The murder of Rita Hester launched the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). It is an annual vigil that takes place on Nov 20 for transgender homicide victims and their loved ones. That day, we honour the memory of the transgender people we lost due to senseless acts of anti-transgender violence.
Maybe the mainstream media is reporting more cases, maybe not. But I know that if they report, those cases are the tip of the iceberg. Too many do not get attention, too many are not solved.
The murder of the woman who launched this day, still has to be solved. So, let’s explore her case, see what we know, and get to know Rita. Her’s is the Case of the Month for March 2021.
A kindhearted, tall, talented, Black transgender woman, was stabbed 20 times on Nov. 28, 1998, in Boston, Massachusetts. Rita Hester was 34 years old. She was a beloved daughter, sister, and friend to many.
Rita Hester was born on Nov 30, 1963. She grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, and was one of five children. One of her siblings, Diana, is quoted in the papers saying that she always knew that Rita was her sister. And she added, that it never posed a problem or became an issue. It was just fine. In other words, Rita was embraced and accepted by her family for the person she was. But not everyone is accepting of transgender people and Rita, she just might have run in to those who were not.
When Rita was in her 20s, she moved from Hartford to Boston. According to the papers, she performed locally and I think, abroad. She sang, danced, and thoroughly enjoyed being on stage. Rita was seen in gay and straight bars. “She frequently traveled to Greece for vacation and kept a cat and a boa constrictor as pets.” Where were the pets on the night that she was murdered?
There were no signs of a forced entry, nothing was stolen from her apartment, and there were no suspects, just rumours. I wonder if the ‘no signs of forced entry’ only apply to the front door. What about windows or the back door? I read that the locks on the front and back doors were intact. Is that the same as they were ‘not forced?’ Because of the ‘intactness’ of those locks everyone thought that Rita had opened the door to her killer(s) but I wonder, what if they had a key?
In the few articles dedicated to her murder, I didn’t read anything about all the people who had a key to her apartment. Maybe nobody had a spare key, that is possible, however I like to check off boxes and this box remains open for me. Not accusing anyone but it must be considered.
According to the papers, there was blood everywhere. Whoever killed Rita Hester, must have gotten hurt because if you read what that crime scene looked like, you know she put up a hell of a fight. I have not read anything about defensive wounds, what kind of knife was used, and which stab wound was fatal. Did she die of exsanguination? Where any of the wounds inflicted post-mortem? Was any blood found that did not belong to Rita?
“The phone had been ripped from the wall. Half a shoe print — not Rita’s — marked the bloody floor.” Also, her mom “found a bloody sandal” after the apartment had been released by police. This calls for re-examination. Any prints on the phone? What kind of shoe made that print? Size? The bloody sandal, was that Rita’s? If not, it cries for re-examination and possible use of the M-Vac.
Reporting Rita’s Murder
I read that in the police reports Rita Hester was referred to as “a male by the name of “John Doe.” Sadly, the newspapers too didn’t realize that they were dealing with the murder of a human being.
News outlets like the Globe and the Herald called Rita “a transvestite.” To them, she was just “a man who sported long braids and preferred women’s clothes.” Of course, Rita’s body was scrutinized more than her wounds or the fact that she was murdered and that the murderer had not been caught. More attention was payed to her breasts and genitals too than to the discrepancies in reporting this case.
Discrepancies in reporting
If you check the website Find-A-Grave you will find this: “about 6:20 PM, a neighbor reported to police a disturbance at Rita’s residence. Upon arrival, they found her in cardiac arrest, having been stabbed multiple times. She was rushed to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, only to be declared dead after her arrival.”
Now compare that to this piece by NBC: “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.”
So, upon arrival from police Rita was either rushed to the hospital, or was left of the floor for more than an hour (between dispatch, arrival of police and ambulance) which is more than enough time for her to bleed to death.
It begs the question: could she have been saved if indeed she had been rushed to the ER?
Also, this muddles the exact cause of death: did she die of cardiac arrest, or did she bleed to death, or was she fatally stabbed and then bled to death? And where did she die? In the hospital, on her floor, or en route to the hospital? Why is there no clarity? That’s rhetorical.
Another point to make is of course the opened back door. It seems from the above quote that nobody checked that back door carefully. If it was open, then this could have been the killer(s) entry and/or exit point. They could have quietly surprising and overpowered Rita. So, trace evidence? Did the back door open into a garden, alley, what?
