Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The CeCe McDonald story: was she fighting back or committing murder?

CeCe McDonald. Personal photo.

Originally published 08/21/2013.

Sometimes things go terribly wrong.

Let’s say you’re walking with friends through your neighborhood late at night, on your way to pick up a few things from the store. You pass a handful of people smoking outside a rowdy bar.

They do not like you. They do not like the way you look. They do not like your body or what you do with it. They say things, things you have heard before, things that question whether you should be on this street or even on this earth.

You could ignore them and keep walking. You could, like you have done on so many nights, just let them say these things. You could silently agree that this street belongs to these people and you do not belong here and move on.

You could stick up for yourself and for your friends and for people like you.

And then the people saying these things could get angrier. You could get angrier too. Someone could get hurt, someone could get killed—you, or maybe someone else, and either way your life would change forever.

Everything might go wrong and when it’s over your cheek might be sliced all the way through by a beer glass and a man might bleed to death on the sidewalk before paramedics can save him. And if he died at your hands and the court doesn’t believes it was self-defense you could go to prison for a very long time.

On a June night in 2011, a group outside South Minneapolis’s Schooner Tavern reportedly accosted CeCe McDonald and her friends with a barrage of racist, anti-gay and transphobic abuse. McDonald, a young African-American transgender woman, objected.

Their argument escalated into a brawl. When it was over, McDonald needed eleven stitches. And a middle-aged, straight white man named Dean Schmitz lie dead.

Hennepin County charged CeCe McDonald with homicide in the death of Dean Schmitz. She claimed it had been self-defense—and a legion of transgender activists and other supporters stood by her even after she took a plea deal.

Two Lives Converge

CeCe McDonald was born in Chicago in 1989, with a male body and the name Chrishaun Reed McDonald. At 14, with her family’s support, she started doing something that felt more comfortable to her: She began regularly dressing and living as a woman. By the time she was arrested for the alleged murder of Dean Schmitz in Minneapolis, at 23, McDonald was undergoing hormone treatments to continue her transformation.

McDonald had been supporting herself by working in a café while she studied fashion design at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. And she was helping out others: McDonald lived with and helped support four other gay or transgender African-American youth.

A young leader in Minneapolis’s transgender community, McDonald—nicknamed “Honey Bea” by friends—had plenty of experience with bullying and with street harassment. She’d developed both courage and poise and seemed to know how to deal with the big-mouths who gave her trouble for being black or queer. She spoke out for herself and people like her on her blog.

Cece McDonald didn’t have much in common with Dean Schmitz, a heterosexual white man more than 20 years her senior.

Initial reports painted Schmitz, a 47-year-old Richfield resident, as a beloved family man murdered by a then-unnamed assailant. His four sons told reporters that he was a generous man, always trying to help others. His ex-wife, Tammy Williams, mourned his violent death.

Once details came out that suggested Dean Schmitz was among a group of middle-aged whites who verbally attacked a group of black and transgendered youth that fateful night, the sympathetic reports dried up. There isn’t much on the public record about Schmitz’s life or personality, but he had a long record of trouble (as did Chrishaun McDonald— the Minnesota Judicial Branch website lists the records for both,) including convictions for fifth-degree assault and domestic assault. And it would become known that he had methamphetamine, opiates, and Benzoylecgognine (a by-product of mixing alcohol and cocaine) in his system the night of his death, substances that may have increased a tendency toward combative behavior.

Later reports on Schmitz quote his brother, Charles Pelfrey, who suggested that Schmitz was a moody, angry man who, in the wrong mood, might very well have let loose a barrage of slurs against minorities.
Even more damningly, word got out that the Hennepin county medical examiner had noticed that Schmitz’s corpse bore not just a tattoo of the word “outlaw” on his back—but a swastika tattoo on his chest.
Pelfrey excuses his brother’s tattoo as just a relic of his prison-time strategic alliance with a white supremacist group. But McDonald’s allies would cite this as evidence of Schmitz’s hostility toward people like her, something that would prompt her to feel she needed to act in self-defense. Authorities disagreed.

Some Words, a Street Fight, a Death

CeCe McDonald's injury. Personal photo.

Just after midnight Sunday morning, June 5, 2011, CeCe McDonald was walking toward Lake Street to pick up some things at a 24-hour branch of Minnesota grocery chain Cub Foods. With her were her roommate Latavia Taylor, Larry Tyaries Thomas, Zavawn Smith and Roneal Harris. As they walked the half-mile to the store, a police car pulled up alongside them, and an officer demanded to know what these young black people were up to. The cops then followed them a few blocks before turning away.

Two women and a man, each white and middle-aged, were smoking in front of the Schooner Tavern, a divey neighborhood bar at 29th Street East and 27th Avenue South. As McDonald and her friends got closer, the older group began harassing them

One of the women, Dean Schmitz’s girlfriend, Jenny Thoreson, would later say that “something about their walk”  prompted her group to say something “derogatory” about McDonald and her friends.  Schmitz’s ex-girlfriend, Molly Flaherty, would tell City Pages about the “booty shorts and tank top” worn by one of the young people, bizarrely adding,  ”He looked like he was ready to go to a recital.”

Latavia Taylor later told the Star Tribune that Dean Schmitz had asked, “Did you think you were going to rape somebody in those girl clothes?” And McDonald reported that they referred to those in her group as “faggots,”  ”chicks with dicks” and other racial epithets.

As the group got closer, things got more heated. According to Thoreson’s interview with City Pages, Flaherty shouted, “I’ll take you on, bitch.” Then one of the women allegedly swung a beer glass into McDonald’s face.

A full-on brawl apparently ensued as other patrons joined the fray, including Flaherty’s boyfriend, David Crandell.

When it was over, Dean Schmitz was bleeding through a short but deep chest wound. Gary Gilbert, working security for the Schooner Tavern that night, called 911 to report that Schmitz was injured.  Paramedics were unable to save him; Dean Schmitz died at the scene.

Taylor, Smith and Harris had already fled, boarding a bus. McDonald and Thomas left the scene too, continuing in the direction of the grocery store.  Gilbert followed them, still on his cell phone and describing McDonald to the 911 disptacher.

McDonald flagged down cops in the Cub Foods parking lot.

CeCe McDonald was bleeding heavily from her face. The woman’s beer glass had cut through her cheek and into the roof of her mouth, neatly slicing a salivary gland. She was brought to Hennepin County Medical Center, where she needed 11 stitches.

The 40-year-old white woman involved in the fracas was treated at the same hospital as McDonald. Press accounts don’t indicate which woman, or whether she was the one who hit McDonald with the glass. McDonald was the only one charged in the fight. Hennepin County decided that, to avoid any conflict of interest on its part, their colleagues in Washington County (a largely white suburban and exurban area that, incidentally, includes Michele Bachman’s congressional district) would handle any case against the woman wielding the glass. In May, 2012, the Washington County Attorney’s Office filed two felony charges against Molly Flaherty: second-degree assault with a deadly weapon and third-degree assault causing substantial bodily harm. Her case is ongoing.

There would be some initial confusion over exactly what happened that night, but police immediately focused on McDonald as the suspect in Schmitz’s death.

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