Death of a Maiden
By the time Dondre Johnson was a teenager, his mother had begun to suspect something. Johnson was a tall, thin boy with a timid smile. In most ways he seemed like an average child, trooping around the neighborhood with his stepbrother and stepsister, and playing trumpet in the Norland High School marching band. He loved dancing, singing, and he loved Michael Jackson, recalls Clara Duncan, who had married Cleveland Duncan, a pharmacist, when Dondre was four years old. At one point he wanted to be a vet, and then he changed over to nursing.Duncan is sitting in the living room of the family's Carol City home, a suburban ranch house in a black, middle-class neighborhood of quiet streets and manicured lawns. She is an articulate, educated woman, currently in nursing school herself. When he was a teenager, Duncan says, I started to see Dondre change. I saw him using colored contact lenses. He didn't even wear glasses. When I asked he said, Oh, this is just a fad.' Then I started to see what I thought was makeup on his face. He said he was seeing a dermatologist, and the dermatologist told him this would help clean up his face. I said, No, Dondre, I don't think a doctor would tell you that.'
As Duncan speaks it's clear she is still puzzled by her son's behavior. It was on his 21st birthday -- that's when I found out he was gay, she recounts. On that morning, November 8, 1992, the phone rang. When Duncan lifted the receiver, the caller hung up. That happened two more times. On the next call, Duncan let Dondre, who was in bed, answer. She could tell he was speaking to a man. When he ended his conversation, mother turned to son. Is that person gay? she asked. There was silence.
Yeah, he mumbled, looking down.
Are you gay? she asked. He didn't answer. She repeated the question.
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Her son pulled the sheets over his head and said, Yes. He paused a beat before asking, Does it matter?
Duncan didn't have to pause: No, honey, you'll always be my child, and I'll always love you.
When she talked to her husband later, he told her he'd always had a feeling. It wasn't natural for a teenage boy not to have girlfriends, notes Cleveland Duncan, a well-groomed man with salt-and-pepper hair. As it turned out, most of the family knew. Dondre's stepbrother, Kevin, who is now in the military, told his parents he used to protect Dondre at school from other kids who picked on him because of his effete manner. I'm the only one who didn't know, Clara Duncan says now.
Dondre's homosexuality was the least of his secrets. The truth was he desperately wanted to be a woman; he felt he was a woman inside. Not surprisingly his domestic life soon began to unravel. Someone called his parents and told them Dondre's lover was sneaking into the house after they left for the day. They confronted him. Of course he denied it, his mother says. Then he started staying out late. His misbehavior culminated later that year, when he didn't come home for a week. Eventually he called to tell his mother he was staying with friends. Her response: We told him, Listen, if you're going to do this you have to find your own place to live.' He moved out.
Throughout 1992 Dondre (pronounced don-dray) was supposed to be attending Broward Community College's nursing program, but he quit school. He continued working as a supermarket cashier at the Winn-Dixie on NW 62nd Street in Miami, a job he had held since his senior year in high school. He rented a small apartment nearby.
Now that he was on his own, Dondre began making some subtle cosmetic changes, wearing his colored contacts, cutting his hair into a page-boy, or dying it light brown. Other workers began to notice. During high school he was just a regular guy, and then he started changing after a little, remembers Darren Saunders, who worked at Winn-Dixie with Dondre and also was a bandmate at Norland. I remember I asked him what he was going through, and he got offended. In fact other workers openly teased Dondre. You could tell he had sugar in his panties, says one man who works in the market's dairy department. We used to mess with him about it.
At some point, around 1995 or 1996, Dondre met some of the transsexual prostitutes who lived and worked in the area. At night, after work, he would hang out with them at the Waterfront, a gay club off Le Jeune Road. From them he learned how to dress like a woman, something he would try only at night. Although he was awkward at first, putting on too much makeup and wobbling a little in high heels, it didn't take him long to catch on. [Dondre] always looked like a woman, always looked pretty, recalls Stephanie, a voluptuous transsexual with wide, childlike eyes. Dondre even drew on his musical training as a singer to perform at the Waterfront and at a club called 21 in Fort Lauderdale.
