A 19-month-old investigation into the shooting death of the first of three transgender victims last year in Jacksonville ended with the arrest of a 21-year-old man, the Sheriff’s Office said.
Sean Bernard Phoenix of Acorn Park Court was arrested Aug. 29 on a warrant for murder. He also faces charges of tampering with evidence and shooting deadly missiles as he remains behind bar without bail, according to Duval County jail records. Police did not release details of his arrest or connection to the case until Wednesday.
He is charged in the homicide of 36-year-old Celine Walker, who was shot multiple times and killed Feb. 4 in a room at the Extended Stay America motel on Skinner Lake Drive, Chief T. K. Waters said.
The shooting occurred during an argument. Waters said the two “had a previous relationship,” but he did not release the details.
“Additional evidence placed the suspect at the scene during the shooting,” Water said. ”... The arrest in this case brings closure to the victim’s family, who has been very helpful and supportive in our investigative efforts.”
JASMYN Director of Policy Dan Merkan said he only learned of the arrest Wednesday afternoon and shared it with staff.
The nonprofit agency promotes equality and human rights for young members of the LGBT community. It has worked with the Sheriff’s Office in the past year on a new liaison team that works with LGBT crime victims following complaints to City Council after last year’s three transgender homicides.
“It was a pretty traumatic time and a lot of people were concerned about the level of violence directed at the transgender community,” Merkan said. “Great credit to JSO for getting this arrest. It sounds like from the report that the suspect confessed, so that is a great step forward. I know there is still work to be done on the others, but it is a real relief to know what happened in this case.”
Several shell casings were recovered at Walker’s motel room, as well as DNA evidence, Waters said. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement studied the DNA and identified it as coming from Phoenix, Waters said.
“That DNA was on the victim’s body inside the hotel room,” Waters said. ”... The suspect also admitted to selling the murder weapon to an unknown individual after the victim was killed in an effort to dispose of the evidence.”
Walker’s death was the first of three transgender homicides that occurred over a five-month period in the city.
The second occurred about 3:45 a.m. June 1, when 38-year-old local performer Antash’a Devine Sherrington English was shot between two abandoned homes in the 1500 block of Ella Street. She told officers the shooter was a man in a gray hoodie, then died at a hospital, police said.
The last transgender homicide of 2018 was June 24 outside the Quality Inn and Suites on Dix Ellis Trail. Identified as Cathalina Christina James, 24, of Bishopville, S.C., the Sheriff’s Office said witnesses told investigators the victim was “participating in illegal activity.”
According to the Human Rights Campaign, the three homicides made up 23 percent of the nation’s 13 transgender victims as of June 2018.
The three deaths as well as the June 12, 2018, shooting of a 23-year-old transgender woman in the 1000 block of West 29th Street also left the city’s transgender community worried.
Community members organized a protest in late June 2018 in front of the courthouse after speaking out to the City Council.
The protest prompted Sheriff Mike Williams and others to have a town meeting Aug. 2, 2018, to hear their concerns. He acknowledged faults in his department’s reporting. He said sensitivity training was being instituted in the police academy when it comes to dealing with those in the LGBT community, and he set up a liaison team to work with victims.
That team now has 20 members from all departments, Assistant Chief Adam Pendley saying recently that the past year’s work has gone well, another part of the community “we needed to reach out to.”