Yesterday, November 20th, was Transgender Day of Remembrance. Its inception was in 1999, when transgender advocate Gwendolyn Ann Smith wanted a way to remember and honor the life of Rita Hester, a black trans woman who had been murdered that year, as well as the other trans lives that were lost to violence. Today, it is celebrated and recognized by transgender individuals, communities, and their allies around the globe.
“Why do we need to have a trans day of remembrance?” some person might ask. Great question! It it clear that you, person who asked, are unaware of the sheer scale of threats of violence the trans community deals with, as many people are. So, this is a perfect opportunity for me to tell you about it!
Violence against trans individuals is nothing new, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. In fact, 2020 is now officially the deadliest year on record for trans individuals, with a horrifying 37 violent deaths in the United States reported by the Human Rights Campaign’s Transgender Justice Initiative, and a staggering 350 worldwide, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring project (TMM). This year, the TMM concluded that of the 350 violent deaths of trans people worldwide, 98% of those deaths were of trans women or trans feminine individuals. In the same report, they found that out of all murdered trans people whose occupation is known, 62% of those people were sex workers. Finally, within the United States, people of color made up 79% of trans people who were murdered.
The murders of trans people in an epidemic. Individuals who are trans are estimated to be up to 6 times more likely than cis people to be victims of police violence, and that number goes up if the person is a woman, a person of color, or has a disability. Even worse, the numbers we currently have on trans violence are as accurate as they can be—but not enough. Social stigmas, ignorance, and transphobia are all factors that can lead to a trans person’s death not being reported. The TMM can’t count, for example, trans people who were buried with their dead name, sex workers that no one looked for, or victims whose families or communities have covered them up.
Now that you know all of that, I encourage you to continue keeping up with the struggles of the trans community, because they need and deserve our help! To start, how about taking the time to read about just one of the hundred and hundreds of trans individuals who have had their lives taken from them. This is the story of the disappearance of Sage Smith.
Sage Smith went missing on November 20th, 2012—exactly eight years ago, and on the very same Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR). She lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, and was in cosmetology school, living in an apartment with two other girl friends. Sage was a trans women, as were her roommates, Shakira and Aubrey.
Around 5 PM on November 20th (which also happened to be the day before Thanksgiving) Sage told her roommate Aubrey that she was leaving for a date, and that she would be back at the apartment later that evening. She left, and later, around 6:30 PM, her stepsister happened to run into her on the street. Sage was on the phone with someone, so the two talked briefly before parting ways.
When Aubrey woke up in her apartment the next morning, she realized Sage wasn’t there, and could tell that she hadn’t even come home the night before. Sage’s phone, which she was so obsessed with she carried a portable charger with her just in case, went straight to voicemail over and over again. Aubrey called Sage’s family. Something was very wrong.
Sage’s parents called the police later that day to report their daughter missing. After establishing a grid search of the area Sage’s stepsister last saw her in, their next step was to try to figure out who Sage had been talking on the phone with when the two bumped into each other. Here, they hit a common roadblock in investigations: they didn’t have Sage’s cell phone password, so they couldn’t access the call records from the service provider right away. They had to file a request and wait several days. Luckily, they weren’t the only ones trying.
Back at their home, Sage’s family was tirelessly guessing their daughter’s phone password, over and over again. Amazingly, they eventually succeeded. They were able to immediately access Sage’s cell phone records, which showed them that the last call Sage had made from the phone had been to an out of state number that no one in the family had ever seen before.
With the same dedication and determination, Sage’s father Dean went to work: calling this unknown number, over and over and over again. There was never a response, or even a voicemail recording. The identity remained a mystery.
Dean took to the Internet. He posted the number on his Facebook page, imploring anyone who saw it to share it to others. If you know whose number this is, he urged, I need to know. The answer finally came to him in a message from a woman named Yanni.
Yanni told Dean that the phone number belonged to a man named Eric McFadden. Eric, she told him, had been in a relationship with Sage, but not one very many people knew about. Eric was already in a committed relationship, with a woman who was unaware her boyfriend was cheating on her. There was also, Yanni said, the issue that Sage was a trans woman, and Eric didn’t want his girlfriend, or anyone else, knowing that. Yanni sent Dean a photo of Eric, which Dean promptly put back on Facebook.
“Has anyone seen this guy?” he wrote in his post. “He was last seen with my son before my son went missing.” (This slip in pronouns has been generally accredited to an honest mistake that Dean often made).
In a strange and fortuitous coincidence, Charlottesville police also were considering Eric McFadden a possible suspect. On the same day that Yanni from Facebook went to police herself and told them everything she had told Dean, the precinct received a call requesting a health and safety check for a woman’s boyfriend, whom she hadn’t seen or heard from in days. When the police responded to the call, they realized that 1: it was the residence of one Eric McFadden, and 2: he was nowhere in that house. McFadden was missing, and so was Sage.