Obviously this was at odds with the straight world in which he worked during the day. His Winn-Dixie apron began to chafe more and more. Eventually, following his new friends' lead, he began hanging out on the street and going on dates with the male clients who cruised the area. The money he made -- two or three times what he could earn at his day job -- led him to abandon the straight world altogether.
Dondre began transforming himself into as much woman as he could afford, with the help of hormone pills and shots, about $60 for a month's worth. Then he had silicone injected, bit by bit, into his hips and buttocks, a process that costs about $400 to get started. His prostitution became the means to his metamorphosis.
As far as I knew, I thought for a long time that Dondre was still working at Winn-Dixie, and I thought he was performing pageants at gay clubs, Clara Duncan says. But from time to time, when my other son would come home on leave from the service, he would visit mutual friends. Someone told him that Dondre had been arrested for prostitution.
In October 1996 police charged him with grand theft auto, later reducing the count to trespass. By November police referred to him in reports as a known male prostitute and began charging him with the nuisance crimes meant to discourage prostitution: obstruction of a public walkway, loitering, and trespassing. In all, between 1996 and 2000, police would charge Dondre twenty times, a fact he kept concealed from his family.
I really don't know where he went wrong, his mother says. He wasn't raised that way. He was raised to respect the law.
In December 1997 one of Dondre's friends called the Duncans. Dondre was sick and needed some help. He was suffering from a botched breast implant. Whoever did it did a very bad job; the fluid was leaking, Clara Duncan recalls. On Christmas Eve Duncan drove her son, who now was nearly a woman, to a doctor's office on the outskirts of Naples, where the breast surgery had been performed. The doctor prescribed some antibiotics, pain medication, and exercises, and Dondre returned with his mother to Carol City to recuperate, his new breasts intact. As soon as he recovered, he left home. By now Dondre had the figure and curves to warrant his new name, Déjà.
His family struggled to make sense of his transformation. I couldn't understand why he wanted to mutilate his body like that, Cleveland Duncan says today. I told him: If you are homosexual, you can't help it, that's the way you are. But you can't change your DNA; you can't change your genes.' He'd just sit and listen. He never argued with me.
Clara Duncan refuses to use female pronouns to refer to her son. I didn't much care for it, she says of the operation. But that was my child, and I wasn't going to turn my back on him.
Instead it was Déjà who turned her back on her family. She felt more comfortable with her new friends, who, like her, were trapped between two worlds. No doubt it must have been gratifying to have a never-ending parade of men coveting her new body -- and willing to pay for her company. One of them was a neighborhood boy called Bowlegs.There's a saying on the street that a gun makes a man feel ten feet tall and made of muscle. It's appropriate, then, that Jeffrey Trivanty Flanders carried two. At four feet two inches tall, Bowlegs, as he was called, needed to compensate. The eighteen-year-old suffered from rickets, a bone disease that stunted his growth and made his femurs arc out to the side. Both his mother and sister suffer from the disease as well. In the tough neighborhoods of Liberty City where he lived, Bowlegs learned to counterbalance his handicap by throwing the first punch. He's like the little pit bull that fights the rottweilers, says Jack, who went to school with Bowlegs and lived around the corner from him. He fought all the time. All the boys were bigger than him, and he always won his fights. Jack, wearing a sleeveless T-shirt (a wife beater in street parlance) and black nylon warm-up pants, is walking down NW 77th Street and Ninth Avenue, a basketball tucked under his arm. This is right around the corner from the low-slung duplex where Bowlegs lived with his mother and younger sister. I guess him being a midget and all, he had to go the extreme, you know, to make up for it.
It worked. He quickly earned a reputation as a fearsome fighter. Jack says he remembers Bowlegs getting kicked out of Drew Middle School in the eighth grade for toting a gun to class. I think it was a .357 -- it was a big gun, especially for him. Later, when Jack and his class graduated to Northwestern, Bowlegs showed up a year behind everybody. He didn't last long at Northwestern either. He was kicked out of there too, for fighting, being disruptive, stuff like that, Jack recalls.
