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November 19, 2008

Who killed Timmy Jo?

The murder of a black teen dressed in drag has divided a family and raised dark questions about a stagnant police investigation

Before he was found shot to death in west Louisville, 19-year-old Timothy Blair Jr. got off work at a local fast-food restaurant and went shopping for clothes at Wal-Mart. He wanted a new outfit to wear cruising that night.

For Timothy, spending a spring Saturday night sitting at home was not an option.

“Even if it was rainy he’d still go out,” says Kesha Pendleton, Timothy’s older sister. “Timothy was an outgoing person who didn’t take life for granted. He always told me, ‘You only live once.’”

Earlier that day, Timothy woke his sister up and asked for a ride to KFC. His manager had called a mandatory meeting, and because he’d missed the bus, he was going to be late. At that point, Timothy had been living with Kesha and her children in the Clarksdale housing projects for about a year and a half.

After work and shopping, the fashion-conscious Timothy was ready to spend Saturday night showing off his style, hitting the nightclubs and hanging out with friends. He needed to look his best if the weekend was going to count for something. Standing at 6-foot-1 and weighing a healthy 185 pounds that he wore well, Timothy knew how to dress for the occasion.

First priority, the hair — he threw on a fancy Beyoncé wig. Next were the shoes, pink flip-flops with a matching pink purse and a blue-jean skirt. Add a little light make-up and the final addition was an audacious T-shirt intended to send admirers the appropriate signal: “My boyfriend is hotter than yours.”

The flamboyant ensemble would be the same outfit the teenager — fondly called “Timmy Jo” by friends and family — was found dead in hours later. Acquaintances tell LEO Weekly they saw Timothy in passing the night he was murdered; however, no definitive timeline has been established.

The sparse incident report, signed by Louisville Metro Police homicide detective Gary Huffman, indicates a witness called dispatchers around 6:45 a.m. on Sunday, May 22, 2005, to report a person lying at the corner of 28th and Magazine streets. Police responded, found Timothy with multiple gunshot wounds and pronounced him dead at the scene.

The murder of a black man dressed in drag prompted friends and family to believe, at least initially, that a hate crime might have been committed. But Timothy’s murder has since garnered few headlines and little interest from the community.

Timothy’s mother, Rosalind Blair, long active in her community, has conducted a one-woman crusade to make sure her son’s murder is not forgotten. It has led to an ongoing battle with Metro Police detectives who she says have failed to keep her informed about the stagnant investigation. She says the department put the case on the backburner because her son was a gay black man, and dressed as a woman, when he was killed.

Initially convinced her son was the victim of a hate crime, Rosalind changed her story more than a year after the murder. She dropped a veritable bombshell on detectives, muddying the unsolved case even more: Kesha Pendleton, her own daughter, was involved in Timothy’s murder, she believes.

 

Born July 29, 1985 to Rosalind and Timothy Blair Sr., Timmy Jo grew up in the Parkland and Portland neighborhoods, and like his three older siblings, was home-schooled after elementary because his mother believed public schools in Louisville were getting too rough. His father was not involved much in Timothy’s life after he and Rosalind divorced in 1999. (LEO Weekly’s attempts to contact him for this story were unsuccessful.)

Rosalind says since childbirth she had a premonition about Timothy.

“I guess you could say it was a mother’s instinct, but I just knew he was going to be gay,” she says. “From the time he was a baby I just knew.”

Rosalind says Timothy didn’t come out to the family until he was 16 years old, and even that was by accident. One day, she says, her daughter Kesha heard Timothy over a baby monitor in the house talking to another boy on the telephone. Surprised, Kesha told her mother.

“She was like, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s gay.’ I looked at her and was like, ‘I already knew,’” Rosalind says. “When he came out, he said, ‘Mom I think I’m gay,’ and I was like, ‘Either you’re gay or you’re not.’”

