Written By: Jenae
Trigger Warning: Transphobia, homophobia, hate crimes, murder, death of a teenager, violence against an indigenous person.
The brutal murder of Matthew Shepard is an absolutely awful case and the one that most think of when asked about hate crimes against the LGBT community. Sadly, hate crimes are still all too common, and now we bring you one of the youngest individuals to die in a LGBT hate crime to date, the story of Fred Martinez Jr.
Fred “Fredrica” Martinez Jr. was born March 15th, 1985. He lived his 16 short years in the southern corners of Colorado. At a young age, he came out to his family as two-spirit. (Please see the sources for information on this) Fred identified with a word that directly translates to “one who constantly transforms” and it’s a word the Navajo use to describe male bodied individuals with feminine nature. In this post I will call Fred by he/him/his pronouns because this is what I found he preferred in life. However, he was fluid, something that is highly revered in the Navajo culture.
Because of the importance of two-spirit identities in the culture and having a loving and supporting family, Fred was instantly accepted by his family. Fred began outwardly expressing himself in more feminine ways, he’d wear women’s clothing, he had longer hair that he kept of his face with one of those soft headbands that you pull over your head. Fred was a student at Montezuma-Cortez High School in Cortez, CO and by all accounts was a happy and healthy kid who had friends. His friends said that Fred was harassed by other students sometimes, and he soon started doing adult education classes to get away from the ridicule. Unfortunately, after embracing his true identity for some time, Fred’s life would tragically come to an end.
In June 2001, Fred left his home to head to the Ute Mountain Roundup Rodeo. When he didn’t return after the rodeo, his mother became worried that something may have happened to him, and called authorities. Unsurprisingly, the case would be mishandled by police from the start. Fred had been missing for five days when a young male body was found decomposing in the heat of summer in an area known as the “the Pits”. The body belonged to young Fred Martinez Jr. It had been determined that he died June 16th, 2001 but some sources say that even though Fred’s mother had reported him missing, police didn’t contact her for almost 10 days after her child’s body was found. Unlike the Matthew Shepard case, this case didn’t draw anywhere near the same amount of attention, which is not an uncommon treatment of Indigenous cases as these cases often go underreported, if touched on at all.
Upon further investigation, authorities discovered Fred had a variety of injuries including a large slash along the abdomen, wounds to the wrists, and skull fractures. Fred had died from a combination of blunt force trauma and exposure. Worse of all, Fred’s mother learned the details of her child’s grisly death in a local newspaper because police often failed to communicate with her. The case didn’t go unsolved for long, an anonymous tipster called to give information.
The tip told police about an 18-year-old man from Farmington, NM who had come up for the rodeo. The 18-year-old, human garbage Shaun Murphy bragged to people he knew that he had “bug squashed a f*g” and that he had “beat up a f*g”. It’s very clear that this was motivated by who Fred Martinez Jr. was. While we see this clearly as a hate crime, Colorado didn’t have any laws at this time that protected gender identity/expression. Murphy escaped a hate crime sentence and was instead charged with first degree murder and second degree murder. Murphy had a criminal record and a violent history. His mother was an out lesbian, and she claimed there was no way this was motivated by Fred’s gender identity.
Upon arresting Murphy, detectives gained more information about what had happened the night of Fred’s death. The night of the rodeo, Fred met Murphy. Murphy and a friend offered Fred a ride, which Fred agreed to. Murphy and his friend did drop off Fred, before heading to their friend’s apartment. For reasons unknown, Fred and Murphy met up again later that night. At this second meeting, it’s believed that Murphy found out about Fred’s sexual and gender identity, and Murphy chased him down a hill, attacking Fred with a rock before leaving him to suffer. No one is sure if Fred died right away or if he suffered over the course of hours.
On June 4th, 2002, Murphy received a 40 year sentence for Fred’s brutal and callous death. Murphy only served 17 years of this sentence and is a free man. He was released in May 2018, to Greeley, CO. He is still monitored by police.
At Fred’s funeral, his mother included photos of both in
feminine and masculine garb. She
supported his identity wholeheartedly.
The tragedy of Fred Martinez Jr.’s death is not in vain. This case helped to open a dialogue in the LGBT community about two-spirit identities. The local communities of Cortez and Durango were shaken by this case after a local paper ran an article on Fred’s death. This came with letters to the editor that encouraged conversations about what constitutes as a hate crime, LGBT rights, and unfortunately, some hateful, homophobic bullshit. Local LGBT organizations encouraged growth in the area, with some of the local high schools getting GSAs after the tragedy.
In 2009, the Obama administration backed federal legislation to class sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression as protected classes. Under this legislation, Fred’s murder would’ve ben considered a hate crime.
There was also a documentary made about this case called Two Spirits. I highly recommend it if you’re interested. The film was incredibly popular, one of PBS’ most popular.