KEOKUK, Iowa (AP) — Two cousins kidnapped, suffocated and executed a gender-fluid Iowa teenager whom they pursued for sex after a chance encounter at a grocery store, a prosecutor said Thursday as he outlined the murder case against one of them.
The men tried to conceal the slaying of 16-year-old Kedarie Johnson, but left behind a "trail of evidence" that would connect them to the crime, prosecutor Christopher Perras told jurors in his opening statement.
"One of the men responsible for Kedarie's abduction and murder is that man, the defendant, Jorge Sanders-Galvez," Perras said, pointing across the courtroom.
He said he would ask jurors to "get justice for Kedarie" by finding Sanders-Galvez guilty of first-degree murder at the end of the trial, which could last two weeks. The other defendant, 25-year-old Jaron Purham, is expected to be tried later. Both face life in prison if convicted.
Sanders-Galvez's attorney has not outlined a defense. He decided not to make an opening statement Thursday, and he declined comment to The Associated Press ahead of the trial.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions assigned Perras, a Washington, D.C.-based federal prosecutor who has handled several hate crimes cases, to assist local prosecutors at the trial, which was moved outside of Burlington following extensive pretrial publicity in the eastern Iowa city of 25,000 people where the crime occurred. It's unusual for federal prosecutors to help in state cases, and Sessions' move has drawn attention to the March 2016 killing of the popular Burlington High School student who identified as both male and female.
Perras delivered a 25-minute opening statement as Johnson's mother sat in the front row. He said Johnson was an ordinary high school student in every way but one: He was a boy who sometimes liked to dress and act as a girl named Kandicee. Fellow students at first "thought that was pretty weird," Perras said, but soon began to accept Johnson's gender nonconformity.
"With his beaming smile and friendly attitude, it was hard not to," Perras said.
The night of the killing, Johnson taught a class at a youth community center, then went to a Hy-Vee grocery store, where he often used its wireless internet connection, Perras said. Sanders-Galvez and Purham had been smoking marijuana with friends and went to the store to get food, Perras said.
Johnson, who was wearing black leggings, a pink head band and long hair extensions, looked to the men like "a cute high school girl all by herself," Perras said. Surveillance video shows Johnson flinging his braids and smiling while leaving the store — with a red Impala driven by the men following.
Johnson walked to a classmate's nearby home, telling her he was scared and being followed by a man named "Lumni," which is Sanders-Galvez's nickname. That classmate testified Thursday that she saw a red car outside and offered to give Johnson a ride home. Johnson declined, insisting he would be fine.
Perras said the men got Johnson in their car and drove to a home where the cousins had been staying and where they'd joined each other in sexual encounters with women. He said a struggle ensued and the cousins stuffed a rag down Johnson's throat and put a plastic bag around his head. They threw the teen in their car and drove to an alley, where they shot Johnson twice in the chest and dumped his body, pouring bleach all over the body to try to destroy DNA evidence, Perras said.
Perras said Sanders-Galvez purchased the gun, a chrome .357 revolver, weeks earlier on Facebook. Sanders-Galvez gave the gun to a friend hours after the killing, then retrieved it later and fled about 200 miles (320 kilometers) south to St. Louis with Purham, who had the gun in his car when he was arrested weeks later, Perras said. Testing at the Iowa crime lab linked the bullets used to kill Johnson to the weapon.
Other evidence Perras said authorities recovered included Johnson's backpack at the home where the cousins were staying and incriminating text and Facebook messages sent the night of the killing.
Sanders-Galvez also used his cellphone to search the internet 57 times for information about the investigation in the following weeks, beginning at 4 a.m. the day after Johnson's death, he said.
"As the police were closing in, it seemed to be the only thing on the defendant's mind," he said.