Though his sisters immediately accepted him, Rosalind says Timothy’s brothers had a hard time understanding at first; eventually, their hesitation subsided. “They never turned their back on him,” she says.

Recalling her last conversation with Timothy, Rosalind says he called looking for his younger sister Brittany.

“I remember hearing music in the background and I asked, ‘Where are you?’ He said he was OK. Before he hung up he said, ‘I love you,’ and I said, ‘Love you too.’ It was around 11 o’clock. A few hours later he was dead.”

 

When the Clarksdale housing projectsbegan closing by city order in late 2005, Kesha was forced to move into the Sheppard Square housing complex, and the rent jumped. The bigger bill was overwhelming; eventually she was evicted. And although she had been estranged from her mother, she sent her children to live with Rosalind out of desperation.

Not long after the children arrived, Rosalind says her 7-year-old granddaughter told her that Timmy died at her apartment in Clarksdale. “She pretty much walked in the door and she said, ‘I have something to tell you.’ And the story that came out was that my son died at her house.”

According to Rosalind, her granddaughter claimed Kesha’s live-in boyfriend got into an altercation with Timothy. The child allegedly said her mom and “some other light-skinned gentleman” came into the house; her mother told her to go upstairs.

Rosalind claims her granddaughter said she heard two gunshots, came back downstairs and, standing on the steps, saw Timothy lying on the rug dead. She said — to her grandmother and then later to police — that she saw her mom’s boyfriend holding a weapon, and then ran back upstairs; looking out her window, she said she saw the two get into Kesha’s white Neon, putting Uncle Timmy in the back seat.

Officially, nothing has come of this narrative, and police now will not comment on it.

Shortly after the murder, Rosalind claims Kesha sold her white Neon, adding that because the housing projects where she lived at the time Timothy died have since been demolished, any physical evidence that might have backed up the granddaughter’s story is gone.

“I don’t believe he was murdered where he was found,” Rosalind says bluntly.

In November  2006, Rosalind says an inmate at a Kentucky prison called her out of the blue and conveyed to her the exact same story. The inmate reportedly told Rosalind that he knew Kesha and said the shooter was her boyfriend at the time; he also reiterated that he was in no way involved. Contacted at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange, Ky., the inmate would not comment and asked that he not be named.

Asked why she thinks a convicted felon — who was arrested on drug charges in the fall of 2005 — would call with this story, for no apparent reason, Rosalind says she does not know. But she believes him: “You tell me how can a little girl and a 20-something-year-old man in prison have the exact same story?”

 

Because the investigation is ongoing, police refuse to discuss specific details about the case, saying only that at this point, all leads have been exhausted.

Rosalind says, however, the immediate family should be given more information about a case and its progress. She feels isolated, disconnected from the case. Acting on her frustration, Rosalind — joined by members of the Fairness Campaign — publicly chastised the police department and Chief Robert White for ignoring Timothy’s case, alleging again that because he was gay and found in drag, police were giving the murder investigation short shrift. It had been more than a year since her son was found dead when Rosalind and 20 activists protested outside the police department.

“I had to be a bitch and stand my ground,” she says. “I called for Chief White’s resignation because, after months and months of fighting with the detectives, there were no suspects.”

She says detectives were at first argumentative, and eventually stonewalled her altogether. Any vital information she learned about the unsolved murder she dug up on her own.

Lt. Barry Wilkerson, who oversees the LMPD homicide unit, says Rosalind has been helpful, adding that grieving parents who are frustrated with the progress of a loved one’s case often don’t understand that homicide detectives cannot simply arrest someone after a tip.

“I won’t say they’re not helpful, but sometimes I think people tend to give information and they think we can pick people up anytime we want to,” he says. “We’re not at liberty to do that.”

Without being fed tangible information from police, a victim’s loved ones naturally stitch together their own detective stories. The one-way street of correspondence often leaves them in the dark about leads and suspects. It can be a maddening black hole of information; from Rosalind’s perspective, the homicide unit’s detectives appear indifferent and hardhearted.

