Las Vegas Sun

February 19, 2019

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Transgender killer torn with guilt, searching still for identity

Life story riddled with abuse of alcohol, hidden tendencies

Raven Navajo

Steve Marcus

Raven Navajo was sentenced to 10 years to life in prison last month after being found guilty of second-degree murder in the killing of Brenda Schmalfeldt, a woman Navajo had met at a bar in January 2007.

Brenda Schmalfeldt's body was never found. Raven Navajo told police she left the body in a dumpster. When police didn't find it there days later, a landfill search was done, but to no avail.

Brenda Schmalfeldt's body was never found. Raven Navajo told police she left the body in a dumpster. When police didn't find it there days later, a landfill search was done, but to no avail.

No good fit for prison transgender population in Nevada

Raven Navajo left the Clark County jail last week for a state prison system in which she will be one of only a few male-to-female transgender inmates, a prisoner taking daily estrogen doses in a world of caged men.

The prison decides where to place transgendered inmates — people who do not identify with or present themselves as their birth gender — depending on their genitals. If you have male genitals you’re imprisoned with men, no matter if you have artificially induced breasts, no matter if you consider yourself a woman and act like one.

It’s the same in most states, as well as in federal prisons. Nationally, the estimate is that transgendered inmates number in the low thousands. The actual population is unknown because it is not tracked by authorities.

Prison officials have historically feared that if they allow male-to-female transgendered inmates to bunk with women, inmates will pretend to be transgender just to be near women, said Alexander Lee, director of the San Francisco-based Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project. There’s also the fear that prisoners with male genitalia will impregnate female inmates.

As for simply keeping transgender inmates together and segregated from the rest of the prison population, Nevada doesn’t have enough of them for that. Officials can’t give them their own wing because those wings are built to hold dozens of prisoners, prison spokesman Greg Smith said. The crowded prison system doesn’t have the luxury of leaving any bunks empty.

The hairdresser who bleached Raven Navajo’s roots in jail wasn’t given much time or many tools, so the result was more mine shaft canary than blond — dingy yellow hair fried so thin it seemed to float on static electricity. The color clashed something awful with her blue jailhouse jumpsuit, an effect opposite of what Navajo had hoped for: Sitting in court, in her melted mascara and makeup-spackled skin, she still looked like a man.

She was one, once. She was also a husband, a veteran, a prostitute and, above all else, a skunk-drunk alcoholic. Now, however, she’s mainly known as a murderer.

One night in January 2007, Navajo, 6 feet of tanked transsexual, brought a casual acquaintance home from a bar, fought with her and passed out.

She woke up the next morning to find cocktail waitress Brenda Schmalfeldt dead in her garage. After two more days of drinking, she stuffed the body in a Dumpster.

In court this spring, Navajo had another awakening.

“I ask to be sentenced here and now today to the stiffest sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole,” Navajo told the judge. “On a daily basis, moment by moment, having to live knowing what I’ve done crushes me like a weight. I just created my own hell on earth.”

Just how she built that hell is a story the Sun has sewn together from historical documents, court testimony and Navajo herself. Hers is a history boiled in booze — blacked out in some chapters, hazy drunk in others, but entirely unmarred by violence except for the night in question, which, in a way, was emblematic of her entire life: another alcoholic night Navajo said she didn’t know happened until it was over.

• • •

In a small and closely guarded room at the Clark County Detention Center, Navajo tried to remember. Wedged into a corner, legs crossed, eyebrows perfectly plucked, she eased into the interview and started talking about herself like someone who’d never been asked before.

Raven Navajo was born Michael Scott Harmon in Middleton, N.J., in 1965. His family moved to Kentucky after he was born. His father was a full-blooded Navajo. His father was also a full-blown alcoholic who fell asleep with a lighted cigarette and died in an apartment fire when his son was 6 months old.

Navajo’s mother couldn’t take care of the baby or his older sister, so the kids spent the next six months in foster care. Then Mom married a Vietnam veteran who drove a truck for a living and she brought both children home. Navajo’s stepfather became his hero. He was a man’s man, but he didn’t force his stepson to cut his long hair. And though he had concerns about the boy’s feminine tendencies, he tolerated them.

“My old man would say stuff like, ‘Boys don’t talk that way. Boys don’t walk that way. Boys don’t wear their hair past their butt.’ He wasn’t trying to be mean, but he saw where his son was going. There wasn’t ‘transgender’ in the 1970s, so he thought I was gay and he knew it was going to be a hard road and so he was throwing out the best hints he could.”

His stepfather died in a car accident when Michael was 13. He left behind five kids: Michael, his sister, and their three half siblings.

Michael got drunk for the first time after the funeral, and he vowed, for his stepfather’s sake, to “shelve the transsexual stuff.”

“I felt that I owed it to him to be the kind of man he wanted me to grow up to be, so I became this big, drunk lush, and I figured I was making him proud because I was being macho.”

His mother died a year later. Navajo moved in with an alcoholic uncle, dropped out of high school, got his GED and got drunk. And he tried to be a man.

“I didn’t have a clue how. I really didn’t. A lot of people got to see this facade, and it’s a tough, macho, egotistical butthead, pretty much, and I always thought it was John Wayne,” he said. “Not knowing how to be a man, I drank alcoholically as (much as) possible.”

He also got in trouble. Petty crimes landed the 17-year-old before a judge who ordered him to choose Juvenile Hall or military enlistment.

Navajo joined the Navy and scored high on the intelligence test, which meant he could choose from a variety of assignments. He picked aviation electronics and was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. He avoided thinking about his sexuality and was consistently recommended for higher positions.

