'Being Gwen: A life and death story' | Watch documentary

Watch the ABC7 Originals documentary, "Being Gwen: A Life and Death Story," streaming now in the video player below.

ByJuan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Friday, November 18, 2022
'Being Gwen: A life and death story' | Watch documentary
Gwen Araujo was a transgender teenager from the SF Bay Area who was killed 20 years ago by men who claimed they were deceived by her sexual identity.

NEWARK, Calif. -- She was killed 20 years ago. But the murder of Gwen Araujo is still important today. The 17-year-old from the San Francisco Bay Area was punched, beaten and eventually strangled to death when several men discovered she was a transgender woman. The ABC7 Originals documentary, "Being Gwen: A Life and Death Story," focuses on the struggles she faced early in life, her gender transition as a young teenager, and the tragic events in October 2002 that led to her death.

The program includes police interrogation videos and court evidence not previously seen by the public since the well-publicized trials of her killers more than 15 years ago.

Watch the ABC7 Originals documentary, "Being Gwen: A Life and Death Story," streaming now in the video player above.

It's also available on the ABC Owned Television Stations' connected TV Apps: ABC7 Bay Area, ABC30 Central California, ABC7 Los Angeles, ABC7 New York, ABC7 Chicago, 6abc Philadelphia, ABC13 Houston, and ABC11 Raleigh-Durham.

TIMELINE: How the murder of transgender teenager Gwen Araujo unfolded

Who was Gwen Araujo?

Gwen Araujo was a 17-year-old transgender teenager who lived in Newark, Calif. with her mother, Sylvia Guerrero. Araujo was born with male genitalia but her immediate family noticed early on that she identified more easily with being a girl than a boy.

At age 14, Araujo sat down with her mom for a heart-to-heart talk. Guerrero remembers Araujo telling her, "I don't feel like a boy. I feel like a freak."

Her mother recalls they both cried a lot that night but she eventually told her daughter she would support her transition.

Her older sister, Pearl Sunseri, said Araujo let her hair grow out and started to wear makeup. But, at the time, she didn't comprehend the change Araujo was going through.

"The first time I saw makeup smeared, I was yelling, 'What's wrong with you?'" Sunseri said. "I didn't understand. I never heard of the word transgender until she died."

Even though it took time to adjust to the change, soon they started to see and accept Araujo as a woman.

Why was Gwen Araujo killed?

In the fall of 2002, Araujo met Michael Magidson, 22, who invited her to hang out with his friends. According to court testimony, Araujo, who presented herself as Lida, engaged in sexual acts with Magidson and his friend, 22-year-old Jose Merel.

After several encounters, the men grew suspicious about why she wouldn't let the men touch her parts of her body.

On the night of Oct. 3, the men decided to confront Araujo about their suspicions during a party at the house Jose Merel shared with younger brother, Emmanuel, and older brother, Paul, who also previously engaged in sexual acts with Araujo. Also at the gathering were Paul's girlfriend, Nicole Brown, and friends Jason Cazares, 22, and Jaron Nabors, 19.

Late in the night, the men demanded that Araujo drop her pants to prove she was not a man.

Then while Araujo was in the bathroom, Brown went inside, grabbed her crotch, and reportedly shouted to the group, "It's a man."

Over the next few hours, Araujo was punched and beaten as she tried repeatedly to escape the house. Jose Merel hit her in the head with a frying pan and a can of soup. Emmanuel Merel testified he tried to get Araujo out of the house but was stopped by the other men. He left, along with his brother Paul and his girlfriend, while Araujo was bloodied in the living room.

Araujo was eventually strangled to death with a rope, tied up and taken by four of the men -- Jose Merel, Magidson, Cazares and Nabors -- in the back of a pickup truck to a camping area in the El Dorado National Forest where they buried her body.

How did police find out about the murder?

Nobody reported the murder of Gwen Araujo. Her family reported her missing, but police had no information about her disappearance until Nabors told a close friend about what happened. That friend told someone else and the rumor of Araujo's murder eventually got back to the family who reported it to police. Investigators got Nabors' friend to wear a wire and record Nabors talking about the murder.