Esther, the girlfriend of McFadden who had called police to check on him in the first place, gave the officers her permission to search the apartment she shared with him. Out of everything there, only one scrap of paper seemed helpful: a receipt from a CVS pharmacy that had been printed on November 22nd, 2012—2 full days after Sage was last seen. To police, this looked bad for McFadden. If he hadn’t gone missing with Sage, it seemed more than likely that he had been the one to hurt her. However, many friends of Eric also said that Dean Smith’s Facebook post linking Eric to Sage could have been enough to make Eric flee, out of embarrassment and shame more than guilt. If Eric thought that he could have been outed for dating a trans woman, they said, he would have done anything to get away.
On the 27th of November, Charlottesville police receive a phone call from Eric McFadden himself. He apologized for being gone the past week or so, and explained that he had left for a spontaneous trip to New York City, because he “had never been there before and had always wanted to go.” He does, though, admit to being in a sexual relationship with Sage Smith over the past few months. He tells police that on the night of the 20th, they did indeed have plans for a date, but that Sage never met him at their meeting spot. I’ll come back to Virginia, he tells police, so I can straighten this all out. Unsurprisingly, though, he never showed.
Meanwhile, Eric was back at home telling his girlfriend, Esther, an entirely new story. He claims that, after meeting up with Sage, they were taking a walk around town when they came across another group of people that made him feel uncomfortable. He suspected, he said, that this group of people were there to confront Sage—Sage, Eric said, had had a history of getting into relationships with closeted men, and would sometimes (according to Eric) blackmail them with the situation to get what she wanted. Eric, according to this story, left Sage and the entire situation, simply walking away.
On December 3rd, 2012, police get an alert from Sage’s credit card, which was being monitored along with her other financial activity. The card had been used that day at a connivence store in Virginia. Police rushed to contact the store and pull the security footage, but what they saw wasn’t Sage Smith. It was one of her roommates, Aubrey, who had been one of the last people to see her alive. Upon questioning by police, Aubrey insisted it was nothing to be suspicious about: they were roommates, they shared money to buy groceries and supplies all the time. Upon questioning Aubrey’s friends, though, people admitted her behavior had seemed strange over the past two weeks. Aubrey had spent the time since her friend’s disappearance trying on Sage’s wigs, her clothes, and her makeup, wearing them around the apartment. Aubrey continued to deny any sort of implication she had done anything to Sage, saying that her behavior was how she was coping with her roommate suddenly being gone.
After this possible lead is quashed, the case remains stagnant for another 2 months, until February 3rd, 2013. A woman named Monica, who had known Sage for years, comes to police as a new eyewitness. She tells them that on the evening of November 20th, 2012, she both saw and spoke to Sage at around 7 PM, at a restaurant in town. Sage had told Monica that she was here for a date, and that she was still waiting for the other person to show up. Monica said she chatted with Sage for a short time before leaving the restaurant, and her friend. The restaurant was called the Wild Wing Cafe, and it shared the building with the Charlottesville Amtrak train station: the spot Sage and Eric had planned to meet. This information seems promising: they have a more accurate timeline of the last day Sage was seen, and they know that she definitely intended to meet with Eric McFadden. But, with no McFadden and no other clues, the case can’t go forward. Once again, Sage’s family is forced to wait.
And really, that’s where they’re still at now: waiting. Sage’s case, like so many across the country and the world, remains stalled. There have been several small updates, but nothing that has really propelled any kind of progress forward. In November of 2015, police shocked the family and the public when they announced that the department no longer considered Eric McFadden a suspect in the disappearance of Sage. It didn’t make sense, they said: Eric’s computer and phone history showed constant activity from the hours of 11 PM to 3 AM the night of November 20th/21st, making it impossible for him to be somewhere else. They also factored in that McFadden could not drive, did not own or have access to a car, and that the apartment he lived in was shared with several other people. There was no way, they insisted, he could have done something to Sage. Then, in March of 2017, police switch it up yet again: they tell the public that McFadden is being considered a “person of interest”.
All in all, none of that really matters, because Eric McFadden hasn’t been seen or heard from since the end of November, 2012. Even his family members have told the public they remain shocked and confused as to where he is and why he left.
We will not forget about Sage Smith, wherever she is, however she left. The Smith family is heartbroken and desperate to bring their daughter back where she belongs. If you have any information relating to the whereabouts of Eric McFadden or Sage Smith, please call Detective Ronald Stayments at 970-3280 (area code 434).