Family, friends, LGBTQ+ leaders grieve trans woman fatally shot in Minneapolis

People wipe tears and show emotion
Family and friends wipe away tears as they share memories of Savannah Williams during a press conference at the State Capitol on Thursday. Williams was shot and killed in south Minneapolis on Nov. 29.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Family, community, and members of the Queer Legislative Caucus gathered at the State Capitol on Thursday to mourn the recent killing of a transgender woman of color, and pledge action on transphobia and violence against LGBTQ people. 

A woman wearing a pink sweatshirt poses
Savannah Williams poses in an undated photo.
Courtesy of The Aliveness Project

Damarean Kaylon Bible, 25, has been arrested on suspicion of shooting Savannah Ryan Williams, 38, near Lake Street in Minneapolis on Nov. 29, killing her, according to court records. 

The news has rocked the queer community in Minneapolis. 

“We’re all still processing. It’s kind of surreal that we lost one of our sisters last week,” said Amber Muhm, an HIV outreach and prevention specialist with the Aliveness Project. 

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Muhm co-leads the Tea Time support network for trans women and femmes, which Williams was part of, and the situation has devastated their small community.  

“Savannah was fierce, full of life. She had a big personality and an even bigger heart. She’s going to be dearly, dearly missed,” Muhm said. 

Courtney Mason said he and Williams had been married for seven years, and he cherished her because “she was a very loving, caring person.” She loved having fun, watching movies, and listening to slow love songs by artists like Beyonce and Drake, according to Mason. 

A woman with beaded earings looks down
Gabrielle Stillday, sister of Savannah Williams, pauses during a press conference at the State Capitol on Thursday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Gabrielle Stillday said her older sister would insist on giving the shoes off her feet, and was the favorite auntie to her nieces and nephews.

“I just would like the world to know that Savannah meant the world to me and my kids. She would give me her last and she was very loved by our family,” she said. 

Her cousin Rae Lynn Stillday choked up at the press conference. 

“Although we are so sad that she is gone and heartbroken, the love, the laugh, the memories she gave will live on forever in our hearts.” 

‘Anti-trans violence is an epidemic’ 

Rep. Leigh Finke, DFL-St. Paul, was among many on Thursday calling the attack a hate crime and denouncing anti-trans sentiments in state and national politics. Though Minnesota became a “trans refuge” state earlier this year with the passage of several bills intended to protect trans communities, advocates said it’s not enough. 

“Anti-trans violence is an epidemic. It is everywhere,” said Finke, who is the first openly transgender person to ever serve in the Minnesota Legislature. “Our communities will not be safe until every one of our neighbors sees our humanity, celebrates our individuality, and embraces this beautiful community that loves and is worthy of love.” 

A woman with glasses
Rep. Leigh Finke speaks during a press conference at the State Capitol on Thursday in response to the murder of transgender woman Savannah Williams on Nov. 29.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The Queer Caucus called for more legislation to ensure trans people’s safety, including investments into equity programs in housing, jobs and support systems.  

The incident is the second known violent attack on a trans woman in Minneapolis in 2023. Two men pled guilty to attacking a transgender woman at the Lake Street light rail station in February. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office at the time said it did not seek hate crime sentencing enhancements because there was no evidence anti-trans bias motivated the men.  

This in addition to the mass shooting on a Minneapolis punk house show in August that killed one and injured six. The venue was known to be welcoming to LGBTQ+ people and several survivors who were shot are LGBTQ+. No arrests have been made in that case, but the Office said a senior attorney was recently assigned to help Minneapolis police investigate the shooting. 

The last known killing of a trans woman in Minnesota was in 2011, when a man admitted to stabbing Krissy Bates in her Minneapolis apartment. However, a record 59 trans and gender-nonconforming people were killed across the U.S. in 2021, according to the Human Rights Campaign. At least 41 were killed in 2022, and at least 26 have been killed so far this year. Data estimates are expected to underrepresent fatalities because trans identities are often unreported or mis-reported. 

That violence disproportionately affects people of color; they made up 84 percent of victims of violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people in 2021, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Family members said Williams was Cuban and Native American, descended from the Red Lake Nation. 

A woman speaks at a mic
Amber Muhm of The Aliveness Project speaks during a press conference at the State Capitol on Thursday 2023 in response to the murder of transgender woman Savannah Williams on Nov. 29.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Native American women are also more likely to be victims of violent crime. Native American women make up less than 1 percent of the state’s population, but homicide rates for Native women were seven times higher than for white women between 1990 and 2016. 

The state and federal governments seek to address these disparities in part with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Missing and Murdered African American Women taskforces. 

Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty said in a statement on Thursday that it is possible a bias-motivated sentencing enhancement, frequently called a “hate crime,” could be added in the case. Bible is currently facing one charge of second-degree murder. However, officials are still investigating. 

“While we cannot get into specific details, we can commit to doing what we do in every case, which is to do everything in our power to understand the facts and prosecute the case appropriately. If the investigation reveals sufficient evidence to prove bias motivation beyond a reasonable doubt, we would prosecute accordingly,” Moriarty said. 

Prosecutors can add these sentencing enhancements to increase the minimum and maximum sentences for crimes proven to be motivated by bias against certain identities. Those identity groups include a victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability, age or national origin. 

‘Please don’t judge her’ 

According to court records, police found Williams dead in a courtyard on Fourth Avenue South near Lake Street in Minneapolis on Wednesday, Nov. 29. Surveillance video shows Williams and Bible walking towards the area around 5 a.m. and Bible walking away alone after about 45 minutes, according to a probable cause statement police filed in court. 

Bible told investigators he was walking past a bus shelter on Lake Street when Williams asked if he wanted to have sex. He agreed and walked towards the courtyard with her. He said Williams made him “suspicious,” so after the sex act was done he shot her point blank in the head. 

From jail, Bible told his father that he “just murdered someone.” He said he felt sorry for killing, but he “had to do it,” according to police. 

It’s not clear from the police report what Bible was suspicious of. 

However, Gabrielle Stillday does not believe her sister was killed because of her gender expression.  

“She was murdered because Bible was curious, or should we use word ‘suspicious,’ from the beginning to the end,” she said. 

“You all … out there need to open your hearts and be willing to look past her past mistakes and judge her off her beautiful soul, and known she was a loving and kind person. Savannah is our superstar. Do you have a superstar? If you answered yes, please don't judge her cause she wouldn’t judge you." 

A man looks down as he stands next to a poster of a woman
Courtney Mason stands next to a poster of his wife Savannah Williams during a press conference at the State Capitol on Thursday. Williams was shot and killed in south Minneapolis on Nov. 29.
Ben Hovland | MPR News