Crime

Police arrest suspect in brutal 2015 slaying of transgender woman

Fresno police have arrested a man they believe to be responsible for the brutal killing of a transgender woman more than two years ago.

Richard Joseph Lopez, 37, was charged with the July 2015 murder of 66-year-old Kenton Craig Haggard, who friends say went by “Casey” or “KC.” Police Chief Jerry Dyer said Lopez has a criminal history and was in jail for an unrelated elder abuse case when detectives identified him as the murderer.

Haggard, 66, was stabbed to death while walking along Blackstone Avenue in the early morning of July 23, 2015. Police believed at the time that the suspect was looking for a woman to pay for sex when he encountered Haggard, who friends and family said was in the process of transitioning from a man to a woman.

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Richard Joseph Lopez, of Fresno, was arrested Monday for allegedly killing a transgender woman in central Fresno in 2015. Fresno police

Police received the murderer’s description from a prostitute he met with about 10 hours after Haggard was killed, and investigators found surveillance video of the murder that had been captured by a nearby tattoo shop.

On Monday, Dyer untangled the lengthy investigation that ultimately led to Lopez’s arrest:

Within the first few days, detectives traced the silver SUV shown in the surveillance footage to a northeast Fresno address. In the video, the passenger of this SUV is shown stabbing Haggard once in the throat. Haggard staggers away, while the vehicle drives off. Haggard walked a few feet before collapsing.

Analysts at the federal crime lab were able to connect the SUV to the murder. Police then issued a murder warrant for the SUV’s registered owner, who was caught and arrested in Oregon. Detectives traveled to Oregon to interview the SUV owner and eventually found out he had sold the car to Lopez.

Detectives eventually tracked down Refugio Cedillo, who they say cleaned the SUV for Lopez after the murder. Cedillo was not charged with a crime and died in an unrelated motorcycle crash in December, Dyer said.

Dyer would not go into detail about the vehicle’s driver. When pressed on whether the driver had been charged with a crime, Dyer said that certain people had cooperated with the department’s investigation and could not be put at risk by identifying them.

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Kenton Craig Haggard, shown here in a Fresno Police Department photo and identified as such, was murdered in 2015. Fresno police

Detectives arrested Lopez on Monday shortly after he was sentenced to three years in prison for stealing an elderly couple’s truck in November. Fresno County Sheriff’s deputies say the couple had taken Lopez in and fed him during a snowy Auberry night.

The motive for Haggard’s murder had not yet been determined, Dyer said.

It’s unclear whether the Fresno County District Attorney’s office will seek a hate-crime enhancement against Lopez. When asked about this, Deputy District Attorney Robert Romanacce, who was also at the news conference, said the office’s policy is to never comment on active cases.

Dyer said the Federal Bureau of Investigation would be consulted due to the hate crime possibility, which was “based on the fact that Kenton Haggard was a transgender.”

However, the hate-crime enhancement can be difficult to prove in court, and it will ultimately be up to the district attorney to decide whether seek it.

In the more than two years since Haggard’s death, the case became one of the most high-profile unsolved murder cases in Fresno.

Vigils and marches were held in Haggard’s memory immediately following the murder and on its one-year and two-year anniversaries.

Zoyer Zyndel, the board chair of local transgender advocacy group Trans-E-Motion, organized the events following Haggard’s death. He said Monday that the arrest was “very surreal” and a major relief.

“Almost all transgender murders end up as cold cases,” Zyndel said. “This arrest can lead to real justice and is quite frankly a miracle in our community.”

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Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer announces the arrest of Richard Joseph Lopez, who is accused of stabbing a transgender woman to death in 2015. RORY APPLETON rappleton@fresnobee.com

Crimes against transgender people often go unreported, and Zyndel hopes this arrest will motivate more in the community to come forward – particularly if they’ve been the victim of violence.

“This sends a message that murdering a transgender person in Fresno for any reason is not OK, and transphobia is punishable by the full extent of the law,” he said.

Zyndel was among those calling for the public to identify Haggard as a woman. This issue remained a touchy one at Monday’s news conference.

Law enforcement originally referred to Haggard as male, using titles like “Mr. Haggard” or “Kenton Craig Haggard” – the name on Haggard’s driver’s license. This led to conflict with Fresno’s transgender community, who called on authorities to recognize the intense pressure faced by its members during their transitions. Misidentifying transgender crime victims can damage important efforts to catalog hate-motivated crimes against certain sexual orientations, the activists added.

On Monday, Dyer used Haggard’s name and referred to him as “Mr. Haggard.” He said that while activists have called for Haggard to be identified as a woman, Haggard’s family members had asked police to refer to the victim as a man.

Dyer stressed the distinction between “his or her orientation” was less important than highlighting the diligent work of his detectives in tracking down Haggard’s killer.

In the years that followed Haggard’s death, larger and larger cash rewards for information leading to an arrest were offered. In July, Fresno City Councilman Clint Olivier announced a $2,000 increase, raising the total reward to $7,000.

Dyer said in the news conference that, while Crime Stoppers is an invaluable tool, the reward did not lead to an arrest in this case. Most of the tips called into investigators proved to be false, Dyer added, which wasted valuable investigation time. It was physical evidence and interviews with various people involved with Lopez and his vehicle that ultimately led to his identification.

After learning of the arrest Monday, Olivier said that “words can’t express how pleased I am with this news.”

“The idea that someone can just be walking down the street and be slashed and murdered in cold blood is a terrifying thought,” he said.

Olivier added that the previously unsolved case had an added personal element, as it occurred just around the corner from his home, and he thanked the department for its work.

“With this guy off the streets, Fresno is definitely a lot safer tonight,” Olivier said.

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