The murder of Gwen Araujo

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Gwen Araujo was born on February 24, 1985 in Brawley, California to Edward Araujo & Sylvia Guerrero; when she was 10 months old, her parents divorced. Gwen was born with male genitalia & her parents named her Eddie though even early on in life, she felt more comfortable identifying as a female vs. a male. She often played  dress-up with her sisters & loved experimenting with hairstyles & makeup.  At age fourteen, in 1999, she sat down to have a conversation with her mom, telling her, “I don’t feel like a boy, I feel like a freak.” After a lot of tears & talking, Sylvia assured her daughter that she would fully support her transition. She began using the name Gwen at this point, after her favorite musician, Gwen Stefani; she also went by Wendy & Lida. She began to grow her hair long & eventually planned to start hormone therapy & undergo surgery.

Gwen’s older sister, Pearl didn’t understand what was happening & began to notice that Gwen was growing her hair out & beginning to wear makeup. The first time Pearl saw her sister’s makeup smeared, she yelled, “What’s wrong with you?” She fully didn’t grasp what being transgender meant until her sister died. It took time for the family to adjust to the changes but they gradually began to accept Gwen as a woman. Pearl said that Gwen was bullied in junior high because of her voice & as she moved on to high school,  Sylvia ended up pulling her out for safety purposes; Gwen wasn’t allowed to use the female restroom & was often teased & threatened at school. She transferred to an alternative high school though didn’t return for the 2002-2003 school year. 

In September of 2002, when Gwen was seventeen, she met 22-year-old Michael Magidson who invited her to hang out with him & his friends, 22-year-old Jose Merel, 19-year-old Jaron Nabors & 22-year-old Jason Cazares. The night they met, they smoked marijuana together & Gwen flirted with the men & told them her name was Lida. Over the next several weeks, the flirtation turned intimate; Gwen sexually engaged with Michael & Jose. During her encounter with Jose, Gwen told him that she was menstruating & pushed his hands away from her genitals to prevent him from discovering that she had male genitalia. After several similar situations, the pair began to wonder why Gwen wouldn’t allow them to touch certain parts of her body & at one point, Jaron Nabors asked the other three, “Could this be a dude?” None of the men took the question seriously at the time & just laughed it off. 

In late September, Gwen got into a physical fight with the girlfriend of Paul Merel, Jose Merel’s older brother; the girlfriend was Nicole Brown & the fight started after Nicole challenged Gwen to strip for the men. Nicole was caught off guard when Gwen punched her with force & Brown said that the guys “were tripping because she was smaller than me & just as strong. She fought like a guy.” Michael & Jose began discussing the possibility that Gwen was a man & said that if she was, something bad would happen. Michael told Jose, “whatever you do, don’t make a mess.” 

On the night of Thursday, October 3, 2002, Jose Merel was having a party at the house in Newark, California that he rented & shared with his younger brother, Manny & older brother Paul who had also previously become sexual with Gwen. The house was known to be a party house & that night it was Michael, Manny, Paul, Nicole, Jaron, Jason & . As the night progressed, they sat around the kitchen table playing dominos & decided to confront Gwen & demanded that she take her pants down to prove that she wasn’t a man. Michael took Gwen to the bathroom where they stayed for 30-45 minutes. In the meantime, the group continued to ask Nicole what her thoughts were & she felt that Gwen was a female. They told her that despite engaging in sexual acts, Gwen stopped them from touching certain parts of her body. Nicole volunteered to check. She knocked on the door & they let her in; when Nicole asked Gwen if she was a man, Gwen looked down. Nicole spread Gwen’s legs as hard as she could & grabbed her crotch area. Nicole left the bathroom, screaming that Gwen was a man. When Gwen finally left the bathroom, Michael punched her & knocked her to the ground; they lifted her legs & pulled her underwear to the side to confirm that she was a man. Several times, Michael tried to put Gwen in a choke hold but each time, the others pulled him away.

Jose Merel, Michael Magidson, Jaron Nabors

Michael, Jaron & Jason went outside while Nicole & Jose stayed inside with Gwen. Nicole tried to calm a distraught Jose down saying he was so upset that he vomited; she assured him that he wasn’t gay as he cried & carried on. Nicole suggested that they just let Gwen leave, which she also told Gwen who sat in the bathroom. Gwen left the bathroom & exited the house through the front door but was forced back inside by Michael, Jaron & Jason. Several times, Gwen tried to get to a phone to call her mom though she was prevented. Manny testified that he also tried to help get Gwen out of the house but Jaron & Michael stopped him & they brought Gwen to the living room. She begged for them to just let her go, telling them that she had a family. Jose went to the kitchen & got a frying pan & struck Gwen in the head, then went back to the kitchen, grabbing a can of food, again, striking her in the head. 

