is monopolizing the pool tables. But if you ask, about every third person remembers Hester. Kate Noonan lifts her arm from the honey-colored bar.

The name "RITA" has been scrawled on her right forearm in pink marker and pen, faded by three days of wear.

Image: Kate Noonan's arm reads 'Rita.' (Kate Sosin / for NBC News)
Image: Kate Noonan's arm reads 'Rita.' (Kate Sosin / for NBC News)

It took more than 20 years for Noonan to discover that her friend's death had inspired the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

"I looked it up online, and it was just right there," she said. "I was floored."

Noonan wrote down Hester's name, over and over, like it was at risk of being lost. And maybe it is. Her murder, just around the corner from the Satellite Bar, is decades in the past. This was the last place she was seen alive. And then, barely any more information.

Neighbors told Diana Hester that they saw two white men leave Hester's building just after 6 o'clock the night of her death.

For years, Hester had a white, blond boyfriend named Bobby, according to friends and family. No one can seem to remember his last name. While Bobby was "her main guy," Wynne said, "she had others, some sugar daddies, some just for fun." Wynne isn't sure what kind of arrangement Hester had with Bobby or whether the two were exclusive because Hester was very private about her dating life.

Diana Hester said she told the police about Bobby. After Rita died, no one saw him again.

"Her boyfriend just disappeared, baby," Wilson said. But then, he didn't seem to come out with her a lot to begin with.

A few weeks before her death, Hester went on vacation to Greece. Right before she left, she punched someone in the face at the Model Cafe, another Allston bar she frequented, according to the friend from the neighborhood who spoke anonymously.

Wynne said she vaguely recalled the incident. If anything, it was the kind of thing Rita would do to protect one of her friends, possibly even Wynne, she said. The Allston friend relayed the incident to police, too.

Both the friend and Wynne have another suspicion: A man (or men) who couldn't face his attraction to a trans woman came home with Hester and killed her in a fit of shame.

Related: C. Jay Smith, who's serving 25 years to life at San Quentin, could face 10 more years behind bars after she made a sex abuse complaint, her lawsuit says.

The night before her murder, Wynne and the friend said, Hester had met two guys at the Silhouette Lounge.

"She was hanging out with some Brazilian guys, supposedly," Wynne said, adding that the details were fuzzy because she wasn't there. She heard about the guys later from Rita's friends.

The other friend was with Rita that night. She said the guys were Australian, one young, one old. She recalled seeing them at the Silhouette the night before Rita's death.

"I always got a bad feeling about those guys. I don't know why," she said. "They looked really like they would carry knives or something ... and I mentioned it to the police."

Questioned multiple times about Hester's murder via email and phone, the Boston Police Department didn't give a statement to NBC News on the case for eight months. A request to see the initial police report on her death also took eight months.

Sgt. John Boyle, a police spokesman, declined to comment on specifics about the case, because the investigation is still active.

"We don't like the connotation of 'cold,'" he said. "We call it 'unsolved.'"

Boyle said an unsolved homicide unit continues to work the case, but he wouldn't let NBC News interview any of the detectives. He couldn't say how many other cases the unit was responsible for, but he added: "They don't give up on their cases. They work on them."

Last year, WBUR radio of Boston reported that the city was doubling the number of officers and criminologists assigned to unsolved murders by adding seven people to the unit. At the time, the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office reported that the city had 1,367 unsolved homicides.

Kathleen Hester, now in her 80s, is in failing health. These days, it's hard for her to sit through an interview. She fears dying without knowing who killed her daughter or why.

There are constant reminders. Birthdays tick by without Hester, who would have turned 57 this year. Diana Hester recently found some of her sister's clothing when cleaning out a closet.

Taufiq Chowdhury, Diana's son, grew up visiting Hester in Boston. He has since come out as gay. Today, he travels from Connecticut to Boston and wonders what it was like for Hester to come out and find safety and community on the streets he now frequents. Chowdhury said coming out to his family was stressful, even though they ultimately embraced him. He wonders what it would have been like if Hester had still been alive to serve as a queer role model.

"It would have been a completely different lifestyle. I think I'd probably be living in Boston today," he said. "You know, it would have been someone I could have looked up to."

Now, he goes to Transgender Day of Remembrance events to honor her.

Diana Hester said that for the first several years, she called the Boston Police Department all the time for updates on the case. In 2006, it announced that it was reopening the case. She never heard much after that, she said.

"And after a while I just, I really stopped calling."

Click here to listen to a radio feature about this story by Cristela Guerra of WBUR Boston.

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