“It’s a tough balance,” Wilkerson says, between victim’s families and detectives. “They’ve got to be patient and have trust in us to do the job the best way we can.”

Rosalind has called on several occasions, Wilkerson acknowledges, and the two have spoken directly about Timothy’s case.

“I can feel the frustration in her voice when she talks to me,” he says. “And there would be nothing that would make me more happy than to say we’ve resolved this case and give her some closure. That’s why we’re here.”

While the case remains open, it’s now being handled by a cold case sergeant who will reexamine the investigation with the help of a new lead detective.

“Every case we look at has its own little underworld and inner circle of people,” Wilkerson says. “It’s difficult in any case to penetrate because there’s a certain group of people who are not going to talk … Breaking into those circles to find out what’s going on can be more than difficult.”

Unlike other homicide units, where after 30 days an investigation is shuttled into a cold case unit regardless of how hot or cold the investigation is at the time, the LMPD doesn’t have a cold case division.

“We just feel like you lose a lot of information on that transfer,” Wilkerson says. “We like to keep that one detective with the case as long as possible, ’cause they have the intimate details of what occurred.”

Wilkerson tells LEO Weekly the department reevaluates each case after the one-year mark to assess whether initial leads have dried up. “We look at each case, but not every one-year mark is a cold case. If (detectives) are still getting leads even after one year, why would I pull it from them?”

Presently, the homicide unit is in the middle of revamping its entire open case system, including archiving cases to one location to make information more accessible to detectives.

“By putting them at our fingertips, we can start hammering away at them,” he says.

Wilkerson was hesitant to say conclusively that police are still looking at anyone connected to Timothy’s murder. Persons of interest were established earlier in the case, he says, but stresses that police can’t make an arrest just because they think they’re close.

“There are people we have interest in, but I’m not sure and can’t say they’re a person of interest,” he says.

 

In 2004, Timothy moved in with his sister Keshaafter their mother moved across the river to Jeffersonville. He wanted to stay in Louisville and moved in to help with bills and caring for her children. The two would talk morning, noon and night, Kesha says, and if she didn’t hear from him at least three times a day, she worried.

Kesha says the last time she talked to Timothy was when he got home from work and a quick shopping trip the night before his body was found. He brought home KFC for dinner and they ate together. Before heading out that night, she says Timothy came into her room and asked how he looked.

“I said he was cute,” she says. “When he dressed up he looked good, whether as a boy or a girl. He attracted straight men who knew he was gay and a man.”

Early Sunday morning, at about 4 a.m., she began to worry because Timothy wasn’t home yet. She thought maybe he was spending the night at someone’s house.

“I left a message over his cell phone, saying, ‘Timmy Jo, you know you’re supposed to be at work, get your hot ass home. Call me.’”

But he never called, and in the morning someone from the coroner’s office knocked on her door, asking Kesha if she could identify the body. At first she was in disbelief, but she revealed that Timmy Jo had a tattoo on his left arm that said “Tim.” She expected that to clear up the misunderstanding, but instead, it confirmed her brother was dead. Kesha screamed and fell to the floor.

Kesha acknowledges that her mother believes she may have been involved somehow in Timothy’s death, an accusation she emphatically denies. In fact, she points out, police gave her a polygraph test and she passed.

These days, Kesha and her mother rarely speak.

“I’m still angry with her but I still love her,” Kesha says. “I’m her first-born, and for her to say I had something to do with my brother’s murder hurts. To put my baby in it hurts. But I still love her.”

In talking with the detective and the social worker who interviewed her daughter, Kesha claims both indicated they believed her daughter had been coached. Again, it’s a point police are unwilling to address, citing an ongoing investigation.

 

Retracing the last steps of Timothy Blair Jr. is difficult because, outside of fond recollections of family members, the details of his life are blurry, in large part because he was an African-American who was gay. And being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender and black often means living in the shadows.

