Nine months and counting: Slain transgender woman’s family frustrated by wait for justice
Self-defense claim complicates Rapid City homicide case
A collage of photos of Acey Morrison at a younger age. Morrison was killed on Aug. 21, 2022 by a man who claimed self defense. (Photos courtesy of Cheryse Hawkins, illustration by Josh Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)
Prosecutors in Rapid City know who shot and killed Acey Morrison.
They’ve known since Aug. 21, 2022. That was the day the transgender member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe was shot in the mobile home of a man she’d met for an ill-fated hookup attempt that began on a dating app.
What they don’t know and haven’t yet said — to the family or the media — is whether the man will be charged with a crime or remain free on the grounds of self-defense.
Morrison’s family and friends have grown impatient with the indecision. They say it’s time for law enforcement to make the call.
“What they keep saying is that they can’t tell you what charges, if any charges, will be put against this guy,” said Edelyn Catches, of Oglala, Morrison’s mother. “That’s what always gets me — when they say ‘if any.’ It gets me all mad.”
Morrison’s family may have an answer before long. Pennington County State’s Attorney Lara Roetzel told South Dakota Searchlight she intends to make a decision on the Morrison case soon.
“Yes, it is about time,” said Roetzel, who returned to the office to take over as state’s attorney after the departure of Mark Vargo earlier this year. “I am now in office, and I will review it and get to it as soon as possible.”
Death follows dating app connection
Law enforcement has yet to release many details from the shooting, but Pennington County authorities have briefed the family on the situation.
Morrison, 30, met her eventual killer on a dating app called Grindr, though Catches didn’t know much about the app until shortly after her daughter’s death, when her grandson explained it.
Despite not knowing the specifics on how Morrison was meeting people, Catches always tried to warn her daughter about getting too close to strangers too quickly.
“I told her to be careful,” Catches said. “There’s weirdos out there.”
The story Catches heard from law enforcement was that Morrison and the middle-aged man connected online, then made plans to meet up the night before the homicide occurred. They decided not to sleep together that evening, investigators told Catches, but the man asked Morrison to stay the night in his mobile home rather than drive home, because she’d had too much to drink.
The following morning, the man told law enforcement, Morrison grew agitated when asked to leave. A struggle allegedly ensued, and at some point she and the homeowner were each fighting for control of a 12-gauge shotgun. The man fired the weapon, hitting Morrison in the chest. He called 911 and claimed self-defense. Morrison was dead when law enforcement and first responders arrived at the trailer park on 180 Country Road north of Rapid City.
In all the years I knew Acey, I’d never seen Acey physically harm anyone. She was the mom of our group.
– Cheryse Hawkins
Slow notice, long investigation
The Pennington County Sheriff’s Office misgendered Morrison in a press release sent the day of the incident, using her correct name but identifying her as a man.
Some of Morrison’s friends say that helps explain why they were shocked to hear her name uttered at a day of remembrance for transgender victims of violent crime that fall. Some didn’t connect the dots because the news had reported on the death of a man.
More troubling for Catches, however, is that it took more than a day for the Sheriff’s Office to get the news of her daughter’s death to her.
“I called Pennington County like five times to ask, you know, why they didn’t notify me,” Catches said. “They knew who she was. They notified Pine Ridge to come notify me.”
Since then, she said, she’s been briefed on the case on multiple occasions.
Catches is among those who struggle to believe the story of self defense. Morrison was a peacemaker, she said.
Cheryse Hawkins, who attended high school with Morrison in Oehlrichs, said that was true even if they’d been drinking. If there were threats, Hawkins said, Morrison would be the one to shepherd her friends away.
“In all the years I knew Acey, I’d never seen Acey physically harm anyone. She was the mom of our group,” said Hawkins, who credited “hard truths” from Morrison as a motivator for her to kick opiates eight years ago. “I don’t believe a word of it.”
Anybody that knows me knows what a strong heart I have for victims and for victims' rights. And my heart goes out to Acey’s family. She deserves justice.
– Lara Roetzel, Pennington County State's Attorney
Morrison’s family offered a list of names of people who could speak to her character, Catches said, but “the cops didn’t talk to anybody.”
Helene Duhamel, spokesperson for the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, declined to offer details on the interviews conducted by investigators.
“We really can’t comment on cases pending prosecution,” Duhamel said.
Native American transgender women, often referred to as “Two Spirit,” are among the most vulnerable to violence in the U.S., and experience higher rates of substance abuse disorder and mental health troubles, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Online tributes to Morrison and stories of her killing have proliferated across LGBTQ+ websites and the sites of other nonprofit groups, including the Human Rights Campaign and the gun control advocacy organization Moms Demand Action.
The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) movement that’s gained stream in recent years and led to legislative changes around the county and the world has been fueled by lower clearance rates for crimes against them.
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It’s had an impact in South Dakota, as well. Former Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo, while working as acting attorney general for South Dakota in 2022, hired two people to serve as advocates in MMIP cases across the state. The duo has offered more than a dozen trainings to law enforcement since last fall and has consulted on seven criminal investigations, according to Attorney General’s Office spokesperson Tony Mangan. The MMIP task force was asked to consult with investigators in the Morrison case, Mangan said, but they serve as educators in such cases, not investigators.
The lack of charges in her homicide sends the message that authorities in Rapid City don’t take crimes against Native Americans seriously, according to Hawkins.
“Had she been anybody else in Rapid City, they wouldn’t be getting away with it,” Hawkins said. “Because as Native American people, especially in the trans community, we don’t get justice.”
