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Killing of Transgender Woman Shocks Harlem Community

By Jeff Mays | August 23, 2013 7:11am | Updated on August 23, 2013 12:37pm
 Police said Islan Nettles, 21, was taken off of life support after being attacked on Saturday.
Police said Islan Nettles, 21, was taken off of life support after being attacked on Saturday.
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HARLEM — Whenever she came into Nutrive Fitness Studio and Juice Bar on 148th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, Islan Nettles lit up the store.

"She was very cheerful and also very sexy," said owner Dayan Jenniffer. "She was just upbeat."

Jenniffer was shocked when detectives from the NYPD came into the store this week, telling her that Nettles, 21, a transgender woman, had died from injuries sustained during a brutal beating just across the street in what police are investigating as a hate crime.

She was taken off life support Thursday at Harlem Hospital after being declared brain dead.

According to police, Nettles and a group of transgender women were out shortly after midnight Friday when they ran into a group of men on the west side of 148th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, according to court documents.

Once the men discovered that Nettles and her friends were transgender, violence broke out with punches being thrown and homophobic slurs being hurled, police said.

Paris Wilson, 20, was arrested on misdemeanor assault charges Saturday and released the next day after paying bail, records and prosecutors said.

"I'm just so surprised because it happened so close to the precinct," Jenniffer said.

The corner where the incident occurred is directly across from the housing bureau's Police Service Area 6 precinct, which patrols 18 public housing developments in the area.

"I feel so bad for her family, especially since this could have been a hate crime," Jenniffer added.

Detectives have been canvassing nearby stores looking for witnesses and video, according to area merchants.

Nettles, who also went by the names Vaughn Nettles and Alon Nettles, said on her LinkedIn page she had been working for the last two years as an intern assistant designer at a Harlem fashion house, Ay'Medici.

"Making my way into the Fashion industry has been my target since middle school," she wrote.

"Fashion became a definite decision for my life after my first show with my hand designed garments in high school at the 11th grade."

She also said she worked at Harlem Children's Zone as an assistant photographer and fashion instructor and took courses at New York City College of Technology after graduating from Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School in Harlem in 2009.

Jenniffer said every time she saw Nettles she was with a group of other transgender friends. She was usually laughing or smiling and was always well put together and confident.

Nutrive has a growing transgender clientele because the healthy drinks they offer help people on hormones stay balanced, but Harlem can still be a difficult place for that community, the owner said.

"In Harlem, it can be dangerous for transgenders to approach men. Some of the men are very aggressive and close-minded," said Jenniffer. "You have to be careful who you approach."

Ivana Black, 42, a transgender woman who is also an entertainer, had also seen Nettles around the neighborhood.

"On a daily basis I get harassed with cat calls and I haven't beaten anyone," Black said.

She takes precautions against violence by getting to know her neighbors.

"I make myself visible. I say 'hi' to people and their kids. If I went missing, someone would notice," Black said.

Scott Stringer, Manhattan's Borough President, said, "We pride ourselves on tolerance and generosity toward others in this city, but the murder of Islan Nettles is a reminder of how far we still have to go in ensuring that all New Yorkers can walk the streets with dignity and safety."

The news of Nettles' death began spreading Thursday night around Harlem's LGBT community, said Carmen Neely, president of Harlem Pride. She posted "THIS MUST STOP!!" on the group's Facebook page and called on suspects to be fully prosecuted for a hate crime.

Neely blamed the incident on transphobia.

"Transgender people have rights," she said.

"They should be able to walk the streets and have a conversation and not be beaten or lose their lives.

"Whatever the conversation was that night, it should not have resulted in her death," she added.

While Neely said Harlem is more welcoming to gay people than ever and that Harlem Pride has received a lot of support for its events, there is still a lot of education that needs to be done.

"It's just ignorance and misunderstanding of something different from themselves," she said.

"We need to embrace our transgender brothers and sisters."

EDITOR'S NOTE: Police initially said the incident took place Saturday night, but a criminal complaint released by the District Attorney's office showed it as happening early Saturday morning.