During a police interrogation, Nabors went into detail about what happened and who was involved.

Police arrested Jose Merel and Magidson, who was accused of strangling Araujo. A few weeks later they also arrested Cazares.

Nabors agreed to testify against his friends in exchange for a reduced manslaughter charge.

What was the community's reaction to the murder?

The case attracted national attention, both good and bad. Initial coverage by several news media outlets described the victim as a cross-dressing man. Police and the family referred to Araujo by her birth name, Eddie, a practice now discouraged, called deadnaming.

The case became a rallying cry for transgender rights. Vigils and marches seeking justice for Araujo were held in several San Francisco Bay Area cities. Araujo's murder was compared to the brutal death of Matthew Shepard four years earlier in Laramie, Wyoming. When Araujo was killed, Newark Memorial High School was preparing to stage a play on Shepard's death and the community drew comparisons between what happened to Shepard and how Araujo was killed.

The murder also brought disdain from far-right religious groups who condemned Araujo for living as a transgender woman. Several members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church picketed Araujo's funeral with hateful placards.

Transgender activists educated the family about what it means to be transgender and the proper use of pronouns.

What happened at the trial?

Justice for Araujo was delayed. The first trial started on April 14, 2004 and ended in a hung jury against Magidson, Merel and Cazares.

During the trial, the defense maintained that Araujo deceived the men into non-consensual sex by not revealing her biological gender and that the men reacted out of rage when they killed her. Analysts compared the strategy to the "gay panic" defense. The jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of acquitting Cazares and Merel of first-degree murder. They also deadlocked 7-5 in favor of convicting Magidson of first-degree murder.

Transgender activists attended the trial and condemned the strategy to blame Araujo for her own death.

The second trial began on May 31, 2005. By this time, Araujo's mother was able to legally change her daughter's name to Gwen Amber Rose Araujo.

Four months later, the jury found Magidson and Merel guilty of second-degree murder. They jury deadlocked once again on Cazares, but this time 9-3 in favor of a conviction.

To avoid a third trial, Cazares' lawyer reached an agreement with prosecutors for a manslaughter conviction.

Was there a lasting impact of Araujo's murder?

Gwen Araujo's murder brought about several changes in California law.

In 2005, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act. It instructed jurors not to let bias against a victim's gender identity or sexual orientation influence their decisions.

In 2014, that law was strengthened by Gov. Jerry Brown. AB 2501 became the first state law in the nation to prohibit the use of the "gay panic" or "trans panic" defenses. Defendants could not claim they were provoked into committing a murder because of the victim's gender identity or sexual orientation.

Seventeen states now have bans on the use of gay and trans panic defenses.

Araujo also became an inspiration in the transgender community.

Bamby Salcedo, who went on to establish The TransLatin@ Coalition in Los Angeles, said she was motivated to accept her sexual identity and fight for transgender rights after learning of Araujo's death.

What was the impact to Gwen Araujo's family?

At the sentencing of the suspects, Araujo's mother, Sylvia Guerrero, said that the murder and court process (which lasted three years) had taken an emotional toll on her and that it had affected her relationship with her children.

Guerrero became an advocate for transgender rights. She got a grant from the Horizons Foundation to speak at schools about what it is like to raise a transgender child and the challenges transgender youth face in society.

At the same time, Gwen's mother suffered from PTSD from the trial. She lost her job as a legal assistant and ended up losing her home. She lived with relatives for a while and now shares a room with one of her grandchildren.

"My mom is stuck in her own grief," said Sunseri, who fought back tears about the impact Araujo's murder had on her mother.

She went on to say, "It feels like we lost our mom. She lives in this prison in her own mind."

Guerrero has survived in part from a GoFundMe page that raises donations on her behalf.

If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis and need to connect with a qualified LGBTQ+ crisis responder. Get the support you need. LGBTQ+ resources are available: abc7news.com/TakeAction