Starting at fifteen Bowlegs began racking up arrests. In 1997 he was charged twice for battery and once for petty theft, all three times as a juvenile. In 1998 he was charged eight times for everything from trespassing to battery to grand theft. While in the juvenile detention center on NW 27th Avenue, he was twice charged with assaulting corrections officers. A maintenance worker at the detention center distinctly remembers Bowlegs. He'd be in and out a lot, recounts the worker, who asked that his name not be used. He liked to fight. He didn't take no bullshit. The kids there, they don't mess with him. They say, He's very low to the ground, but he don't play around.' In the cafeteria where he used to work, they call him Ducky because of the way he walk. I tell you, he was always swinging those little fists of his. It would take three or four workers to hold him down.
In April 2000 Bowlegs enrolled in Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center to learn a trade. He registered for math, language, and reading, but never attended classes, according to school administrators. Instead, say acquaintances, he hung out with a rough set in the projects.
At night Bowlegs found himself drawn to the same rugged stretch of street as Déjà. And this was no coincidence. Lurking behind his macho persona, it seems, Bowlegs harbored a dark secret of his own: He appeared to be attracted to transsexual hookers.Northwest 79th Street west from Biscayne Boulevard is a hard-baked terrain of muffler shops, Caribbean grocery marts, botánicas, thrift stores, and the odd strip club. During the day traffic clogs the street, and the shops do brisk business. But at night, when the storefronts are shuttered and the traffic has dwindled, 79th Street becomes a marketplace for desire. Hookers, both females and transsexual males, dot the cracked sidewalks and alleyways. In between tricks some of the ladies cop from crack dealers who hawk rocks nearby. And every so often packs of young men, most from the projects to the west, prowl for whatever opportunity the night coughs up.This is where Déjà worked, alongside colleagues like Precious, a dark-skin, doe-eyed, prostitute with a singsong voice, full breasts, and the sexual equipment of a man. Transsexuals and transvestites have congregated here for the better part of two decades, just down the street from the female prostitutes on Biscayne Boulevard. People such as Precious or Déjà -- cops call them he-shes, they prefer the term girls -- exist in a kind of hermaphroditic netherworld. They are so convincingly feminine that many of their regular dates have no idea what gender they are, even after they've had sex. I've been doing this so long, I can do it from the front, or I can get on top, so you'd never know, Precious says matter-of-factly. (Precious and other transsexuals interviewed for this story requested that their street names not be used, expressly because they didn't want their regular clients to realize the deception.)
Yet other men seek them out specifically because they are both man and woman, though not quite either. Lately Precious has scaled back her dream of having a full sex-change operation because it might not be good for business. It means they would go to someone else, she says. And Precious is all business. At age 28 she has been on the street for more than a decade and has never known any other job. This life has been good to her, she claims. She saved enough money to buy a house (with some help from her brother), and now lives in a tidy, single-story stucco dwelling in Allapattah. Inside, enormous vases filled with silk roses overwhelm the living room, and an entertainment center, including a 57-inch television, dominates one wall of her bedroom. But lately she has begun to wonder if the risks outweigh the benefits.
Life on the street has always been dangerous for the girls. Precious has been held up so many times that she now carries her condoms in a clear plastic purse so robbers can see there is no money inside. Stephanie, who also works that stretch of road, sports a four-inch scar on her left arm where a trick slashed her during a theft. In 1996, she says, a robber shot her in the thigh on 79th Street. He asked for my purse and after I gave it to him, he shot me, she huffs.
Lately the street has become especially perilous. Back in December a robber shot and killed Pilar, whose given name was Anthony Streeter, on NW 80th Street off Seventh Avenue. Miami-Dade police, who are investigating the case, have not yet caught the killer. (Because it is an open investigation, detectives declined to discuss the murder.) Precious, Déjà, and Stephanie all counted Pilar as a friend. They even printed Pilar's image on a memorial T-shirt. Déjà clipped out her pal's obituary and carried it in her purse.
But the murder did little to deter Déjà and her friends. They continued their curbside vigil during the most dangerous hours, on the most dangerous streets, night after night. Precious and the others insist they work the street because they can't get regular jobs, given how they look. But it isn't just economic need that keeps them going. They might be in love with the thrill, the danger, says Miami Police Ofcr. Gregory Bavonese, who has worked the 79th Street/Biscayne Boulevard hooker detail for sixteen years. The reasons they are out there are varied. I've known people who were molested. I've known people who had drug habits and their self-esteem has dropped so far they'd do anything. I've known people who come from dysfunctional families and have never known love.
