Missouri authorities say they don't believe the killing of a transgender teen was motivated by the 17-year-old's gender identity, despite the horrific details of the gruesome death.
The burned remains of Ally Steinfeld, born Joseph Matthew Steinfeld, were found last week near a mobile home just north of Cabool in southern Missouri.
Two young women, Briana Calderas, 24, and Isis Schauer, 18, told authorities they helped burn Steinfeld's body after 18-year-old Andrew Vrba gouged out Steinfeld's eyes, repeatedly stabbed the teen — including multiple times in the genitals — and bragged about the killing earlier this month, according to court records.
Vrba told investigators he initially tried to poison Steinfield, then described how he stabbed Steinfeld in the living room of Calderas' mobile home, according to a probable cause statement.
However, the Associated Press reports that Texas County Prosecutor Parke Stevens Jr. and Sheriff James Sigman both say the teen's gender identity wasn't a motivator in the killing.
No motive is given in the probable cause statement. All three are charged with first-degree murder, armed criminal action and abandonment of a corpse.
"I would say murder in the first-degree is all that matters," Stevens Jr. told the Associated Press. "That is a hate crime in itself."
Missouri law allows certain low-level felonies and serious misdemeanors to be charged as hate offenses, if prosecutors believe an offender was motivated because of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation or disability of the victim or victims. In that case, there can be "enhanced penalties for certain offenses."
The charges filed against those accused in Steinfeld's killing are not covered by the hate offense statute — first-degree murder already carries more significant penalties than a hate offense.
At the federal level, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act allows criminal prosecution of hate crimes motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, race, color, religion, national origin or disability. But to do so, a federal agency would have to take the case to court.
'I want them to fry in the chair'
Steinfeld identified as a male-to-female transgender lesbian on social media and spoke with her sister, Ashleigh Boswell, about being transgender.
Boswell said Steinfield had been dating Calderas for about three weeks and seemed happy. The last time Boswell spoke with Steinfield was on Sept. 1. Boswell said Steinfield said she was trouble but didn't go into details.
"We honestly don't understand why they done it," Boswell said. "It just don't make any sense."
Steinfeld's father, Joseph Steinfeld Sr., said the family got worried when no one heard from the teen on Sept. 9, what would have been the younger Steinfeld's 18th birthday. The family traveled from their home near St. Louis to Texas County to hand out missing person fliers and talk to teen's new group of friends — the same people who are now suspects in the murder.
"I personally talked to AJ (Andrew Vrba). The hand that killed my son, he shook my hand," Joseph Steinfeld Sr. said. "I want them to fry in the chair. I want them to get the needle. I don't know how somebody can do what they did to my child."
He and his wife, Amber, say they are angry that they had to learn the gruesome details about their child's death in the media and not from investigators.
"It's a nightmare we can't wake up from."
Authorities say the three suspects burned Steinfeld's body, placed some of the bones into a garbage bag and put the bag in the chicken coop. Calderas admitted helping burn the body and led authorities to the knife used in the killing, according to the probable cause statement.
A fourth person, James T. Grigsby, has been arrested in connection with Steinfeld's death. Grigsby, who is about 25, according to court records, is charged with abandonment of a corpse and tampering with evidence in a felony case.
Steinfeld Sr. said he is waiting for investigators to come to his house and take DNA samples from him and his wife so their child's body can be identified. After the results come back in a few weeks, then the family can begin making funeral arrangements.
"I don't know how I'm going to pay to bury him," the upset father said. "But I can't cremate him again."
'I am proud to be trans. I am beautiful'
Steinfeld grew up mostly in House Springs, Mo., near St. Louis, the teen's mother Amber Steinfeld told the Associated Press. The family moved briefly to Florida, then to Texas County, an area of rugged hills in southern Missouri.
Steinfeld dropped out of high school upon turning 17, Amber Steinfeld said. At about the same time, the rest of the family moved back to House Springs, but Steinfeld stayed in Houston, Mo., living with different friends.
In May, Steinfeld posted on Instagram that she was coming out and was "mtf," or male-to-female. In a posting on June 13, Steinfeld referred to herself as "Trans male to female and I am mostly lesbian but pansexual." In another that same day she wrote, "I am proud to be me I am proud to be trans I am beautiful I don't care what people think."
Steinfeld's parents acknowledge their teen "wanted to be a girl" and "identified as female." But both Amber and Joseph Steinfeld Sr. continue to use male pronouns when referencing the teen.
LGBTQ community, advocates weigh in
The teen's murder has drawn the attention of LGBTQ individuals, groups and advocates from around the world.
Steph Perkins, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group PROMO, said "We don't know enough about what happened to really speculate (if the murder was a hate crime)... But the things we do know align with other acts of violence against transgender people.
"When someone is targeted because of their gender identity, I think it's especially important to look at that because clearly we in the U.S. are not doing a good job about teaching each other how we all deserve to be treated with respect, safety and dignity," he continued. "If this murder did relate to Steinfeld's gender identity, it's important for us as a state and Houston as a city to be able to talk about that and what that means."
Meredith Talusan is a transgender writer and advocate who has studied more than 100 cases of trans murders for Unerased, an investigative feature and database for online news site Mic.
Talusan lives in New York but has been keeping up with news stories about Steinfeld's death.
"Given the information that is publicly available, especially the fact that the victim was stabbed in the genitals, I do think that eliminating the possibility of a hate crime being committed is premature," she said. "That also isn't unusual. There have been a number of cases in which police departments early on in the case don't pursue a hate crime as a possibility."
Chris Sgro, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said Steinfeld was the 21st transgender person killed this year in the U.S.
"This violence, often motivated by hatred, must come to an end," Sgro told the Associated Press. "We will continue to mourn Ally and fight back against transphobia and anti-trans violence."
Anti-Defamation League regional director Karen Aroesty said in a statement: “We are deeply concerned about the gruesome murder of Ally, clearly a young transgender woman. We commend law enforcement officials for the swiftness of their investigation but urge them to investigate the horrific details of the murder based on her self-identified status as transgender.
"Whether the incident should ultimately be considered to be hate-based depends on a number of factors but most important, whether the perpetrators targeted Ally because of her trans status. Hate crimes not only cause unique harm to the victim, but also affect the entire community.”
Contributing: The Associated Press