Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said detectives investigating the Oct. 15 shooting death of 21-year-old transgender woman Zella Ziona in an alley behind a Gaithersburg area shopping center believe she may have been in a romantic relationship with the man charged with killing her.
Rico Hector LeBlond, 20, is charged with first-degree murder in connection with Ziona’s slaying. Through his attorney he waived his right to a bond hearing in Montgomery County District Court in Rockville on Monday, ensuring that he will remain in jail at least until he returns to court on Nov. 16 for a preliminary hearing.
“The victim and defendant have known each other since middle school,” McCarthy told the Washington Blade in a telephone interview on Monday.
“They have been friends for a long time,” he said. “They kind of grew up together. They also had some type of relationship that we believe was a romantic relationship.”
Asked whether that relationship began before or after Ziona began her transition sometime earlier this year from male to female, McCarthy said, “It was my understanding that it was after the transition.”
Added McCarthy, the county’s chief prosecutor, “Look, they have always known each other like since they were 12 or 13 years old…Their families know each other. Everybody knows everybody here. These are people that knew each other and apparently they had a relationship with one another.”
According to McCarthy, the nature of the relationship between Ziona and LeBlond makes it difficult to immediately determine whether the murder should be classified as a hate crime.
“The question is what was the motivating factor behind the murder,” he said. “That’s what the police are trying to determine. That’s what we’re trying to determine. And once the evidence – once the facts are determined – then we can make a judgment as to whether or not it fits within the [hate crimes] law or not,” he said.
“For a hate crime we have to find out why you did it. We have to prove why you did it,” McCarthy added. “The detectives are continuing to work. They’re looking at phone records. They’re looking at everything they can to try to make a determination of why this happened,” he said.
“And in order to satisfy the law we’re going to have to satisfy a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that it happened for a particular reason,” McCarthy said.
A police charging document filed in court on Oct. 17 following LeBlond’s arrest says witnesses told detectives that LeBlond became “very upset” sometime prior to the murder when Ziona approached LeBlond at a shopping mall in a flamboyant way in the presence of LeBlond’s “crew.”
Ziona’s action “greatly embarrassed LeBlond in front of his peers,” the charging document says.
The charging document says on the day of the murder LeBlond and other young men with him approached Ziona in an alley behind the Montgomery Village Crossing shopping center and shot her with a handgun.
It says that witnesses reported that after initially shooting Ziona, “the suspect walked over to her, stood over her, and fired more rounds into her body.”
A police statement says Ziona suffered gunshot wounds to the head and groin area. She was taken to Suburban Hospital, where she was pronounced dead a short time later.
“This is an execution, a premeditated execution,” McCarthy told the Blade on Monday.
He said that regardless of whether a hate crime charge is brought against LeBlond, the 20-year-old faces a possible sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole upon conviction on the first-degree murder charge.