TV & Radio
Transgender teen did nothing 'to deserve death'
But 1 accused killer said he vomited on finding she was male
Kelly St. John, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 27, 2005 - San Francisco Chronicle
One of three men accused of murdering a Newark transgender teen nearly three years ago testified Tuesday that he was disgusted to learn that Gwen Araujo was not the woman he thought he'd had sex with -- but he did not want her to die that night.
"She never should have been killed," said Jose Merel, 25, who was testifying for the first time at his retrial on murder charges. "There was nothing she did to deserve death."
Merel admitted that he had participated in the attack against the 17-year- old Araujo, slapping her twice and striking her head with a frying pan as a show of "solidarity to my friends," he testified. Merel said he was devastated when friends at a party revealed that Araujo -- who called herself Lida and with whom Merel had previously had anal sex -- was biologically male.
"It's hard to explain," Merel said in a Hayward courtroom. "Your whole life you think you're a heterosexual. Then you get pleasure from a homosexual. It disgusted me."
Merel did not testify at the first trial, which ended in June 2004 with the jury deadlocked on charges against him and two other men, Michael Magidson and Jason Cazares, both 25. A fourth man, Jaron Nabors, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and testified against the others. The case, and the mistrial, outraged the transgender community.
The retrial began last month.
Wearing glasses and a white sweater in court, Merel said he had vomited and then cried when a woman at the Oct. 3, 2003, party at his home blurted out that Araujo had male genitalia.
"Emotionally, I was crushed," he said, his voice at times hardly audible. When the two had met months before, Merel said, he thought "Lida" was "very attractive."
"I thought it was impossible to derive pleasure from a man unless you were gay," he said. "I was having serious questions about my sexuality."
Merel said he had slapped Araujo twice as others punched her and pushed her up against a wall. He then went into the kitchen, he said, grabbed a tin can and tried to scare Araujo with it. He then picked up a frying pan and hit her in the head, he said.
Araujo then said, "I told you I was sorry," Merel testified, the last words he heard her speak that night.
Merel said he was scrubbing Araujo's blood from the carpets and couch as Nabors and Cazares watched Magidson bind Araujo's ankles with a rope. He said he then retreated to his room because he did not want to cry in front of his friends again.
When his attorney, William DuBois, asked Merel why he had not done anything to help Araujo, Merel took a long pause.
"I don't know," he answered. "I don't really have an answer to that."
Still, Merel said he thought Araujo was alive until Cazares brought him outside and he saw Araujo's body wrapped in a blanket in the back of Magidson's truck.
"Nobody ever mentioned killing her," he said.
Prosecutors say Magidson pulled a rope toward Araujo's neck after she had been tied up, and the accused killers buried Araujo's body in El Dorado National Forest.
Merel said he felt horrible as he dug Araujo's grave.
"Honestly, to me I was worrying how long it would take for the police to get to the house, how long before we were arrested," Merel said. "Anytime you do a crime, they always find you. It was the worst day of my life."
On the ride home, Merel said, Magidson said he was not sure Araujo had died until she was hit with a shovel. Merel's attorney has seized on that point to try to show that Merel's earlier blows to Araujo's head were only glancing, not fatal as prosecutors have suggested.
Araujo's killing came as Newark Memorial High School prepared a performance of "The Laramie Project," a play about the 1998 killing of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., where he was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die.
Merel will continue testifying today.
E-mail Kelly St. John at email@example.com
Posted on Wed, Jul. 27, 2005
Suspect testifies at murder trial
MAN WHO HAD RELATIONS WITH TRANSGENDER TEEN CALLS SLAYING `WORST DAY'
By Yomi S. Wronge
San Jose Mercury News
Calling the night a transgender teenager was killed ``the worst day of my life,'' Jose Merel took the stand in his own defense Tuesday.
The former furniture delivery man from Newark hung his head at times during his testimony, detailing for jurors how his ego was shattered upon learning that 17-year-old Gwen Araujo, the girl he'd been intimate with, was biologically male.
```I think I was going through some kind of identity crisis because I seriously thought I was gay,'' Merel said. ``Your whole life you believe you are a heterosexual and you find out you've been pleasured by a man. It disgusted me. . . . Emotionally I was crushed.''
Merel, 25, and two of his best friends, Jason Cazares and Michael Magidson, also both 25, are accused of killing Gwen in October 2002. A trial last year against the three ended in a mistrial when a jury failed to agree on whether to convict them on first- or second-degree murder charges. Merel did not testify in that trial.
Jaron Nabors, a fourth man involved, agreed to a plea deal and has testified against the other three.
Merel testified that a short time after meeting Gwen in the fall of 2002, he had sex with her. He is the only defendant to admit warm feelings for the victim, who was born male but identified and lived as a female.
Merel said he found her very attractive. ``She was kind of wild, I guess you would say she wasn't shy,'' Merel said.
Although the question of her biological sex arose sometime before the killing in October of that same year, Merel said it was not a hot topic among his friends. That contradicted other witnesses who have testified that the defendants and Nabors were on a mission to find out the truth.
Merel said during the early morning hours of Oct. 4, 2002, ``I was trying to be funny'' and obnoxious when he began questioning Gwen about her gender and about her insistence on only having anal sex.
Gwen was vague about her answers, Merel said. ``I would think any woman would curse you out or slap you across the face.''
But Gwen didn't do that, and that's when Merel said he first feared that the girl he had been intimate with was a man.
A short time later, when the group of friends discovered that Gwen had male genitalia, Merel said he vomited and burst into tears.
He said he slapped Gwen twice, menaced her with a can of food and hit her lightly on the head with a frying pan.
Merel did not say who actually killed Gwen, but insisted it wasn't him.
At one point that night, Merel said, Gwen threatened the group with retaliation from Norteño gang members if they harmed her. Merel indicated that threat could be one of the reasons she was ultimately killed, instead of merely beaten up.
``I'm sure that had something to do with it,'' he said.
Later, the soft-spoken man said he was compelled to testify because "I don't want to go to jail for something I didn't do.''
Merel said that on the drive home from burying the victim in South Lake Tahoe, he asked his friends why Gwen had to die.
Merel said Nabors answered, `` `Who cares. The bitch needed to be choked out anyway.' ''
He said that Magidson then said to Cazares, ``I wasn't sure she was dead until she was hit with the shovel.'' Cazares has denied he played a direct role in the killing, saying he only helped bury the body out of loyalty to his buddies.
Tuesday, for the first time, Merel publicly expressed remorse.
``She never should have been killed,'' Merel said. ``There was nothing she did to deserve death.''
His testimony continues today in a Hayward court.
Contact Yomi S. Wronge at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5744.
Gwen Araujo case: Accused killer was 'disgusted' that transgender teen was male