Right before this happened, Nicole went to her boyfriend, Paul’s room; he had left as things started to become confrontational. When she came back out, she saw that Michael had blood all over his hands & Gwen was bloodied on the couch. This was when Nicole, Manny & Paul decided to leave the house; they stayed the night at a friend’s house. 

Jaron & Jason left in Michael’s truck to pick up a shovel & pickaxe from Jason’s house. When they returned, Gwen was still conscious & bleeding from her head wound & sitting on the couch until Jose noticed the blood & ordered her off to protect the couch. Jose began cleaning the couch while Michael punched Gwen in the face twice until she fell to the floor. He then drove his knee into her face with such force that her head hit the opposite wall, breaking the plaster. Jaron said that Gwen still appeared conscious at this point.

Jason Cazares

Michael then wrapped her in a comforter to control the amount of blood on the carpet & brought her into the garage. Jaron testified that Michael strangled Gwen with a rope & Jason hit her with a shovel & said he was coming back from the garage & didn’t see her die; he claimed he saw Michael raising the rope to her neck & that he later told the others that he had wrapped the rope around Gwen’s neck & twisted it & that he wasn’t sure if this killed her or the blows from the shovel that Jason inflicted but after she had been struck twice with the shovel, they knew she was dead. 

Gwen’s autopsy showed that she died of strangulation associated with blunt force trauma to the head. The four men then drove her body nearly four hours away to the Silver Forks campground in El Dorado National Forest. On their way home, they stopped at the McDonald’s drive-through for breakfast. When Nicole later asked Jose Merel what happened, he said, “Let’s just say she had a long walk home.” 

When Sylvia woke up the next day, October 4th, to get ready for work, she noticed that Gwen’s contact case sat open inside the vanity which made her immediately panicked, sure that something was wrong.  Gwen was reported missing on October 5th. Initially her case was not taken seriously partly because she was transgender & also because she was known to stay away from home overnight. Police had no information until Jaron told a close friend about what happened. Word got back to Gwen’s family that a girl who had been outed as a transgender at a party had been murdered & buried in Tahoe.  

Gwen’s mom, Sylvia

On October 9th, Gwen’s aunt called the police with the information. Investigators contacted Jaron’s friend who agreed to wear a wire when he went to speak with him. During a police interrogation with Jaron, he went into detail about what happened & who was involved. On October 15th, he took police to Gwen’s body; she had been hogtied, bludgeoned & strangled to death & buried in a shallow grave under rocks. In addition to Jaron, police arrested Jose Merel & Michael Magidson who were accused of strangling Gwen & a few weeks later, Jason was also arrested after police intercepted a letter that Jaron wrote to his girlfriend, implicating his role in the murder. Paul Merel was released after Emmanuel & Nicole confirmed that he left with them. 

The case became a cry for transgender rights & vigils & marches were held in several San Francisco Bay Area cities seeking justice for Gwen. Gwen’s murder was compared to the brutal death of Matthew Shepard four years earlier in Laramie, Wyoming; Matthew was a 21-year-old gay man who was beaten, tortured & left to die on October 6, 1998. At the time of Gwen’s murder, Newark Memorial High School was getting ready to stage a play about Matthew’s death called the Laramie Project & the community connected the comparisons between what happened to Matthew & how Gwen was killed. 

The case garnered both good & bad national attention. Initial coverage by several media outlets described Gwen as a cross-dressing man. Some argued that she was being deceitful while others firmly felt she was just being who she was. Police & the family referred to her by her birth name, Eddie & used the pronouns he/him. Transgender activists educated the family about what it means to be transgender & the proper use of pronouns & that the name Gwen should be used with the pronouns she/her. Pastor Fred Phelps from the Westboro Baptist Church announced that he planned to picket the play, the Laramie Project as well as Gwen’s funeral. He led pickets where extremely hateful signs were carried. 

Gwen’s funeral was held in Newark on October 25, 2002; Pastor Phelps didn’t attent to picket though other anti-gay/anti-trans demonstrators did. Gwen’s mom, Sylvia released seventeen butterflies at her daughter’s funeral; one for each year that she lived. Some friends from her high school came dressed wearing angel wings & attempted to keep the protestors away from the grieving family.