Rita and Brenda were best friends. From what I read, they met and it just clicked. In fact, Rita was supposed to go back to Brenda’s the night that she was murdered.
Rita and Brenda were going to watch figure skating on TV. Earlier that day, the friends had played racquetball. Rita left Brenda’s house around noon. At 4pm, Rita called a friend to go to a bar around the corner of her apartment at 7pm. Do we have the phone records? Were any other calls made? Did Rita use a cell phone? Were cell phone providers’ records checked to see if people of interest were in the vicinity around the time that Rita was attacked?
When Rita did not show up at Brenda’s, her friend assumed that Rita had just forgotten and went to bed. I did not read anywhere that the other friend indeed went to the bar around the corner at 7pm. We know that Rita never made it.
Neighbours mentioned to Diana 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.” Diana told police. After Rita’s murder, Bobby was never seen again. So, where and who is Bobby?
Who killed Rita?
Rita may have been killed by more than one person. She was tall, 6’2-6’3, and she was about 225-230 lbs. Her attacker(s) could have been a robber who saw an opportunity (the opened back door) or it could have been someone (plural is possible) she knew. Remember what the neighbours saw.
The number of stab wounds and the choice of weapon indicate a very personal attack. In contrast to a gun, you need to get up close to a person to stab them. A gun provides distance, literally and emotionally.
The murder weapon has not been found. It would be interesting to know more details of Rita’s injuries to see what type of knife could have made those wounds. Could the knife have come from Rita’s home e.g. a kitchen knife? Could she have been stabbed with a letter opener? Is a pocket knife a possibility?
What about the motive? Was it an old argument that flared up again? A robbery gone wrong? Did Rita keep cash in the house? Were her bank accounts accessed? Was it someone with a crush on Rita and not able to handle that they had feelings for a transgender person?
Current Case Status
Diana is quoted saying: “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.” In 2006, Boston Police re-opened the case but I have not read anything about any progress. I am hoping for testing of their evidence pieces with modern technology providing of course, that everything has been preserved.
Rita’s murder inspired Gwendolyn Ann Smith to launch a web project called Remembering Our Dead to honor transgender homicide victims. In 1999, she started the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) and planned marches to honor the victims in Boston and San Francisco.
According to HRC, “2020 has seen at least 37 transgender and gender non-conforming people violently killed, more than any other year since HRC began tracking this data in 2013. HRC has now tracked more than 200 deaths since 2013.”
So far, 2021 is not off to a good start as HRC reports that at least eight transgender or gender non-conforming people were fatally shot or killed. The exact number is most likely to be higher as these cases are underreported. Transgender women of color remain disproportionately impacted by violence. If you click on this page and scroll down to the bottom you will find links to HRC reports from previous years.
Some people are afraid that more reporting of transphobic violence can actually increase negative attention that can lead to yet more violence. However, less reporting turns the victims invisible.
The Gay/Trans Panic Defense
The American Bar Association describes the Gay/Trans Panic Defense as “a legal strategy which asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction, including murder.” It adds that “legally sanctioned discrimination against one’s sexual orientation and gender identity must cease.”
The LGBTQ+ “panic” defense has been banned in:
- California, 2014
- Illinois, 2017
- Rhode Island, 2018
- Nevada, 2019
- Connecticut, 2019
- Maine, 2019
- Hawaii, 2019
- New York, 2019
- New Jersey, 2020
- Washington, 2020
- Colorado, 2020
- District of Columbia, 2020
At the time of writing, Virginia is on track to join the list. A bill is heading to the Governor for his signature.
This form of ‘defense’ is a sleazy strategy to play on prejudicial feelings and to shame the victim. It poses the defendant as confronted with something that they could not possibly grasp, their whole world came crashing down, and then they acted out. Take note: that is not a defense, it is not even a cheap excuse. Please read more about that here on the ABA’s website.
If you click here you can find an interactive map with state by state information. I would also like to encourage you to click here to find a listing of all ABA events. Note that on March 10, the ABA hosts a free webinar on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy.
The Boston Police Department has a section on Unsolved Homicides but Rita’s case is not there as they only go back to 2014. If you have any information about Rita Hester’s case contact Boston PD at 617-343-4470.
Rest in peace, Rita Hester.