14-Year-Old Transgender Girl Pauly Likens Brutally Murdered in Western PA


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14-Year-Old Transgender Girl Pauly Likens Brutally Murdered in Western PA
Mercer County officials arrest suspect; state officials continue the search for remains

SHARON, Pa. — Mercer County officials have confirmed that Pauly Likens, a 14-year-old transgender girl from Sharon who was last seen on June 22, 2024, has been found brutally murdered. The Mercer County Coroner announced on Wednesday that the dismembered human remains found on June 25, 2024 around the Shenango River Lake by Pennsylvania State Police were of Pauly Likens. The Coroner shared that she died by sharp force trauma to her head before being sawed into pieces and abandoned in locations around the lake. DaShawn Watkins, a 29-year-old man from Sharon, was arrested by State Police on July 2, 2024, and has been charged with first-degree murder, abuse of a corpse, aggravated assault, and tampering with physical evidence involving Likens’ death. He is being held without bail at the Mercer County Prison. The suspect’s preliminary hearing has been rescheduled for July 25, 2024. Today, July 6, 2024, would have been Pauly’s 15th birthday.

Police executed a search warrant at the suspect’s apartment on July 2, 2024, when blood was found throughout the unit following preliminary tests, as well as a receipt for a purchase of a saw on June 23, 2024. According to reporting from WFMJ 21, the suspect told police he arranged to meet someone that evening through a dating app, and that police used Pauly’s phone tracking to place her at the Budd Street Public Park and Canoe Launch in the early morning hours of June 23, 2024, with security footage appearing to show someone waiting for another person.

Preston Heldibridle, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress said “We are beyond outraged and devastated at Pauly’s murder. 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.”

The Shenango Valley Pride Picnic (SVPP), an LGBTQ community organization that was officially formed in August 2023, has been directly in touch with Pauly’s family who is in deep mourning. Pauly’s family has asked SVPP to help with the public-facing community organizing around Pauly’s death. Pam Ladner, President of SVPP, is organizing a vigil for Pauly that will take place on Saturday, July 13th at 7pm in Sharon. The Pennsylvania Youth Congress is supporting SVPP in the efforts to fight for justice for Pauly.

Regarding Pauly’s death, Ladner said “I feel the whole community is grieving the loss of such a young life. Pauly’s death has increased fear and panic among local LGBTQ community members and their families, including parents of transgender children. We call for justice to be severe and swift to meet this vicious crime. What happened to Pauly required so much hate, to be able to take a life in such a heinous and cruel way. We urge our governmental leaders to fight for Pauly with dignity and respect for who she was. All the transgender Pennsylvanians who have been murdered before deserved to live full lives and were stripped of that opportunity.”

The Pennsylvania Youth Congress has reached out to local, state, and federal officials regarding Pauly’s murder over the past several days, including the Mercer County District Attorney’s office, the Pennsylvania Governor’s office, the Pennsylvania State Police, and the US Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania’s office. As a statewide LGBTQ civil rights organization with a focus on trans and queer youth inclusion, the Pennsylvania Youth Congress urges law enforcement at all levels to respect Pauly’s identity while they proceed with the investigation and prosecution. The Pennsylvania Youth Congress has additionally been in communication with local organizations and partner LGBTQ organizations in Western Pennsylvania.

Heldibridle continued, “We urgently plead with police and prosecutors to use the correct pronouns for Pauly, to respect who she was even in death. 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.”

Regarding the charges brought, SVPP has confirmed that Pauly’s mother believes her death was a hate crime. The Pennsylvania Youth Congress calls on investigators and the Mercer County District Attorney to meticulously look at all the evidence in order to consider if there are grounds for a referral to the US Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania to prosecute the suspect with hate crimes charges. Heldibridle additionally stated, “If not for Pauly’s identity as a trans girl, would she have been targeted by the suspect? 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.”

Pennsylvania’s Ethnic Intimidation Act provides for criminal penalty enhancements for such violent crimes if the person who commits the crime does so motivated by malicious intention based on certain characteristics including race, color, national origin, or religion. While Pennsylvania’s General Assembly expanded the definition in this law to include gender identity and sexual orientation in 2002, that law was struck down by the Commonwealth Court in 2007 due to a technicality in the bill’s passage. The Pennsylvania House passed HB 1027 in October 2023 to again expand the definition but has since stalled in the State Senate Judiciary Committee. At this moment, the Mercer County District Attorney would not have jurisdiction to prosecute a hate crimes charge under Pennsylvania law on the explicit basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Congress enacted the Matthew Shepard And James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009 which provides federal hate crimes protections regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. While these explicit protections include sexual orientation and gender identity, the US Department of Justice would only be able to prosecute a case if certain factors are met, such as a nexus with interstate commerce and an authorization from an Attorney General.

The Pennsylvania Youth Congress tracks the known murders of transgender and gender-expansive Pennsylvanians. Pauly is at least the 20th murder of a transgender or gender-expansive Pennsylvanian in the past 10 years, and the youngest. A Mercer County official confirmed to the Pennsylvania Youth Congress that as of yesterday, July 5, 2024, police have still not finished recovering all of Pauly’s remains.

The Sharon City School District announced that school counselors will be available at the Sharon Middle/High School on Monday, July 8, 2024, from 9:00am through 12:00pm for students who would like to speak with someone regarding Pauly’s death.

Community stakeholders including SVPP, the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, and others will continue to support LGBTQ communities in the region and across the state through this terrible tragedy.

To transgender and gender-expansive youth in Pennsylvania and beyond, Heldibridle ended with “We remember Pauly as she lived — a bright, funny young girl loved by her friends and family. We protect each other. We must look out for one another, every single day. 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.”