In 2003, Jaron agreed to testify against the other three defendants in exchange for pleading no contest to a reduced charge of involuntary manslaughter on February 24, 2003 & on August 25, 2006, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison & released sometime before 2016.

During his indictment proceedings, he said that as the men were burying Gwen, they continued to demean her & he testified that he could not believe anyone could be that deceitful & said that Jose Merel added that “he was so mad he could still kick her a couple more times” even after she had died.

Before the first trial, the prosecuting attorney argued that simply being transgender should not have been a death sentence. The first trial for Michael, Jose & Jason began on April 14, 2004, a year & a half after Gwen’s murder & throughout the trial, both the prosecutor & defense used male pronouns & Gwen’s deadname & demonstrated clear anti-transgender bias in the courtroom. The defense’s strategy focused on “manslaughter in the heat of passion” & tried to prove that there was no premeditation in Gwen’s murder & that she was the guilty one; guilty of sexual deceit. Magidson’s attorney said he wasn’t biased but was shocked “beyond reason” to learn that he had unknowingly had sex with a “man” which is a variant of the gay panic defense which is a legal strategy where a defendant claims that their violence was because of same-sex sexual advances. After nine days of deliberation, it ended in a mistrial on June 22, 2004. The jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of acquitting Jason & Jose of first-degree murder. They also deadlocked 7-5 in favor of convicting Michael of first-degree murder. Gwen’s family was devastated.

The day after the first trial ended, the court granted Sylvia permission for a posthumous name change & on June 23, 2004 Sylvia was able to legally change her daughter’s name to Gwen Amber Rose Araujo; Amber Rose was the name Sylvia would have named her child had she been born a girl. It was the first time in California history that a court granted a name change after the death of a trans person. On June 25th, the first trans march was held in San Francisco & Sylvia spoke at the event. Moving forward in the coming trial, the prosecution & defense were required to use Gwen’s name properly as well as use of proper pronouns.

The second trial started on May 31, 2005 & Michael, Jose & Jason were charged with first-degree murder with hate-crime enhancements. Four months later, the jury found Michael & Jose guilty of second-degree murder & they faced 15 years to life in prison. When Jose was given the chance to speak, he tearfully expressed a deep sorrow & regret to Gwen’s family though Michael showed no remorse for his role in murdering Gwen & only felt anger about his verdict. Jose was granted early parole in 2016 with the support of Gwen’s mom because of the remorse he showed. Michael’s parole has been denied twice, once in 2016 & the last time being September of 2019.

Once again, the jury deadlocked on Jason; this time 9-3 in favor of a conviction. To avoid a third trial Jason’s lawyer reached an agreement with prosecutors for a conviction of manslaughter on December 16, 2005 & he was sentenced to only six years in prison with credit for time already served. His request to begin serving his sentence after the birth of his third child who was expected in March or April of 2006 was also granted. He was released from prison in July of 2012.

Gwen’s murder resulted in some changes to the California law; in 2005, Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act which instructs jurors not to let bias against a victim’s gender identity or sexual orientation influence their decisions. 

In 2014, the law was strengthened by Governor Jerry Brown & Assembly Bill #2501 became the first state law in the nation to prohibit the use of “gay panic” or “trans panic” defenses. A defendant couldn’t claim that they committed murder because of the victim’s gender identity or sexual orientation. As of November 2022, seventeen states have bans on the use of gay & trans panic defenses. 

The trials lasted three years & after they were complete, Sylvia, Gwen’s mom said that the court procedures took an emotional toll on her; she lost her job as a legal assistant & ended up losing her home from the PTSD. She stayed with relatives for some time & now lives with one of her grandchildren. Her relationship with her children was also affected. She became an advocate for transgender rights & obtained a grant from the Horizons Foundation to speak to schools about what it’s like to raise a transgender child & what the transgender youth face in society. 

Gwen’s older sister Pearl feels like they’ve lost their mom because she’s stuck in her grief & living in the prison of her own mind. 

Gwen’s murder helped inspire the transgender community & Bamby Salcedo went on to establish The TransLatin Coalition & began to fight for transgender rights after learning of her death. Her mother Sylvia feels that, “In her death, she has literally saved thousands of lives. I can’t tell you how many people have told me, because of your daughter, I am free to be who I am.”


  1. Wikipedia: Matthew Shepard
  2. Abc 7 News: ‘Being Gwen: A life & death story’
  3. Wikipedia: Murder of Gwen Araujo
  4. Gender & Social Change: The Trial of Gwen Araujo’s Killers
  5. Witness Jaron Nabors testified in Araujo murder case

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