Police arrested two suspects in Charlotte, North Carolina on Friday that are believed to be connected to two shooting deaths of Black transgender women. 

Jaida Peterson, 29, was found dead on April 4 at a Quality Inn & Suites Airport hotel, just a little over a week before Remy Fennell, 28, was discovered dead at the Sleep Inn University Place on April 15. The striking similarities in the two separate incidents led investigators to suspect a transphobic serial killer may have been at large. 

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department public safety communications director Rob Tufano said in a press conference on Friday that the cases presented very congruent elements. 

“We’ve identified some pretty consistent similarities in both of the cases,” Tufano said. “Both of those victims, transgender victims. Both of them sex workers. Both of them shot to death in hotels.”

“This needs to get the attention of the community,” he added. “This isn’t something we see frequently. It’s something we rarely see and it’s important the community understands that.”

The suspects have been identified as 21-year-old Dontarius Long and 33-year-old Joel Brewer. Both are charged with murder and conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon, among other charges, according to The Charlotte Observer. 

Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the transgender justice initiative at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), mourned the loss of Peterson, saying that her life was “cut short.”

“This violence is alarming and unacceptable,” Cooper said in a statement, according to Out Magazine. “Her life never should have been cut short.” 

According to the HRC, 2020 was the deadliest year for the transgender community on record. In 2021, at least 15 transgender people have already been killed, a number that is only an estimate due to underreported or misreported cases where victims are misgendered.

During a vigil following Peterson’s death, Brianna Battle, someone who considered herself to be a sister to Peterson, described the South Carolina native as selfless with a host of family and friends who love her.  

“People just find it easier to kill us because socially, we’re at the bottom of the totem pole,” Battle said, the News & Observer reported. “No matter what her gender was, a human life was taken away. She has a family and friends and people who love her.”

Shawnta Jones, Fennell’s aunt, referred to her niece as a “beautiful soul.” 

“For every family out there, just love no matter what your preference is, love each other,” Jones told 13 News Now during a Saturday vigil. 

Fennell’s mother Michele Credle shared final words for her late 28-year-old daughter.

“I love you, baby,” she said, as she released balloons into the air. 

Officials said the police investigation into the shooting deaths of the two women is ongoing. The FBI and Union County, South Carolina police were also involved in the two homicide cases.

While attacks against transgender women have skyrocketed in the last year, Black transgender women are disproportionately affected by violent and/or fatal incidents. The National Center for Transgender Equality reported that Black transgender women were more likely to be physically attacked in the past year because of being transgender, compared to Black non-binary people and transgender men. 

Peterson’s childhood best friend, Tawanda Barnett, is still in disbelief over what happened to her friend. 

“That was my first best friend and first person I could ever talk to,” Barnett said. “I just don’t know how to get it together… I just can’t believe something like that happened to my friend. She didn’t deserve that.”

Trans organizer Ash Williams told NBC News that although the police have reassured the community the streets are much safer after the arrests, he is still not convinced. 

“We keep us safe,” Williams said. “The police do not keep us safe — they made that clear last week when they deadnamed and misgendered Jaida, so we don’t give a f**k about what the police are talking about.” 

Several Charlotte LGBTQ+ advocacy groups are in the midst of raising funds for safer alternatives to hotels, a primary form of housing for trans sex workers. 

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