TEXAS COUNTY, Mo.- Despite the horrific details of a transgender teen’s recent death, Texas County authorities say they don’t believe the killing was a hate crime.
The burned remains of 17-year-old Joey Steinfeld, who also used the name Ally, were found last week near a mobile home just north of Cabool.
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, allegedly 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 the probable cause statement.
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,” said Parke Stevens Jr., Texas County prosecutor. “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, which tops out as a class D felony.
“We’ve got their confessions; everyone has their day in court,” Texas County Sheriff James Sigman told KOLR10.
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.
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.
Joseph 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.”
Steinfeld’s cousin created a GoFundMe account to raise money for the family. Find it by searching “Funeral Expenses for the Steinfeld Family” at GoFundMe.com.
There is also a fund for the family at the Enterprise Bank & Trust in Cedar Hill. Checks made to the “Joseph Steinfeld Fund” can be mailed to Enterprise Bank, P.O. Box 606, Cedar Hill, MO, 63106.
LGBTQ community, advocates weigh in
The teen’s murder has drawn the attention of LGBTQ individuals, groups and advocates from around the world.
Amber Steinfeld said she was stunned when someone from Australia donated to the GoFundMe account.
Many have discovered Steinfeld’s Facebook page and are leaving comments there.
“Oh little sister, my soul weeps for your loss. Ally Lee, your community will always love you,” someone from Florida wrote.
“Rest in power,” someone from Chicago wrote. “All transmisogynists are cowards.”
Former Springfield resident Steph Perkins now serves as executive director for PROMO, an LGBTQ advocacy group headquartered in St. Louis.
“We don’t know enough about what happened to really speculate (if the murder was a hate crime),” Perkins said. “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 AP. “We will continue to mourn Ally and fight back against transphobia and anti-trans violence.”
‘I am proud to be trans. I am beautiful’
Steinfeld grew up mostly in House Springs, Missouri, near St. Louis, according to the teen’s mother Amber Steinfeld. The family moved briefly to Florida, then to Texas County.
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, Missouri, 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.
Shared by the Springfield News-Leader