Yana Baker, a transgender African-American woman who knew Timothy, says she saw him briefly the night he was murdered. The two were at a gay-friendly nightclub called Club Cawthon near 7th and Broadway. But she does not know where Timothy headed once he left.

Baker says there was plenty of speculation within the black LGBT community about what happened to Timothy that night. But because that community is so secretive, she doesn’t know what happened or whom to believe.

Many of Timothy’s friends who saw him the night he was killed have not come forward or cannot be found, Baker says, probably because they don’t want to be identified as being gay or transgender. Both Kesha and Rosalind say former friends have vanished, saying cell phones have been disconnected and residences abandoned.

For the “children” — a term of endearment used to describe the African-American queer community — disappearing can be a survival skill in a community where keeping secrets is essential.

Dr. Kaila Story, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville, says African-American families often shun relatives who are gay, bi or transgender. In turn, the children create alter egos, masks to wear at night in a city that’s not as progressive as many would like to think.

“It is a struggle, a pretty hard one,” says Story, chairwoman of race, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Louisville. “They’re trying to negotiate and navigate their difference.”

Story says there is no black gay Mecca in the country, but black LGBT youths and adults in other big cities have fought — often successfully — to carve out public spaces of acceptance where they can be comfortable. Black LGBT students at U of L gravitate to her on campus almost daily to relay their anxieties about the lack of acceptance and space in the city.

Many choose to remain under the radar because coming out is too risky. Even those confident enough to be openly gay, like Timothy, still might hide much of their queer identity from people close to them.

Jaison Gardner, a student activist at U of L, says he was a brief acquaintance of Timothy’s after they met at a drag show pageant a few years ago. He remembers him well and says the fact that his murder went largely unnoticed represents a lack of acceptance.

“The black children don’t have any kind of coalition, think-tank or working group to express our needs or wants,” he says. “That’s why these types of murders have become par for the course — we’ve become resigned that it’s a part of being black and LGBT. We’ve accepted that we lose people.”

Gatherings at houses, certain clubs and drag pageants are among the few places in Louisville where the black LGBT community can feel comfortable, he says. Usually held at the nightclubs The Connection or Club Cawthon, drag shows offer the children a place to be themselves, although pseudonyms remain the norm. In fact, it was at pageants where Timothy transformed into “Yum-Yum” or “Miss Paris” — his preferred pseudonyms — a dazzling, statuesque model with a tall, lean, muscular frame.

The children often live and learn to transform under the tutelage of a “house mother,” usually an elder in the queer community, each of whom controls a sizeable grouping of designated teams where the black queer community can freely congregate. These groups further a sense of community, Gardner says.

Speaking as an activist, Gardner says the black LGBT community desperately needs a safe place and should be wary of drifting aimlessly. Organizations such as Kentucky Jobs With Justice and the Kentucky Alliance have proven to be strong allies, he says, but that is just a start.

“It is important we have the support and understanding because we are black people who are still very communal,” he says. “The black children need that. We are looking for support and recognition.”

But Timothy was mostly a loner.
 
Kesha acknowledges that while she was close to her brother, she knew few details about his social life; she only met one boyfriend on one occasion.
 
“Outside of family, Timmy Jo’s life was so secretive to me,” she says. “After he was murdered, close friends disappeared and some didn’t even show up to his funeral. I still haven’t talked to any of his friends.”
 

The parking lot at St. Martin De Porres is crammed with cars on a weeknight in early October 2008.

Inside the basement cafeteria, more than 40 families of homicide victims have gathered. They are searching for answers about loved ones’ unsolved cases.

Led by Christopher 2X, a ubiquitous community activist, the forum has been billed as the first “Rights of Survivors” session, a partnership between 2X’s Fight Crimes Against Children campaign, Metro Police, the coroner’s office, local prosecutors and clergy.

