A vigil Monday night at The Ridge in Laurens for an 18-year-old murder victim was both a celebration of a young life and a cautionary tale.
Kierstyn Mackennah Payge Williamson, a Laurens native who had recently began to identify as a male and wished to be called Jacob, went missing on Friday, June 30 and was found dead a few days later near Monroe, North Carolina, southeast of Charlotte.
Close friends and family members described Williamson as “quirky,” quick to laugh, creative and unfailingly loyal to friends and family.
“I’m hurt, and I’m broken because we lost a good, good person,” said friend Promise Edwards, speaking to a crowd of around 60 people who gathered at The Ridge. “A person that loved children, a person who would do anything for anybody, that wanted to tell you stories and would sit for hours and write comics about crazy things and then tell you a storyline.”
Edwards also said Williamson had a trusting nature and believed in an internet predator who he quickly considered “a kindred spirit.”
Instead, Joshua Newton, 25, has been charged with first-degree murder in Williamson’s death and his live-in girlfriend, Victoria Smith, 22, has been charged with obstruction of justice and accessory to murder after the fact for helping Newton move the body from the couple’s home to a nearby wooded area just across the South Carolina state line.
Law enforcement officials have not announced a motive for the murder but have said they do not believe it was a hate crime against the LGBTQ community.
But Williamson’s supporters, some from LGBTQ rights groups such as PFLAG and the Alliance for Full Acceptance (AFFA), were not as quick to dismiss the possibility and reiterated the dangers and hostilities often facing LGBTQ people as well as predators lurking on the internet.
“Anyone listening tonight who is skeptical of the transgender community, I hope you hear our hearts and choose to get to know more people who look different from you,” said PFLAG President Amberlyn Boiter, a trans woman. “I hope you pay those people the same courtesy that you do others like you. I hope you realize that the average person who would be a trans, gay, lesbian, black, brown, atheists, religious or otherwise are good people.”
Edwards, who last saw Williamson on the night of June 30 before she left in a car for North Carolina with Newton, described Williamson as someone who had longed for acceptance but was unaware of the support he could have received from groups such as AFFA and PFLAG, something that could have prevented a tragic end.
“We’ve all had a moment in our life time when we’ve been afraid to tell someone something about us because we were afraid of rejection,” Edwards said. “So, be accepting – be that accepting person. Even if it was for 30 days, Jacob got to live his truth and be himself. For 30 days he got to be free of judgment. For 30 days he was free of ridicule. For 30 days, he was free from the bonds of being who society told him he had to be.”