CeCe McDonald murder trial

Behind the scenes of the transgender woman's case

"Black lady with a knife."

When the first 911 call came in, that's all police had to go on, because that's all Gary Gilbert could see by the dim light outside the Schooner Tavern, where he worked security.

Meanwhile, Dean Schmitz was bleeding out on the sidewalk in front of the bar. It didn't look good.

Dean Schmitz died outside the Schooner Tavern from a stab wound to the heart
courtesy of Charles Pelfrey
Dean Schmitz died outside the Schooner Tavern from a stab wound to the heart
Chrishaun McDonald, a transgender woman, was studying fashion at MCTC before being charged with murder
Chrishaun McDonald, a transgender woman, was studying fashion at MCTC before being charged with murder

"Send an ambulance right now," Gilbert said into the phone. "We need one."

The operator wanted a description of the perpetrator, so Gilbert followed the suspect as she fled from the bar. There wasn't much more to report: Shorts. A weave. Maybe about 5'7", 5'8". She appeared to be heading toward Target.

Back at the bar, Anthony Stoneburg, who was in the neighborhood to visit his aunt, had the horror of stumbling upon the grotesque scene. There was a three-quarter-inch long puncture wound in Schmitz's chest. It ripped more than three inches into his body cavity, all the way to the right ventricle of his heart. His white button-down shirt was slowly staining red from the geyser of blood. He was barely breathing.

"Baby, don't die!" cried Molly Flaherty, a woman sitting on the ground next to him.

Stoneburg climbed onto Schmitz and tried to plug the wound, but was too late. Schmitz — a father and, that summer night, a patron at the Schooner Tavern — died in the ambulance.

Despite having little to go on, Minneapolis police officers managed to find the suspect in the parking lot of Cub Foods across Minnehaha Avenue from the Schooner. She was not hard to spot; upon seeing the squad car, she flagged the officers down.

She was hardly the portrait of a cold-blooded killer: A 23-year-old transgender woman studying fashion at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, she had no previous history of violent crime.

Nothing about this case would turn out to be ordinary.

In the 11 months following Schmitz's death, the story of how it happened has been told over and over. It has been told to police, attorneys, journalists, politicians, and protestors. In its many retellings, the general details remain mostly the same, but debate centers on who is the protagonist, and who is the villain.

After police arrested her outside of Cub Foods, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office charged Chrishaun "CeCe" McDonald with two counts of second-degree murder, which could carry a sentence of 25 years in prison.

Her supporters, however, say she was the victim of a brutal attack and should never have been charged with a crime. They talk about her as a folk hero of sorts, a transgender Matthew Shepard.

"This could have been any of us," says Billy Navaro, a transgender man and co-founder of Support CeCe, an advocacy group for McDonald. "She wasn't asking for any trouble whatsoever. She was going to the grocery store with her family."

City Councilman Cam Gordon publicly announced his support for McDonald, calling the incident "another example [of] transgender women of color being targeted for hate- and bias-related violence."

National transgender celebrities, including author and activist Leslie Fineberg, traveled to Minneapolis to visit McDonald in jail and attend her court appearances. Supporters held rallies and dance parties outside the Hennepin County jail in her honor.

But Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman doesn't see her as a hero. He argues that McDonald is guilty of committing murder, and that the issue has been unfairly politicized. The fact that she happens to be transgender, Freeman says, is inconsequential.

"We see all kinds of crime by all sorts of people against all sorts of other people," says Freeman. "We try to review it as racially blind, as sexual-orientation blind, as economically blind as we can be. The scales of justice have got a blindfold on them for a reason, and we try to follow that."

What caused the tragedy outside the Schooner Tavern that night may have been bad timing more than anything else. It was the chance meeting of two people who couldn't have been more different. Together, they were primed to explode.

On the night of June 5, 2011, Latavia Taylor was happy. She had recently moved into a new apartment off East Lake Street, a brick building on a quaint, green corner of Minneapolis, right across from the Church of St. Albert the Great. McDonald was her roommate, and a friend so close, they referred to each other as cousins.

"If I am hungry, she will bring something to eat," Taylor says of McDonald. "If I don't have no clothes, no shoes, she will buy it."

Three of their friends came over: Larry Tyaries Thomas ("Ty"), Zavawn Smith ("Zay"), and Roneal Harris. Early in the evening, they barbecued in the yard of the apartment complex, then spent a quiet night lounging around.

"We was all chillin', drinking, smoking," says Thomas.

Around 11:30 p.m., Taylor suggested they walk to Cub Foods to pick up some groceries. The store was little more than a half-mile from the apartment: a right out the door, a quick left on 29th Street, and another right along Minnehaha Avenue, which would bring them to the shared parking lot of Cub and Target.

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