Two men have been arrested in connection with the murder of Serena Angelique Velázquez, 35, and Layla Peláez, 21. The two transgender women were found in a burnt-out car on a desolate road in Humacao, on Puerto Rico’s eastern coast Wednesday, April 22.
The FBI has since taken over the case and is investigating it as a possible hate crime. The New York Times reported Thursday that Juan Carlos Pagán Bonilla, 21, and Sean Díaz de León, 19, were taken into custody on Wednesday but have not been charged. This was according to Capt. Teddy Morales, the chief of criminal investigations for the police in Humacao.
Bonilla confessed to having a role in the killings, Puerto Rican LGBTQ activist Pedro Julio Serrano told Gay City News on May 1, and de Leon turned himself in.
While it was previously reported that the women were also found to have been shot, that detail is not confirmed, Serrano said. Police were awaiting autopsy results that they hoped would provide more information about how the women died.
Police have evidence and social media posts indicating Bonilla and de Leon spent time with the women before ‘realizing’ that they were transgender. The ‘trans panic defense’ an excuse previously used successfully by defense attornies who claimed that their clients panicked, usually after sex, when they ‘realized’ that their partners were transgender.
The panic the murderers feel is the fear of what fellow gang members will do to them should the truth be known.
Burning the victim’s the killer’s reason, would dispose of evidence that they had sexual relations.
Serrano told Gay City News in a text message that the pair of suspects “planned the murders, they took them for a ride to a lonely spot, and burned them alive.”
There have been four transgender people murdered on the island since the last TDoR. If Juan Carlos Pagán Bonilla and Sean Díaz de León are successfully prosecuted it would be the first in recent memory.
On 24 Feb 2020 Alexa Ruiz was hunted down and shot following a viral social media post falsely claiming that she was a voyeur.
On 5 Mar 2020, a 19-year-old transgender man named Yampi Méndez Arocho was attacked and later shot to death in Cuchillas, a town in the northwestern Puerto Rican municipality of Moca. Local activists asked that his murder be investigated as a hate crime despite misgendering by police and media.