Throw into the mix a sexually confused teenager, prone to violence, physically at odds with the world, and chances are someone's going to get hurt. Precious first met Bowlegs in early April. She was taking a break, talking with some of the other girls in the parking lot of the Bahamian Kitchen on NW 79th Street and Seventh Avenue. Bowlegs rolled up on a shiny red BMX bicycle with chrome pedals. I saw that little midget on a bike, and I was laughing, Precious says. I was like, What's this little thing doing up here?'One of the girls, Sexy, explained that she had met Bowlegs earlier on a local phone chat line specifically for transvestites and transgender types. Sexy said Bowlegs asked her on a date. She went to his home on 78th Street and Ninth Avenue to pick him up. When she saw his deformity, she tried to get out of it. But he was adamant about having sex with her, and she relented, according to Precious: He wanted to screw her, but she didn't screw him; she just let him suck her [dick].
Now Bowlegs was back for more. And he was in a good mood, Precious recalls. He laughed and joked with the girls. She noticed he was wearing a chunky gold chain and a watch. Precious warned him: Child, you better take off that jewelry before someone robs you. Bowlegs didn't say anything; he simply pulled up his shirt and took out a handgun with a black handle. Precious was not impressed: Child, you better get a little toy gun, because that gun is gonna blow you down the street. According to Precious he smiled slowly and replied, You can't handle what I got.
Gun or no gun, all Bowlegs got was a few condescending laughs. Déjà was not present for this. Precious says she was around the corner working.
A couple of weeks later, well after midnight, Bowlegs returned. Again he was on his bike. Again he made a beeline for the girls, who tend to cluster together. This time he had a friend with him, a tall boy with dreadlocks. They were lurking in the shadows behind some buildings. My friend, she come up to me and she's like, You know that little midget and a tall boy are back there trying to rob people,' Precious says. She filed the information away as one of the numerous tips the girls exchange to help navigate the night. Later she saw Bowlegs at NW 79th and Eighth Avenue. He was coming around the corner and he said, Come here.' And I said, No, you're up to something.' And he started lifting his shirt. In the dull glow of the street lamps, Precious saw two handguns. She backed up. Just then one of her regulars pulled up. Precious jumped into his car, her heart thumping.
A short time later, when her trick dropped her off at the same corner, Precious says she saw the tall boy with the dreadlocks robbing a john while the hooker, also a transsexual, ran away. Things were heating up.
Bowlegs, however, was nowhere in sight.
In fact he was several blocks away, riding his bike east to Biscayne, where he turned right, according to witnesses. He wheeled down to Déjà, who was standing on the corner of 73rd Street. It was about 3:00 a.m. Stephanie was working the other side of the street. She saw Bowlegs talking to Déjà. She recognized him because he had solicited her for sex several weeks earlier, but she declined. I got a bad vibe from him, she recalls.
As Stephanie watched, Déjà and her diminutive date walked behind 7300 Biscayne, a peach-color, boarded-up building across the street from an antique store. A passing motorist told police he saw Bowlegs on his bicycle and Déjà on her knees performing oral sex. As the witness drove past, he heard a single shot.
She must have tried running away; I saw her collapsed on 73rd Street, Stephanie recalls. I was so hysterical. I ran up to her and said, Déjà, what happened? Who shot you?' And she said, That little midget on the bicycle.'
Minutes later and several blocks away, back on 79th Street, Precious says she saw Bowlegs pedal his bike furiously past her, a handbag similar to Déjà's swinging from the handlebars.