Roetzel said that perception “makes me really said.”
“It’s important to me that the public knows I’m everybody’s prosecutor, regardless of race,” she said. “Anybody that knows me knows what a strong heart I have for victims and for victims’ rights. And my heart goes out to Acey’s family. She deserves justice. That looks different for everyone, and I understand that, but hopefully we can get her some form of justice.”
Self-defense claims complicate charging decision
A host of factors have kept Morrison’s case from closure, Roetzel said. The investigation by the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office wasn’t closed until January. At that point, Vargo had just returned from his interim stint as attorney general.
Within a few months, Vargo decided to take a job in southeast Asia to help the region in “establishing the rule of law.”
His delay in making a call on the Morrison case has frustrated her family and friends, but Roetzel said the outgoing state’s attorney left the charging decision to her because “I’d be the one who had to live with it.”
Roetzel, who left the office in January after more than two decades there, returned to take the top spot at the request of the county commission.
With the Morrison case, she said, she’s facing a difficult decision. The man who killed her cooperated with law enforcement as soon as they arrived. He was defending himself in a struggle, he told them. Morrison, of course, cannot dispute that version of events, and there were no other witnesses.
Given the way South Dakota law gives deference to self-defense claims, the claim carries a lot of weight.
“If it was self defense, there’s literally no crime that’s been committed,” Roetzel said.
If investigators gather evidence that casts doubt on a self-defense claim, she said, a prosecutor can choose to present the evidence to a grand jury, which could side with prosecutors or the potential defendant.
That’s been the case for years, Roetzel said, but another complicating factor now exists in South Dakota.
For two years in a row, the South Dakota Legislature and Gov. Kristi Noem updated the state’s self-defense statutes with a “stand your ground” law that bolstered a self-defense statute that was already robust. The 2021 and 2022 updates put the onus on prosecutors to prove that a homicide is not self defense before a case can go to trial.
Those “immunity hearings” require prosecutors to present “clear and convincing” evidence that an act of violence occurred outside the bounds of what the law defines as acceptable defensive behavior.
After such a hearing, a judge decides if a self-defense claim should prevent a case from reaching a jury.
I want to be able to share (what I know), but I don’t want to be a part of going to court. How far am I willing to stick my neck out?
– Patrick Fitzgibbon
Shooter still on dating app
Morrison’s supporters now say they have what they see as new and relevant information.
They say the man who shot Morrison is still using the dating app he used to connect with her.
Patrick Fitzgibbon, a Rapid City drag performer, worked with former Buzzfeed reporter Nico Lang to track the man down using public information, such as the address of the homicide.
In late April, Fitzgibbon connected with a man on Grindr. He can’t recall which person reached out first with a private message, but over the course of about an hour, Fitzgibbon said he grew uncomfortable with the user’s “aggressive” sexual advances.
At that point, Fitzgibbon decided he wanted nothing to do with meeting the person. Even so, he thought it would be amusing to string the man along. Eventually, Fitzgibbon asked for a photo and got one.
The man in the photo was the man Fitzgibbon believes shot Morrison. Screenshots of a series of explicit messages and the photograph were shared with South Dakota Searchlight. Based on the public Facebook profile photo of the man, the screenshots appear to show the same man Morrison’s family says met her that night in August.
Roetzel said her office has yet to see or hear any reports on the shooter’s alleged activity on dating sites, and no such information has been shared with investigators. Fitzgibbon, for his part, isn’t sure he’d want to testify about it, citing concerns for his own safety.
“I want to be able to share that, but I don’t want to be a part of going to court,” Fitzgibbon said. “How far am I willing to stick my neck out?”
The man the family says is the shooter has a criminal record in both South Dakota and Indiana that includes multiple drug offenses, four driving under the influence convictions and a handful of charges related to interference with law enforcement. Last October, just over two months after Morrison’s death, he was given a probation sentence and suspended prison time for his fourth DUI. South Dakota Searchlight is withholding the man’s name from this story because he has not been charged in the shooting, and the Pennington County State’s Attorney’s Office declined to publicly divulge the man’s name. He did not return calls or a text message seeking comment.
It’s unclear if any of the information on the man’s past or his continued use of the dating app would factor into any charging decision.
Whatever happens on the criminal justice side, Catches thinks she knows what happened. She took part in an inipi (sweat lodge) ceremony after Morrison died, and said she heard her daughter’s voice. It wasn’t like other sweats, where the medicine man speaks the words of a spirit.
“This was Acey,” she said. “It was Acey’s voice.”
She told her mother, Catches said, that she’d just met the man, and that he’d been pushing her to do something she wasn’t comfortable with, that he’d been using drugs, and that he’d fired on her when she refused to go along with the plan.
That’s the story that makes the most sense to Catches. Based on what she’s heard from investigators, she believes there’s enough to put the case in front of a jury to decide. Catches would like to see the killer charged with murder.
“The way they described it was that they wrestled over a 12-gauge shotgun, but it was fired 6 to 8 inches from her chest,” Catches said.
Hawkins, who lives in Sioux Falls and lost touch with Morrison long before her death, agrees with Catches. Morrison’s positive peer pressure put her in the position she’s in today, Hawkins said, as a working mother free from opiates. She’s thought about her friend every day since her death, she said, and searches the web frequently for news of charges.
“It’s really frustrating,” Hawkins said. “I miss her every day. Even though we’d lost touch, she had no idea how much she changed my life.”
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