January 15, 2020 at 5:28 pm EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Death of trans woman in vacant apartment shrouded in mystery
Mia Penny, gay news, Washington Blade
Mia Penny, 26, was found shot to death on Dec. 30.

The mother and sister of a transgender woman who was found shot to death in a vacant apartment building in Southeast D.C. on Dec. 30 strongly dispute speculation by police that a security guard fatally shot her after she allegedly fired a gun at the guard and another guard with him one day earlier in the same building.

D.C. police on Jan. 7 publicly identified the person found dead in the vacant three-story apartment building at 4273 Barnaby Road, S.E. as 26-year-old Lamont Penny of no fixed address. In a statement, police said investigators learned that Penny identified as a transgender woman and preferred the name of Mia Penny.

The statement identifying Penny as the decedent in the case came over a week after D.C. police announced that armed private security guards on Sunday, Dec. 29, at approximately 10:43 p.m. “came in contact with an armed, adult suspect” in the Barnaby Road apartment building.

After ordering the suspect to leave the building the suspect began to fire a handgun at the two guards, prompting one of the guards to fire back, police said in an earlier statement.

“Following the exchange of gunfire, the suspect fled from the security guards,” the Jan. 7 statement says. “MPD responded to the scene to secure the building and conduct a search, and were unable to locate the suspect,” according to the statement.

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham told a news conference on Dec. 31 that D.C. police officers used a dog to help in the search for the suspect but were unsuccessful in finding the suspect inside the building. A police report says the exchange of gunfire took place on the third floor of the building “in what would possibly have been apartment 301.”

The Jan. 7 statement says that on Monday, Dec. 30, at about 4:51 p.m. D.C. police responded to a call from the same building for an unconscious person who was found to be suffering from gunshot wounds. D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services workers who also responded to the scene determined the person showed no signs of life, the statement says. It says the individual, later identified as Penny, was taken to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

The statement, which was released in the form of a press release, includes a photo of a handgun that police said was found near Penny’s body in the apartment building.

Tasha Penny, Mia Penny’s mother, and Emonie Penny, Mia Penny’s sister, told the Washington Blade in a phone interview on Jan. 6 that they don’t believe the gun belonged to Mia Penny. Both said Mia Penny never showed any inclination to have a gun and wouldn’t know how to use or shoot a gun.

“He doesn’t even know how to pull a trigger,” said Tasha Penny, who, along with Emonie Penny, refers to Mia Penny as her son Lamont but says she recognized and loved Mia as a transgender person who lived as a woman.

“Something isn’t right,” Emonie Penny told the Blade. “The story doesn’t add up. He wasn’t firing at any security guard,” she said. “It’s just a whole bunch of lies that’s not adding up.”

In a follow-up interview with the Blade on Jan. 14, Emonie Penny said a police homicide detective has since told the family that police are now viewing the death of Mia Penny as a homicide. She said that supports the belief by the family that it was someone else who exchanged gunfire with the security guard and Mia Penny most likely was killed in an unrelated incident by another person.

D.C. transgender activist Earline Budd has expressed the same view, saying, among other things, that the seriousness of the gunshot wounds suffered by Mia Penny would have prevented her from running away from the building at the time of the exchange of gunfire. Budd said she too believes that Penny was murdered in the building in an unrelated incident by someone else.

However, D.C. police spokesperson Alaina Gertz told the Blade in an email on Tuesday that the case remains under active investigation but it is “still currently classified as a death investigation” rather than a homicide investigation.

Police mum on fingerprints, ballistics test

D.C. police, meanwhile, have declined to respond to a list of questions from the Blade asking whether fingerprints were found on the handgun recovered near Penny’s body to see whether they match her fingerprints or whether they are from another person. Emonie Penny said police told the family that they initially identified Mia Penny’s body from her fingerprints.

Police have also declined to say whether the bullets that struck Mia Penny match the bullets fired from the security guard’s gun or whether they are from another gun. In addition, police have not disclosed whether the vacant building was still hooked up to electric power and whether there was enough light during the nighttime incident for the guards to see what the suspect that fired a gun at them looked like. Did the suspect appear to be Mia Penny or someone else?

The Blade asked Assistant D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee about the reluctance of police to disclose this and other information about the Penny case following a Jan. 9 press conference on the unrelated subject of D.C.’s preparedness for a possible terrorist attack related to the U.S. air strike that killed an Iranian general in Iraq.

“We give our condolences to the family,” Contee said when told of the Penny family’s dismay over what they believe to be false claims that their loved one fired a gun at security guards.

“This is a very tragic loss and the loss of life is very tragic,” Contee said. “But what I can tell you right now is all of that is part of an investigation. And this case is being investigated by our Internal Affairs Bureau as well as our Homicide Division,” he said. “So those factors – fingerprints on the gun and these other evidentiary issues are part of the investigation and the family will be informed as soon as it’s completed.”

Contee said he was unsure whether police would publicly release the findings of the investigation after informing the family of the findings.

“The Metropolitan Police Department will definitely get to the bottom of this and provide the family with some answers,” he said.

In the Jan. 7 statement, police said the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau was involved in the investigation because of the use of force by private security guards. The Internal Affairs Bureau normally investigates police shootings that result in injury or death to citizens to determine if a shooting was justified based on circumstances surrounding those shootings.

Budd, who works for the D.C. sex workers advocacy group HIPS, said she received information from people familiar with the vacant apartment building where Penny was shot that it was sometimes used by sex workers to interact with clients.

The building in question is one of seven small apartment buildings that are part of the Belmont Crossing Apartments complex on the 4200 block of Barnaby Road, S.E., that are currently vacant and boarded up. An employee with TM Associates Management, Inc., the company that manages the Belmont Cross buildings, declined to comment and hung up the phone when contacted by the Blade.

Olivia Henderson, chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8D, in which Belmont Crossing Apartments are located, said the vacant buildings were supposedly slated for renovation and were to be reopened, but said she didn’t know when the renovation work would be completed.

Budd is calling on the LGBTQ community to help the Penny family with expenses for funeral arrangements for Mia Penny through a GoFundMe site created by a family member.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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