When Precious heard that Déjà had been shot, she borrowed a relative's car and zoomed to the hospital. They said she was in surgery. They were trying to stop the bleeding, Precious recalls. So I went over to my house, took a bath, and lay down. They called me early in the morning saying she was dead. In ten years on the street, Pilar and Déjà are the only two girls Precious has known who were killed on the job. Their deaths were four months apart.The day after Déjà's murder, the girls frantically called one another on the phone. Sexy wanted to go to the authorities and explain that they had seen Bowlegs with Déjà. But Precious was dead set against it, and others agreed.We said, It's time for us to start sticking together, because the police do not care. Look how they treated Pilar. What makes you think they'll do anything about Déjà?' In fact Precious believed if the police began asking questions, Bowlegs would hear about it. [Sexy] was like, Let's go down to the police.' But I said, No, that'll just give [Bowlegs] a reason to run.'
So the girls took matters into their own hands: They organized a manhunt. Such vigilantism may sound odd, particularly given that their quarry, Bowlegs, was armed and dangerous. But it's a testament to how deep the distrust runs between the police and the subculture they refer to as he-shes. Precious and her comrades insist the police not only neglect their complaints but often endanger their lives by informing johns that the hookers are really men.
The cops counter that the he-shes are not only engaged in breaking the law as prostitutes but have a history of ripping off people themselves. The he-shes are well-known for robberies, says Miami Police Sgt. Rolando Davis, who worked a prostitution detail throughout the Nineties. They are extremely crafty when it comes to that.
It was this mutual antipathy, more than anything, that prompted Precious and her comrades to pursue Bowlegs.
I called one of my friends who said she knew where [Bowlegs] stayed at, she says. Eventually four girls got into a car. They drove to one of Bowlegs' former addresses only to find he had moved. Someone in the neighborhood said he often hung out at a Jamaican restaurant on NW 78th Street. They drove to the place and asked people if they had seen him. Then a friend called one of the girls' cell phones and relayed that she saw Bowlegs frequently in the Scott Homes projects. The posse headed off to Miami's largest public-housing complex. And as they rolled by a parking lot they spotted a group of boys playing dice and gambling. Standing among them in blue jean shorts and a blue-and-white-stripe shirt, was Bowlegs. The women sped over to the Miami-Dade police substation in the projects and hollered for a detective.
This lady sergeant came down and she helped us, Precious recalls. She was wonderful. The detective, Ida Brooklen, contacted Miami Det. Ervens Ford, who faxed over information about the suspect. Then Brooklen took Precious in an unmarked car to finger Déjà's alleged killer. Eight plainclothes officers in four cars surrounded Bowlegs, guns drawn. When the cops frisked him, they found two .25-caliber handguns, one in each pants pocket.
Detective Ford interviewed Bowlegs in the Scott Homes substation. Bowlegs gave a full confession, Ford says, even explaining how he solicited Déjà with an offer of $40 for oral sex. He says he stayed on his bike while the victim got on her knees to do the deed. That's when he pulled out a gun and said, Give me your purse.' According to him she said, Hell no,' and stood up real fast and grabbed for the gun. The gun went off by accident.
Ford adds skeptically: Of course that doesn't explain how she was shot in her back.
The State Attorney's Office charged Bowlegs with first-degree murder and armed robbery. His trial has not yet been scheduled. Dava Tunis, Bowlegs' public defender, declined to comment about the case or her client prior to his trial.The small Liberty City duplex on 78th Street and Ninth Avenue that Bowlegs' family rented is empty. A month after her son's arrest, Alicia Flanders told her landlord she was moving back to Georgia. She's leaving her son behind for now, apparently fed up with hauling him in and out of jail.On April 26 Déjà was laid out in a red-and-gold Asian silk blouse and skirt at the Royal Funeral Home in Carol City. Déjà's mother, Clara Duncan, selected the outfit after seeing a video of her son dressed in it. I thought he looked great, she says, sighing.
I will always ask myself, what could I have done, or was this anything I did that caused him to go out in the street like that? Duncan ponders. I remember one conversation with him where I asked if he wanted to see a counselor, and he said no, he knew who he was.
Ironically the last time Duncan saw Dondre alive was at the funeral of his biological father, Robert Johnson, only a few months earlier. Johnson died of colon cancer, and although he didn't play much of a role raising Dondre, mother and the son who became a daughter attended. Dondre wore a brown tailored woman's pantsuit, hair combed straight down and styled. He looked really nice, Duncan says wistfully. I told him to be careful, and he said he would, that he always was. And that's the last time we talked.
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