Crime

‘Pure hatred,’ mom says of trans teen’s slaying that allegedly involved girlfriend

Ally Steinfeld, 17, was a transgender teen killed earlier this month. Some have made calls to investigate her death as a hate crime.
Ally Steinfeld, 17, was a transgender teen killed earlier this month. Some have made calls to investigate her death as a hate crime.

A transgender teen who was stabbed, her body mutilated and burned, was dating a woman allegedly involved in the gruesome crime.

Ally Steinfeld, 17, was a trans female who said in May on her Instagram account that she was coming out. Then, less than five months later, she was gruesomely killed at her girlfriend’s house. The girlfriend, who is among three charged with first-degree murder and other crimes, wanted her dead, according to interviews conducted by Texas County Sheriff’s investigators.

Briana Calderas, 24, began dating Steinfeld about a week before her death, according to Amber Steinfeld, the slain girl’s mother.

“She was excited, talking about her and Briana meeting (the family),” Amber Steinfeld told The Star on Thursday. “She was happy.”

She added Steinfeld had told her she was pansexual, which describes being attracted to people regardless of gender.

Police believe Steinfeld was killed Sept. 3 in Calderas’ Cabool, Mo., home — where they found a burn pile, human remains and blood on the living room carpet. Andrew Vrba, 18, admitted that he tried to poison Steinfeld, police say. When she didn’t drink the liquid, he stabbed her multiple times, gouging out her eyes and stabbing her genitals, according to court documents.

Calderas and Vrba’s friend Isis Schauer allegedly then traveled to a nearby Walmart to buy supplies to help burn the body.

All three are charged with first-degree murder, abandonment of a corpse and armed criminal action.

Steinfeld killing
Four people are charged in connection to the killing of 17-year-old Ally Steinfeld, a transgender teen. All but James Grigsby are charged with first-degree murder. Texas County Sheriff’s Office

Calderas told police she didn’t want her girlfriend killed, but Schauer and Vrba’s statements “contradicted that,” court documents say.

“They stated Calderas did want Steinfeld killed, and even mentioned it several days prior to Steinfeld’s death,” a Texas County investigator wrote in court records.

It is unclear from court records if Schauer and Calderas were in the room at the time of the alleged killing. Kansas City defense attorney John Picerno said in general, an accomplice prosecution requires showing all parties involved had “common purpose with the other defendant to commit the murder.”

James Grigsby, a friend who allegedly went to Calderas’ home to help dispose of Steinfeld’s body, is also charged — with abandonment of a corpse and armed criminal action.

All four are in custody without bond.

Steinfeld’s mother moved away from Licking, Mo., in Texas County, about three months ago. Steinfeld stayed behind.

She was transiently living between friends’ couches in Texas County and her mother’s home about two hours north, in House Springs, since around the same time she came out, her mother said.

“(She) always had enough food and clothes and water, still safe, never in a bad environment,” Amber Steinfeld said. “Obviously until then.”

Amber Steinfeld said the family was beginning to accept Steinfeld’s gender identity, although in remembrances posted online, some relatives still referred to Steinfeld as male.

Her mother alternatively referred to Steinfeld as male and female to The Star.

“We were starting to (refer to her as female),” Amber Steinfeld said. “We’d known him as Joey for so long, but we accepted him for who he was.”

She called the alleged crimes “pure hatred and pure evil.”

Some have speculated whether the killing was a hate crime — whether Steinfeld’s gender identity was motivation in her killing.

For the past three years, LGBT advocacy groups have tallied the killings of more than 20 transgender people in the U.S. Yet state or federal hate crime laws are rarely used to prosecute the slayings.

Now many LGBT-rights groups are questioning the effectiveness of the laws, saying they sometimes focus too tightly on individual acts without addressing underlying bias or wider violence. Steinfeld’s death thrust the volatile issue back into the spotlight this week.

Texas County investigators insist — without specifying a motive — that Ally Lee Steinfeld’s death was not the result of anti-transgender hate.

“You don’t kill someone if you don’t have hate in your heart,” said James Sigman, the sheriff in Texas County. “But no, it’s not a hate crime.”

But about a week earlier, Sigman wrote in a Facebook post on the Office’s page: “As usual in homicide cases it is hard to make (sense) of the reason or figure out why people do the things that they do.”

Texas County Prosecutor Parke Stevens Jr. also insists Steinfeld’s slaying wasn’t a hate crime.

Tony Rothert, the legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, strongly urged officials to change tack.

“Any act of violence that targets a person simply because of their gender identity must be called out and investigated for what it is: a hate crime,” he told The Star. “We urge law enforcement and the prosecuting attorney to investigate and apply Missouri’s hate crime law to this case.”

Missouri is one of 17 states with hate crime laws that cover offenses targeting people on the basis of their gender identity. But those provisions have led to few prosecutions.

In fact, Steph Perkins of the Missouri LGBT-rights group PROMO and Jason Lamb of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys said they could not recall any crimes against transgender people that were prosecuted as hate crimes in the state.

But even if the Steinfeld case were deemed to fall under Missouri’s hate crime law, it probably would not result in a heavier penalty, since first-degree murder is already punishable by execution or life imprisonment.

A 2009 federal law, inspired partly by the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, included gender identity as a category to be covered by hate crime provisions, but only last May did those provisions lead to a conviction for the first time.

A Mississippi man, Joshua Vallum, received a 49-year prison sentence in the 2015 killing of Mercedes Williamson, a 17-year-old transgender woman who was shocked with a stun gun, stabbed and beaten to death to keep Vallum’s fellow Latin Kings gang members from discovering the two were having sex.

Linda Camara, a close friend of one of Steinfeld’s cousins, said she believed Steinfeld’s gender identity played some role in the killing.

Kobe Sutton, a former classmate of Vrba’s at Houston High, told The Star “obviously this whole thing seems like a hate crime, but for some reason I just don’t see that being the case.”

Sutton described the Houston community as a place where the “majority of the people you meet would be totally against” LGBT people. But he had no memories of Vrba expressing transphobic or homophobic sentiments.

He described Vrba as “a little odd.”

“He was always one of those outcast kids,” Sutton said. “He was always cracking jokes and stuff when he was with us, but other than those times he was alone.”

Lynsey Mckay, another classmate, described Vrba similarly.

“He was a bit strange and (an) outcast,” she said.

She added that they spoke often, and that Vrba had a “wicked thought process” and was a “little dark.”

“The music he listened to or the TV shows he’d watch — if he was telling me something and it was a bit gory, he would emphasize the gory details,” she said.

There was also tension at home with his stepfather or mother’s boyfriend, she added.

Jan Pointer, who grew up in Cabool, said intolerance has long been a problem in the city — so much so that it contributed to her moving away.

When she heard of the alleged crimes, she thought, “Dear good God, nothing has ever changed.”

Steinfeld’s father, Joseph Steinfeld Sr., told USA Today that he cannot afford burial for Steinfeld.

“But I can’t cremate him again,” he said, a reference to investigators saying Steinfeld’s body had been burned.

A benefit account has been created at Enterprise Bank in Cedar Hill, Mo. Funds can be donated to the “Joseph Steinfeld fund.” A GoFundMe account to help the family pay for funeral expenses has also been created.

Her mother, Amber Steinfeld, spoke through tears as she described her daughter — “very loving, caring, would help anybody in need, always smiled, tried to crack jokes to keep people happy.”

“All I can remember is laying down — I miss cuddling with her, at that age when she would cuddle with me,” she said. “She was wanting to come out, but it was only on social media.”

Why only on social media?

“She was scared. Because of ... just scared.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Max Londberg: 816-234-4378, @MaxLondberg

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