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‘I didn’t want to wrap my head around it’: Family, friends remember slain trans woman

Updated April 28, 2024 - 1:38 pm

Sasha Williams’ loved ones struggle to understand why someone would want to hurt the selfless artist described as having “a heart of gold.”

“She died in cold blood, in broad daylight, in the middle of the street in Las Vegas,” lamented David Leach, the 36-year-old victim’s close friend. “I just have this big question mark that just lays in my head all the time on that — what happened?”

Williams, who came out as a trans woman in her teens, was stabbed to death near Palos Verdes Street and Twain Avenue, a neighborhood east of the Strip.

Leach wonders whether Williams’ identity contributed to her slaying on the morning of Jan. 26.

The Metropolitan Police Department arrested Hassan Howard, 20, at his family’s nearby apartment shortly after the killing.

The 20-year-old was booked on a murder count but didn’t speak to detectives, according to his arrest report, which doesn’t shed light on a possible motive outside of a quarrel.

“Witnesses described the female victim as running down the sidewalk carrying a pink baseball bat and yelling for someone to call the police,” reads the declaration of arrest.

The murder case against Hassan Malik Howard is tied up in District Court while officials determine if he’s able assist in his defense. Court records show that two doctors declared him incompetent to stand trial. He remained jailed with no bond Thursday.

The Clark County chief deputy district attorney prosecuting the case declined to comment.

Leach and Williams’ aunt, Tina Thornton, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the victim had suffered from depression compounded by the loss of her Centennial Hills home and her dogs.

Williams had spiraled into darkness and drug use in the months preceding her death, and grew distant, Leach said.

Thornton had begged her niece to return to North Carolina to reset, while Leach filed a missing person’s report the month prior to his friend’s death, they said.

“I wanted her to say, ‘I’m ready to come home. Are you gonna get my ticket?’” Thornton said in a phone interview.

‘Very smart kid’

Williams was born and raised by a single father in Raleigh, North Carolina. She was her parents’ only child.

A couple of aunts also had looked after her throughout her childhood.

Williams enrolled in Job Corps, a federal program that helps young adults launch careers, and obtained a GED, said Thornton, who described her as a “very smart kid; very smart.”

In a car ride when Williams was about 16, the teenager came out to her aunt as female, expressing that her name was Sasha, Thornton said.

It took years for her father to accept his trans daughter, but he came around, Thornton said. Father and daughter eventually grew close.

In the midst of transitioning a few years later, Williams landed in a men’s prison for outstanding warrants and an assault charge, Thornton said.

“That was pretty intense for her as well, I think, mentally,” Leach said about Williams reestablishing her womanhood.

Thornton said her niece, who sang and danced, had always dreamed of being a performer in Las Vegas.

‘She’s something different, something special’

Leach was new to the city in 2021 when he met Williams in the local “ballroom” community — a Black and Latino LGBTQ+ subculture in which participants vogue, sing and dance.

“She really stuck out in my head for some reason,” he said. “And I was like, ‘I really like this girl: She’s something different, something special.’”

They later became friends after they ran into each other in downtown Las Vegas.

“This little light-skin girl walks by, and I’m like, ‘I know you,’” Leach said. “From there, it was like inseparable.”

Leach and Thornton recalled Williams’ sense of giving: taking friends in, paying for studio time for musician friends.

They spoke about her knack for fashion design, and her talents as a certified hair, nails and makeup professional.

She would craft her own clothes and once upholstered her car with cheetah print, her favorite, Leach said.

Her aunt and her friend talked to Williams daily, and they both recalled delivery drivers showing up at their door with goodies sent by Williams when she found out they had medical ailments.

Leach said he misses his friend’s southern accent, and their visits to her favorite boiled crab restaurant.

He cherishes the memory of the time they watched over the Strip from a parking garage while they picked at the seafood placed over newspaper in the back of his car.

They argued, playfully, about a dance contest in which both placed first and second place, and over who really earned the $1,000 prize.

He gave her $500, which she returned as a parting gift when he went away to Paris for monthslong artist residency.

Lost hope

There was little left of Williams’ big personality when he came back, said Leach, adding that it appeared as if she had given up and that the small window to get her help was dwindling.

“I couldn’t really wrap my head around it,” he said. “I didn’t want to wrap my head around it that she’s not gonna come out of this, but she didn’t come out of it.”

Leach said she’d been angry that he reported her missing, later telling him that she felt ashamed.

As for Howard, his defense attorney wants a judge to release him to his family under supervision for psychiatric care and to hold Nevada in contempt because they haven’t found him a bed in a state psychiatric facility, where he can be treated in an attempt to make him competent to face the charge, court records show.

Howard’s attorney Ozzie Fumo did not return messages seeking comment.

Leach said his police report helped detectives identify Williams.

He said it hurts to think that out of the only two people who might know a motive, one is dead, and that the alleged killer hasn’t spoken to authorities.

“I want to know what it was like to take your last breath at the hands of a 20-year-old that you barely know and for what?” he said. “We just don’t know; I just want to know.”

Williams’ cremated remains were sent to North Carolina. Her aunt said she saw her father cry for the first time after a memorial service.

Contact Ricardo Torres-Cortez at rtorres@reviewjournal.com.

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