New Documentary Tells Tragic Tale Of Murdered Transgender Teen

By Jason A. Michael

The late Shelly "Treasure" Hilliard is the subject of a new documentary, "Treasure: From Tragedy To Transjustice, Mapping A Detroit Story," by filmmaker dream hampton. The film revisits the gruesome tale of Hilliard's demise and the transphobia that contributed to her death. Photo courtesy of Hilliard family.

By now, most Metro Detroiters in the LGBT community are familiar with the story of transgender teen Shelly "Treasure" Hilliard. But a new documentary, "Treasure: From Tragedy To Transjustice, Mapping A Detroit Story," by filmmaker dream hampton, revisits the gruesome tale of Hilliard's demise and the transphobia that contributed to her death.

Hilliard, 19, was in a room at the Motel 6 in Madison Heights, a location known to be frequented by sex workers, when Madison Heights police officers allegedly followed the scent of marijuana to her door. Once inside, the officers, Chad Wolowiec and David Koehler, allegedly threatened Hilliard with jail and imprisonment unless she gave up her dealer and helped them set up a sting. Hilliard called the man, Qasim Raqib, and told him she had someone interested in buying a large quantity. A short time later, the officers pulled Raqib's car over as it approached the motel and eventually arrested him for possession with intent to distribute. Then, at the police station, the officers are said to have told Raqib that he was set up by a lady at the motel.

Raqib, of course, knew who the lady was. Once he made bail, he set a plan of revenge into motion. Three days later, on Oct. 23, 2011, he used a disposable cell phone to set up a date with Hilliard. Once Raqib had lured her to the arranged location, a house on Longfellow Street in Detroit, he quickly set his plan into motion.

Raqib not only beat and tortured Hilliard, he killed her and then chopped up her body to hide evidence and eventually set fire to her torso. It was found a few hours later in a field near Interstate 94 and Bewick Street. But it would be some weeks before her body was eventually identified through a cherry tattoo on a portion of her upper right arm that was still attached to her torso.

Nearly four years later, Hilliard's mom, Lyniece Nelson, struggles to recall her daughter without crying. "I'm trying to figure out how to remember her without being in so much pain," Nelson said. "I try to stay strong for my little ones, my grandbabies and my other children. But it's still hard. I think about her every day."

In "Treasure," hampton tells Hilliard's story while interweaving a narrative of the biases faced by many trans women today. The film is unpolished but full of a grit that seems naturally complementary to the dark story it tells.

"I thought that it was something that really highlighted a powerful story that is a product of many generations of transphobia and many generations of sexism in many areas of society," said Emani Love, an outreach worker at the Ruth Ellis Center, who was interviewed for the film. Love said that Hilliard's murder "was a product of transphobia systemically because of the structure of our current society not allowing trans people access to sustainable resources and services... (Hilliard) was forced into a position that many trans people are forced into, having to navigate the realm of survival sex work."

Bre' Campbell, a consultant for the Transgender Law Center, said that trans women often end up in the world of survival sex work "because of their parents not fully understanding and supporting their transitions and the systems that are set up - getting a job, having the right documentation. We live in a society that tells trans people that they don't exist or they're not supposed to have regular jobs. But then we turn around and penalize them for participating in sex work."

Nelson, of course, hopes that viewers of the film will not focus on what Hilliard did, but on who she was. "She was a human being just like everybody else," said Nelson. "There was nothing about her that changed when she became transgender. Her heart was the same. The way she treated people was the same. She was loved by her family. No one looked at her different." But the Madison Heights police officers did, or at least that's the powerful assertion made by former Detroit Chief of Police Ralph Godbee in the film.

"It was inherently coercive for her to (be made to) cooperate completely to make sure she doesn't get locked up," Godbee said. "But, in retrospect, being locked up, unfortunately, would have been much better for her than the fate that was ahead of her that I strongly believe was fueled by either a serious lack of training, definitely a lack of understanding of the LGBT community, definitely a lack of understanding of how this transgender individual was in fear and definitely a lack of understanding or pure malice to identify a confidential informant. That is just not anything that, ethically, any police officer could engage in in any good conscience."

Today, Nelson is suing the Madison Heights Police for violation of due process and wrongful death. Nothing, of course, will bring back her daughter, but she said watching the film, and hearing her daughter's voice, helps. "It's not just Treasure's story; there's a lot of other stories in there," said Nelson. "I'm glad that it's going to be able to reach a lot of people. If it changes just one person's mind about how they feel about transgender people, that's what I'm hoping it will do. Enlighten people."

"Treasure: From Tragedy to Transjustice, Mapping a Detroit Story" will have its Detroit premier Thursday, June 18, at the Detroit Film Theatre.
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