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Transgender Star Lorena Escalera's Murder Still Unsolved a Year After Death

By Meredith Hoffman | May 7, 2013 7:01am | Updated on May 7, 2013 7:33am
 Lorena Escalera was smothered in her room May 12, 2012, and then her apartment was set fire, officials said.
Lorena Escalera
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BUSHWICK — Her striking pop dance moves in spike heels and shimmering bodysuits, her "All the Single Ladies" Beyonce rendition and her steadfast committment to friends in New York and Puerto Rico will not be forgotten — and neither will the 25-year-old's mysterious murder.

Lorena Escalera, a star transgender performer whose death last May was ruled a homicide by the NYPD, perished when she was suffocated in her Bushwick apartment that was then set on fire on Furman Avenue, officials said.

With no conclusion to the year-long investigation, Escalera's friends and family said they're tormented by a lack of closure in the case.

"What worries me is that things are going to stay the same because it's already been a year and the story hasn't changed," said Escalera's mother, Maria Ferrer, in Spanish from her home in Puerto Rico. "She was always so happy, very dedicated, friendly...she'd never hurt anyone to achieve her goals."

Lorena Escalera performance
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Youtube/Lorena Xtravaganza

Escalera — known as Lorena Xtravaganza for her membership in the renowned House of Xtravaganza group of 130 LGBTQ performers and artists, including the house "father" who formerly danced with Madonna — came "a long way" in her brief career starting as a youth in Puerto Rico, her cousin Jerry Rodriguez recalled.

"She started as a young man doing makeup and she told her mother she'd love to pursue her career in NYC, and she finally got in the city and started developing into the performer she was," said Rodriguez, noting that Escalera had her gender surgery when she came to New York.

"She was a beautiful person, and we feel like whoever did this did it out of spite...We just want closure."

Family and friends, who have been frustrated by the lack of results in the investigation, have been flooding Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz's Facebook page with notes this week to demand more information be released about the still-unsolved case.

A representative for Markowitz's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and the NYPD did not respond to questions for further details in the case.

To Escalera's former roommate, who was also in the apartment at the time of the fire, that fateful night weighs vivdly in his mind to this day.

"I woke up in the middle of the blaze...and the next morning [cops] took us to the precinct," said the roommate, who declined to give his name but said officials had shown him a surveillance video of a man entering the Furman Avenue building that day. "No one ever contacted me after to follow up."

To Raul Otero, Escalera's best friend from childhood who moved from Puerto Rico around the same time as the young performer, the sudden tragedy was "like a scene out of a horror movie."

"We just feel like we should make some noise; it's been a year already and there have been no updates on the case," said Otero, 27. "The only way we're going to have peace is if justice has been served."

For members of the House of Xtravaganza, the unsolved homicide also triggers tormenting memories of past violent deaths in their close-knit community.

"It brought back memories for us of when we lost Venus," said longtime member Karl Taps, 46, speaking about Venus Xtravaganza, who was murdered during the 1980s documentary shooting of "Paris is Burning." "There's a history against members of the transgender community...[Lorena] was someone we loved dearly, but there are also bigger implications as well."

As the May 12 anniversary of Escalera's death approaches, Taps said his house is just beginning to emerge out of months of paralyzed disbelief.

"It's caused for the house as a whole a state of shock which people are just starting to come out of," Taps said. "Her death was such a surprise  to everyone."