Ariel Mary Ann said she didn’t meet her birth sister until the fourth grade.
The two were separated when Mary Ann was adopted. Mary Ann and Riah Milton were not close, and lost touch at different points through the years, but they were sisters. They last talked in April, two months before Milton was killed in Liberty Township, Ohio.
“The last time I connected with her, you know, she was so interested in my life, how I was doing,” Mary Ann, 22, said.
Mary Ann is interested in theatre, and showed Milton playbills and ticket stubs from plays she had seen recently. Milton didn’t know much about the theatre world, but Mary Ann said she stayed engaged. Milton was happy to see her sister happy.
“Riah was a joyful person,” Mary Ann said.
On Tuesday, the Butler County Sheriff’s Office said they responded to a dead body found in Liberty Township. Investigators later discovered that Milton had been shot and killed during a robbery, after a 14-year-old girl and two men “lured” Milton to the Liberty Township area in an attempt to steal her car. Milton was 25.
Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones held a press conference on Thursday to provide more information on the investigation, along with another fatality in Liberty Township just yards from where Milton was killed.
At the press conference, Jones was asked if Milton was targeted because of her identity as a transgender woman.
“No,” Jones replied. “No. Absolutely not. This person was lured there to be robbed and to have his car taken and to have his belongings taken.”
But by identifying Milton with her “dead name” and male pronouns – which was then reflected in media coverage, including an Enquirer report – Jones left Milton’s grief-stricken family and friends even more upset, they said.
“At this point, she was out (as a transgender woman),” Mary Ann said. “Everyone knew her as Riah.”
A “dead name” refers to the name on one’s birth certificate and how a person may have been known before identifying themselves as transgender. Mary Ann also identifies as a transgender woman, and said hearing officers and media outlets improperly identify her sister’s gender was “upsetting.”
Sgt. Kim Peters of the Butler County Sheriff’s Office wrote to The Enquirer Friday morning, stating Milton’s parents referred to her as their “son.”
“Although the Sheriff’s Office is sensitive to these matters we have reported the victim as a male,” Peters’ statement reads. “During the Detective Division’s investigation the victim’s parents referred to him as their son. OHLEG (Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway, an information network for police) has the victim listed as a male as well as the Coroner’s report.”
However, Milton’s birth mother Tracey Milton acknowledged her child as a transgender woman in a Friday interview with The Enquirer. Tracey Milton said she did not raise Mary Ann or Riah Milton, but became a part of their lives after the women turned 18.
Riah Milton loved traveling and being outside, her mother said. She described her daughter as outgoing, helpful and someone who always put her family first. Including Mary Ann, Riah Milton had three sisters and two brothers.
“She just wanted to be accepted for who she was,” Tracey Milton said.
Eden Estes, 28, who describes Mary Ann as “like a little sister,” has reached out to multiple media outlets hoping to correct Milton’s name and pronouns in public reports.
“It’s just a complete disrespect to the gender, and especially black trans women, who are dying at very high levels right now,” Estes said.
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Also on Tuesday were reports of a dead black transgender woman in Philadelphia. Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells’ dismembered body was pulled from a river, CBS Philly reported. The incident has been ruled a homicide.
The City of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs released a statement regarding Fells’ death, stating “Dominique Rem’mie Fells’ life mattered.”
“We are reminded with this, and countless other painful losses—especially within our transgender communities—that there is much left to do until we achieve full equality, respect, and support for us all. The murder of transgender people—especially those of color—is truly an epidemic, and a crisis that we cannot afford to allow to persist any further,” the statement reads.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, 12 transgender or gender non-conforming people have been killed in the United States this year as of May 27. In 2019, advocates tracked at least 26 killings in the transgender community, the majority of whom were black transgender women.
Estes said Milton’s homicide should be considered a hate crime.
According to Federal Bureau of Investigation data, there were four incidents of gender identity hate crimes in Ohio in 2018; none were in the Cincinnati region.
While the federal government collects data on hate crimes against transgender people, bias against gender identity is not covered by Ohio law. Hate crimes in Ohio are limited to “ethnic intimidation,” when a violent crime is committed “by reason of the race, color, religion, or national origin of another person or groups of persons.”
“Ohio does not currently make any reference to crimes that are motivated by prejudice against a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity,” notes the website of a Cleveland law firm, Friedman & Nemecek LLC.
Mary Ann said she plans to look into reporting the killing as a hate crime, but for now is just trying to process her sister’s death.
“I’m still in a state of shock,” Mary Ann said.
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