Western Pennsylvania trans girl killed, dismembered

A photo of Pauly Likens sitting in the grass. Text says
(Photo: Courtesy of LGBTQIA+ Alliance Shenango Valley)

Prosecutors are pledging justice for Pauly Likens, a 14-year-old trans girl from Sharon, Pa. who was brutally killed last month. Her remains were scattered in and around a park lake in western Pennsylvania.

“The bottom line is that we have a 14-year-old, brutally murdered and dismembered,” said Mercer County District Attorney Peter C. Acker in an email. “Pauly Likens deserves justice, her family deserves justice and we seek to deliver that justice.”

On June 23, DaShawn Watkins allegedly met Likens in the vicinity of Budd Street Public Park and Canoe Launch in Sharon, Pa. and killed her. Watkins subsequently dismembered Likens’ corpse with a saw and scattered her remains in and around Shenango River Lake in Clark Borough.

On July 2, Watkins was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault, abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence. He’s being held without bail in the Mercer County jail.

The coroner’s office said the cause of death was sharp force trauma to the head and ruled the manner of death as homicide.

Cell phone records, social media and surveillance video link Watkins to the crime. Additionally, traces of Likens’ blood were found in and around Watkins’ apartment in Sharon, Pa., authorities say.

A candlelight vigil is being held Saturday, July 13 in remembrance of Likens. It’s being hosted by LGBTQIA+ Alliance Shenango Valley. The vigil begins at 7 p.m. at 87 Stambaugh Ave. in Sharon, Pa.

Pamela Ladner, president of the Alliance, mourned Likens’ death. 

“Pauly’s aunt described her as a sweet soul, inside and out,” Ladner said in an email. “She was a selfless child who loved nature and wanted to be a park ranger like her aunt.”

Acker, the prosecutor, said Likens’ death is one of the worst crimes he’s seen in 46 years as an attorney. But he cautioned against calling it a hate crime. “PSP [Pennsylvania State Police] does not believe it in fact is one [hate crime] because the defendant admitted to being a homosexual and the victim was reportedly a trans girl,” Acker asserted.

Acker praised the criminal justice agencies who worked on the case, including the Pennsylvania State Police, the Hermitage Police Department, the Sharon Police Department, park rangers from the Shenango Reservoir, Mercer County Coroner John Libonati and cadaver dog search units.

“The amount of hours dedicated to the identification of the victim and the filing of charges against the defendant is a huge number,” Acker added. “We take the murder of any individual very seriously, expressly when they are young and brutally killed and dismembered.”

Acker also noted that all criminal defendants are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

The Pennsylvania Youth Congress has expressed outrage regarding Likens’ death and urged authorities to consider federal hate-crimes charges against Watkins.

“We are beyond outraged and devastated at Pauly’s murder,” said Preston Heldibridle, executive director of PYC, in a news release. “She was just 14 years old and should have had the opportunity to live a beautiful life ahead of her. Our hearts are shattered for her family and friends. We call on law enforcement to press for the highest charges they can make and to ensure there is a conviction so the man who murdered Pauly never sees freedom again.”

PYC has contacted local, state and federal officials, expressing concern about the matter.

“If not for Pauly’s identity as a trans girl, would she have been targeted by the suspect?” Heldibridle posed. “Would she have been attacked by the suspect? Would she have been dismembered by the suspect? Does the suspect have a record of similar engagements that did not end with such a horrific murder? It is unlikely that the suspect would have done so if Pauly were anyone else. Law enforcement must consider hate crimes charges if the facts support it. If they do not proceed with them, they need to thoroughly explain to the public why they are not doing so.”

Additionally, PYC urged authorities and news media outlets not to disrespect Likens’ gender identity, including not to misgender her.

“We urgently plead with police and prosecutors to use the correct pronouns for Pauly, to respect who she was even in death,” Heldibridle continued. “There is no law that bars them from calling her Pauly outside of official court documents. There can be no moment where she is misgendered or intentionally broadcast with her birth name over her chosen name to the public. Ignoring who she was is not only an egregious affront to her memory, but tells transgender youth in Pennsylvania that they truly don’t matter even in death. That is entirely unacceptable. Law enforcement and the media must be respectful in order to prevent denigrating Pauly and young girls like her.”

Additionally, Heldibridle reminded trans and gender-expansive youths across and beyond Pennsylvania that they’re valued. “Please know that although this world is capable of heinous violence, your community holds you dear and is constantly working in love to defend your safety and well-being,” Heldibridle said.

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