Joined by Lt. Wilkerson and Dr. Ronald Holmes, Louisville’s chief coroner, 2X says he wants to provide the families a forum to voice concerns about what they perceive as a lack of transparency and cooperation from public officials.

Under a noisy air conditioner near the back of the dining hall, Rosalind Blair sits with her fiancé and three of Timothy’s siblings, including Kesha. Even after all the two have said about one another since Timothy’s passing, Kesha says she’ll never abandon her family.

Rosalind doesn’t seem to mind Kesha’s presence tonight. She says this isn’t the time for family feuding, but rather to start asking the police and coroner tough questions. For instance, how many other cases does each homicide detective handle? Rosalind shrugs off 2X’s musings about the “spirit” of healing and emotional needs. A lot of that talk is meant to appease the growing number of people who are looking for concrete answers and remain unsatisfied, she says.

“They’re trying to sugarcoat it and make it look good by starting groups,” she says. “The shit ain’t working on me and I’m not going for it, I’m sorry.”

Rosalind says at this point she doesn’t even know if there’s a new lead detective on Timothy’s case. It’s been months since she’s heard anything from police.

Wilkerson takes no questions from the audience. After making a brief statement about the department wanting to have a better working relationship with families, he bolts, much to the disappointment of the crowd.

Since the merger of city and county government in 2003, crime statistics reveal more than 300 families have been affected by murder in Louisville, and 123 of those cases remain unsolved. Like many in attendance tonight, Rosalind says nothing should be hidden from the immediate families of victims.

“If you don’t have no suspects, say it. Don’t lie. Don’t get those families’ hopes up,” she says. “Some of us are not as stupid as you think we are.”

Josette Gocella, deputy of special services at the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office, says it’s difficult for family members to begin the grieving process before certain questions are answered.

“The delay of investigation and trials goes on for a long, long time, and that’s hard,” she tells LEO Weekly in a recent interview. “Those survivors who have been able to get some counseling or therapy have at least been able to live with those questions.”

With a background in theology, Gocella — also a board member of 2X’s organization — began working with the coroner’s office for the specific purpose of helping families find counseling.

But that’s not something Rosalind wants to hear.
 
“I ain’t taking no damn therapy,” she says. “I have a lifetime to get therapy on my own. I have a lifetime to cry. I want some answers and it’s time to get working and get all of the dirt.”
 
Raising her hand during the meeting, Rosalind stands to ask Holmes why she wasn’t allowed to identify her son’s body. With a befuddled look, the coroner says he was unaware that happened and would look into the situation.
 
After the meeting, Rosalind speaks with the coroner outside, tells him the entire story she’s been repeating for the past three years, says she’s been stonewalled at every turn. He says his office does not withhold information from next of kin, and suggests they meet to clear up the misunderstanding.
 
“I was shocked,” Rosalind says. “Six months ago it was so difficult, but now he’s saying everything’s wide open — what changed?”
 

And while Rosalind still struggles to find out exactly what happened to her son, these days she is concentrating on other endeavors to fill the void created by his absence. Presently she is enrolled at Jefferson Community and Technical College, and plans to transfer to U of L next semester to pursue a master’s degree in criminal justice.

The three-year struggle with the police department over information concerning her son’s case has provoked an interest in criminal profiling, and she’s determined to learn the system inside and out so she can help others avoid what she has endured.

“It’s something I always wanted to do,” she says. “I want to be able talk to people and be kind enough to say, ‘I can’t tell you everything in this case and I hope you can understand, but I can tell you this.’ And I will mean what I say.”

Beginning in December she will once again start calling and checking up with detectives at the homicide division to make sure her son’s cold case does not sit on the shelf indefinitely.

“I’m not really concerned with the coroner’s office at this point,” she says. “My concern is with the police department. Are you all capable of solving my son’s case or not?

“My life will not be settled until they find out who killed my son.”

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