She uncovered ‘buried secrets’ in Mississippi trans murder case that made history in US

This is “Out Here in America,” a podcast by the Sun Herald and McClatchy that explores what it’s like being LGBTQ in the Deep South and in other rural areas across America.

For the past two years, host Justin Mitchell and producer Amanda McCoy have been talking to LGBTQ people across the country about their lives, with help from executive producer Davin Coburn and producer Jordan-Marie Smith in Washington, D.C.

This is the last episode of “Out Here In America,” as Mitchell has left the company for another opportunity.

For the final show, “Out Here in America” is sharing the story of Mitchell and McCoy’s longtime friend and coworker, Margaret Baker, and the important crime she covered here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that’s changing lives in LGBTQ communities across the country.

“I was actually having lunch with somebody and they said, ‘Hey, you heard about that case in George County?’ “ Baker said in her interview from her home in Biloxi.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I heard about that. Some Alabama boy got killed.’ He said, ‘Well all I’m gonna say is he had a bra on.’ And that’s all I knew.”

Baker is an investigative reporter here at the Sun Herald. Much of what she covers is pretty heavy. And in 2015, she kept digging when even the police here didn’t have anything else to say — and uncovered the true story behind the killing of a 17-year-old named Mercedes Williamson.

“This was a young person that had from a very young age, had essentially come out to her family but her family would till this day would call Mercedes Michael,” Baker said.

“Her 17-year-old body was just barely concealed beneath sticks and leaves. The secrets that put her there buried much deeper.”

Williamson was killed by her boyfriend, Josh Vallum. But far from being a local crime of passion, Margaret’s reporting showed that Vallum had committed a federal hate crime.

Mercedes and Josh

Mercedes Williamson was killed by Josh Vallum in 2015.

Sun Herald file

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Because some states — like Mississippi — don’t have hate-crime statutes, the groundbreaking federal prosecution of Vallum, based on Baker’s reporting, now means that other transgender victims around the country are more likely to see justice.

Baker’s work even led to her being a part of the BBC Documentary “Love and Hate Crime.” She also traveled to New York to talk about the hate crime with a panel for Investigation Discovery.

“I think people need to know that the lives of the LGBTQ community are relevant — they’re important. Their lives matter too,” Baker said.

Margaret sat down with Mitchell and McCoy to to talk about why this case was more meaningful than all the others she’s covered over the decades on the final episode of “Out Here in America.”