NC transgender woman discovered in house fire ashes. Friend fears she was targeted.

Published: Sep. 19, 2019 at 12:36 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Anna Douglas/The Charlotte Observer) - Mystery surrounds a vicious house fire where the body of 55-year-old transgender woman Bubba Walker was found days after she was reported to police as missing in Charlotte.

Initially, investigators didn’t find a body in the fire. Walker was identified more than a month later.

Now, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police say they’re looking into whether someone intentionally set the fire at the abandoned home, and detectives have re-opened Walker’s missing persons case as a homicide investigation.

This comes as the National Center for Transgender Equality warns of escalating violence, with research showing nearly 1 in 4 transgender people are targeted in their lifetimes by crimes motivated by bias or hate.

CMPD previously released a statement naming Walker as the person who died and used another first name as well as male pronouns to refer to Walker. The Charlotte Observer has learned that Walker’s gender identity was different than the sex listed on her birth certificate and driver’s license and that Walker had asked to be referred to with pronouns she and her.

Friends and relatives of Walker attended a candlelight vigil earlier this month. Transcend Charlotte, a nonprofit support and advocacy group for transgender and gender diverse people, also plans to include Walker in a memorial service for deceased transgender people later this year.

Walker was an active member of Charlotte’s small but close-knit transgender community, says Clarabelle Catlin, a transgender woman who met Walker in Charlotte last year.

Catlin remembers Walker as a cautious, funny and sometimes reserved person. They shared an interest in jewelry and would sometimes hang out together in NoDa and in other east Charlotte neighborhoods.

While she was openly transgender to many people in her life, not everyone who Walker knew used the correct pronouns of she and her, Catlin said.

“She was one of those people who was really fun to be around,” Catlin said. “She was very kind and she loved helping people.”

Catlin said she is particularly troubled by not knowing whether Walker was alive in the abandoned house at the time the flames broke out. Neither fire nor police investigators have ruled out foul play or arson.

“I still can’t wrap my mind around it. No one really knows what happened,” Catlin said.

“Knowing her, if she sees a fire, she’s pretty smart and educated to get herself out of there. She’s pretty aware of her surroundings.”

Walker was last seen July 26, according to the missing persons report to police. A day later, the fire occurred at 6137 Kenley Lane. Walker’s body was found there on July 30.

The small brick home sat at the end of a dead end road. The property abuts several large hotels and is located near Archdale Park neighborhoods in south Charlotte. But on Kenley Lane, the home stood alone on a street occupied mostly by wooded lots, light industrial sites and commercial buildings.

Recent CMPD crime statistics from before and after the fire show police officers have been called to Kenley Lane only twice in the last three months — once in August for an assault and then on July 27, for the fire.

For three days after the fire, it was assumed that while the house was a total loss, there had been no one injured.

But then an insurance adjuster inspecting the site stumbled upon human remains buried in the debris. Charlotte Fire Department officials would later explain that their investigators had not gone through all the rubble because the fire site was too unstable to be safely searched and because they believed the home was unoccupied when the fire broke out.

A month later, Walker’s remains were identified.

Some in the community have suggested Walker was homeless or temporarily living in the otherwise vacant home in south Charlotte before the fire. But a missing person’s flier indicates she was last seen at her home in west Charlotte, just hours before the early-morning fire nearly 10 miles away.

When reached through a family friend, one of Walker’s family members declined to be interviewed.

The man who owns the property where the fire occurred said in an interview with the Observer this week that he thinks it would be unlikely any person, homeless or otherwise, would have been occupying the house for long before the fire.

At the time, extensive renovations were underway at the site to convert the three-bedroom house into a business office, said Thomas Girdwood, who had recently purchased the property and its 4 acres.

Construction workers, Girdwood said, were on the property and inside the home the evening before the fire started around 5:53 a.m. July 27. There were no known safety or fire hazards, Girdwood said.

The morning of the fire, drivers reported seeing heavy smoke a half-mile away on Interstate 77. Initial 911 calls sent first responders to the wrong address. And by the time fire trucks arrived, the home was fully engulfed.

It took 23 firefighters nearly 30 minutes to extinguish the blaze, fire officials said.

“In this case, the structure was incredibly compromised ... It was not safe to have a firefighter go in and look for a victim in what would be an untenable environment,” said Charlotte Fire Battalion Chief Phil Bosche.

“We had no reason to believe that anyone was occupying the structure.”

The N.C. Medical Examiner’s Office has yet to release the results of its autopsy investigation.

Genicia Hairston, memorial coordinator for the Charlotte-based victim’s rights group Mothers of Murdered Offspring, says Walker’s family members submitted DNA samples that helped identify her body after Walker’s remains were found burned beyond recognition. Some relatives, Hairston said, attended the recent vigil honoring Walker as a transgender woman, along with multiple members of Charlotte’s LGBTQ+ community.

Catlin says the death of her friend seems suspicious. The neighborhood where Walker’s body was discovered is not one where she frequently hung out, Catlin says. Public records confirm that Walker’s known addresses in Charlotte for the last 30 years are all outside of that neighborhood.

And Walker didn’t have reliable access to a car, Catlin says. Organizers for the recent memorial service wrote in a social media post that Walker was known for walking to and from stores, home and other areas of west Charlotte. During the missing persons search, for example, friends and family primarily looked around Tuckaseegee Road, Beatties Ford and the West Boulevard/Remount Road area, because that’s where Bubba usually spent time.

National transgender activists and Equality NC, too, are following developments in the Charlotte homicide investigation. If the death is ruled a murder or intentional killing, Walker would be at least the 19th trans woman to be killed in the United States so far in 2019.

Last year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, “advocates tracked at least 26 deaths of transgender people in the U.S. due to fatal violence, the majority of whom were Black transgender women.” In 2016 and 2017, according to HRC, there were, respectively, 23 and 29 violent deaths — the most ever recorded in one year.

Officer Sirlena June, a CMPD spokesperson, said the police investigation is “active and ongoing,” and that the Public Affairs Office was unaware of information about Walker’s gender identity. No arrests have been made.

Equality NC Executive Director Kendra Johnson says the limited information about Walker’s death is unfortunately common.

“We often see sparse details surrounding the death of trans folks — as well as dead-naming by law enforcement when victims are no longer alive to advocate for themselves,” Johnson said.

The phrase dead-naming refers to when a transgender person is called by a name or identity that is inconsistent with their gender identity and transition.

“Transgender people, especially trans women of color, are facing an epidemic of violence in this country,” Johnson said. “We must continue to fight for a more just and equitable world where all folks living on the margins are safe to live their lives authentically and openly.”

Catlin says she and Walker met at a Trans Day of Remembrance event, an annual gathering held every year in November in cities worldwide. The event began in 1999 after the murder of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was killed in Massachusetts. Trans Day of Remembrance events have gained increased public attention in recent years as crime statistics have shown an uptick in violence against transgender people, especially women of color.

On Sunday, Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro tweeted “Eighteen trans Black women have been murdered this year. Most were under 30,” along with the first names of each person killed.

Catlin responded: “You missed a name. Bubba Walker.”

CMPD has asked for anyone with information about the house fire and Walker’s death call 704-432-TIPS and ask to speak with Homicide Unit Detective Echols. Tips may also be submitted to Crime Stoppers at 704-334-1600 or Tips can also be sent via text message by texting the following number: 274637. When texting, start the message with the phrase “TIP372,” followed by the information for detectives to follow up on. Anonymous tips are accepted.