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A trans teen from Pennsylvania was killed, leaving the LGBTQ+ community shaken

Emily Bloch, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

The death of a 14-year-old transgender girl, whose dismembered remains were found by authorities days later, has left a Pennsylvania community in mourning and LGBTQ+ groups rattled.

Pauly A. Likens Jr. was days away from celebrating her birthday when her father reported her missing from her hometown of Sharon, in Mercer County.

She was last seen near a canoe launch on June 22 according to a police affidavit. Police say DaShawn Watkins, 29, killed her a day later. Watkins was arrested last week and is being held at the Mercer County Prison without bond.

Pauly’s death has sparked a wave of support from LGBTQ+ advocates nationwide, including GLAAD and her nearest LGBTQ+ support group, the Shenango Valley LGBTQIA+ Alliance, which will host a candlelight vigil this week. On Instagram, posts commemorating Pauly’s life with the hashtag, #transkidsdeservetogrowup, are spreading.

The gruesome details surrounding Pauly’s death have also inspired a push for stronger hate crime protections for the LGBTQ+ community. At least 18 transgender and gender-expansive people have died this year from violent means, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Here’s what we know.

Who was Pauly Likens?

Pauly would have turned 15 on July 6. Relatives described her as a prankster and an aspiring park ranger.

Her mother, Jen McClure, told news outlets Pauly was a transgender girl who used she/her pronouns and described her as a “beautiful, loving person.” Pauly’s aunt told PennLive that she “touched everyone she met” and enjoyed nature and getting her nails done.

Pauly’s father and namesake, Paul Likens, told WTAC Pittsburgh that she would never leave the house without saying “I love you.”

What happened to Pauly Likens?

Police say Pauly was last seen early June 23 at a public park in Sharon, located on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. The Hermitage Police Department was dispatched to the Shenango River Lake when her father reported her missing on June 25.

County prosecutors said police believed Pauly was “waiting to meet someone near the canoe launch area” based on surveillance footage, cell phone records, and social media activity.

Pauly and Watkins reportedly met on the LGBTQ+ dating app, Grindr. It’s unclear how either party presented themselves on the platform.

Watkins told police he used Grindr to arrange a meeting near the lake, but claimed to not know Pauly and said he did not take the person to his apartment.

According to the Associated Press, surveillance footage captured Watkins making several trips from his apartment June 23, carrying several bags in and out.

Police say Watkins killed Pauly with “sharp force trauma to the head” and dismembered her body, leaving the remains in locations around the lake. The coroner’s office confirmed the remains were Pauly’s. Blood that appeared to be hers in a preliminary test and a saw were found at Watkins’ apartment.

Who is DaShawn Watkins?

Dashawn Watkins, 29, of Sharon, has been charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault, abuse of a corpse, and tampering with evidence.

Pennsylvania court records show no previous criminal charges against Watkins. About a year ago, he pleaded guilty to driving without a valid vehicle inspection sticker.

Watkins’ listed attorney, public defender Autumn Leah Johnson, did not respond to a request for comment as of publication time. Watkins’ next court date is July 17.

 

Are police calling Pauly’s death a hate crime?

Mercer County District Attorney Peter C. Acker told The Philadelphia Inquirer Wednesday the investigation was ongoing, but authorities did not currently view the death as a hate crime.

“The state police as of now do not believe there’s a basis in available evidence to pursue a hate crime prosecution,” he said. “That may change.” Acker said authorities would investigate any evidence brought forward.

LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, like Pennsylvania Youth Congress based out of Harrisburg, continue to push for Likens’ death to be considered a hate crime. Advocates also criticized Acker’s previous statements to media outlets that his office wasn’t pursuing hate crime charges because Watkins is openly gay and Likens was still transitioning, saying that reasoning is troubling and shows a lack of awareness regarding the nuance of gender as a spectrum.

“If not for Pauly’s identity as a trans girl, would she have been targeted by the suspect?” Preston Heldibridle, the group’s executive director, said. “Law enforcement must consider hate crimes charges if the facts support it. If they do not proceed with them, they need to thoroughly explain to the public why they are not doing so.”

Acker on Wednesday criticized those calling for a hate crime prosecution, suggesting it was part of a “political agenda.”

“First-degree murder is the highest most serious crime in Pennsylvania,” he said. “What more do people want other than to satisfy their political agendas?”

On X (formerly Twitter), Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro pushed for stronger state laws to treat hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community the same way other hate crimes are treated.

“The First Lady and I are thinking of Pauly Likens’ friends, family, and our entire LGBTQ+ community right now,” Shapiro said. “Send the bill to my desk and I will sign it.”

What are LGBTQ+ advocates saying?

News of Pauly’s death has left advocates rattled.

Hundreds of TikTok and Instagram posts crying for justice are circulating, pushing for better protections for queer youth.

Nationwide, rights and recognition for the LGBTQ+ community — especially minors — remains a polarizing issue. More than 75 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were signed into law this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, on topics including bathroom bans, sports participation bans, and access to gender-affirming care.

The Pennsylvania Youth Congress says Pauly’s death marks at least the 20th and the youngest murder of a transgender or gender-expansive Pennsylvanian in the last decade.

“Every young person deserves safety and acceptance of who they are,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, the president of GLAAD. “Transgender teenagers are at exceptional risk and need our protection. Our thoughts are with Pauly’s family, and all in the LGBTQ community. We will never stop fighting for a world where they are safe and free as their authentic selves.”

Are there ways to support Pauly’s family?

The LGBTQIA+ Alliance Shenango Valley is hosting a candlelight vigil for Pauly on Saturday at 87 Stambaugh Ave. in Sharon, starting at 7 p.m.

A verified GoFundMe to help with funeral expenses has garnered more than $24,000 as of publication time.

“We remember Pauly as she lived — a bright, funny young girl loved by her friends and family. We protect each other. We must look out for one another, every single day,” Heldibridle with the Pennsylvania Youth Congress said. “Please know that although this world is capable of heinous violence, your community holds you dear and is constantly working in love to defend your safety and well-being.”

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©2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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