But he drank, often. He was written up for being drunk and disorderly three times before learning how to get away with it.

Navajo turned 24 while stationed in the Philippines, where he began dating a local woman. In less than a year she was pregnant and they were married. Navajo graduated from beer to Jim Beam. Soon the family was reassigned to San Diego, where they had another boy.

At the time he felt he was a great dad, the kind his stepfather would have admired — even though when Navajo went to the park in his neighborhood with his kids, he wore a baseball cap that read, “Alcoholic by Choice.”

“It’s funny how you can fool yourself,” Navajo said.

He was pulled over for drinking and driving for the second time in 1992 and blew a 0.40 — a lethal blood-alcohol level for most people. He sobered up in the drunk tank and got a ride home from police, who dropped him off down the street so the boys wouldn’t see their father come home in a cop car.

One son was waiting for him on the porch, and the first thing he said was, “Why did they have you in jail?”

“Him saying that pretty much collapsed me in my front yard that morning, put me in tears right in front of my kids,” Navajo recalled.

It was his last drunk for 11 years.

Navajo got out of his marriage four years after he got sober. He embraced his Navajo roots and took the name his birth father had wanted for him: Raven. He left the military in 1995, 16 years after he’d enlisted. He moved back to Kentucky and all the old thoughts came back. John Wayne wanted to wear a dress. But he still waited. He was five or six years into sobriety when he first made an effort to look like a woman. “I would go to these drag clubs and I would sit out in my car for three hours in the parking lot. And I’d open the door, and I’d sit there for another 10 minutes, and I’d shut the door. And after another three hours, I’d just drive home. Here I am this big John Wayne, and I could not get out of the car and walk into a drag bar dressed.”

When he got up the nerve, he sat in a bar booth alone for hours — nursing a Coke.

“This was my big outing. This was me getting out there.”

By 2002, Navajo was dressing as a woman at home. At the same time, his eldest son, then 13, moved in. One evening, roles temporarily reversed, the boy told Navajo that it was clear his father was happier as a woman, so he should dress that way all the time.

Navajo wept. When Navajo was 13, he had shelved his true self to be macho. When Navajo’s son was 13, he told his father to do what he wanted.

The boy moved back in with his mother, and Navajo followed the suggestion his son had left with him. He was now a she. But there aren’t many jobs in Kentucky for men who are living their lives as women, so Navajo started working for an escort service. Her clients were all men in their late 60s. It was easy money.

She figured it would be even easier in Las Vegas. She wanted to live in a city where sex workers are part of the scenery.

By 2005, Navajo was a sober, self-employed Vegas escort, just starting hormone replacement therapy — high doses of estrogen to feminize her body. She was happy.

Then she made a mistake. A transgender-friendly nightclub opened and Navajo took a job there, bartending. A single shot of brandy on the job and the next thing she knew, she was “ridiculously just a drunk again.”

• • •

A white board posted outside Zodie’s bar on East Flamingo spells out the name of the evening’s bartender after the words “Your therapist tonight is ...”

This is where Brenda Schmalfeldt decided to go at 9 a.m. Jan. 13, 2007. She had just finished a graveyard shift at New York-New York, carrying cocktails on the casino carpet.

She was a thin blonde, 45 years old, with big hair and perfume her friends hated. She got to work half an hour early to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee. She kept her tips in a Crown Royal bag. She dressed her three dogs in little coats and shoes. She phoned her mother, Mildred, nine or 10 times a day.

At Zodie’s, she got tipsy enough to know she shouldn’t drive and slipped her car keys to the bartender.

Navajo was there too, slurring and walking into walls. The two weren’t friends, but they had seen each other at Zodie’s.

They started talking and six hours later, they were at Navajo’s apartment, intoxicated and arguing.

Navajo thought Schmalfeldt had stolen money from her. Schmalfeldt denied it. Navajo hit her on the head. The cocktail waitress stumbled into the garage. Navajo started hitting her face. This is the last thing Navajo said she remembers.

She woke up on the couch four hours later wearing a red negligee. She saw Schmalfeldt’s corpse and said she tried to drink up the courage to kill herself. Instead, two days later, Navajo dragged the body across the garage and put her in the trunk of her convertible. She drove half a mile down the road and put the body in a Dumpster.

Four days after Schmalfeldt went missing, Metro missing persons Detective Thomas Marin questioned everybody who had been at Zodie’s. Navajo got his business card and called the next day to turn herself in. Her attorney, Christina DiEdoardo, called too. Marin never called back. By then, a Zodie’s bartender had told police he remembered Navajo leaving with Schmalfeldt. Metro detectives went to Navajo’s house, saw the garage, and determined it was a crime scene.

They found Navajo squatting outside DiEdoardo’s office, smoking. She confessed to the killing and drove with detectives to the Dumpster.

They found blood on the green metal garbage bin, but no Brenda.

Detectives drove to the Apex landfill, about 20 miles northeast of Las Vegas. They roped off an area the size of a football field, 30 feet deep, and called in a cadaver dog. They searched for three days but found nothing.

• • •

Navajo initially pleaded not guilty. But later, against the wishes of her public defenders, Navajo pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.

She told the judge how drunk she’d been and that she didn’t know why she’d killed Brenda, but she knew she should be locked away forever.

First-degree murder, however, means willfully killing, with premeditation, deliberation and malice. Drunkenness is a defense to all those conditions, so District Judge Lee Gates rejected Navajo’s guilty plea.

She was furious. If someone did to her children what she’d done to Schmalfeldt, Navajo said, “I would have been yelling for blood.”

Navajo’s children, now 19 and 14, did not go to the trial. Neither did her ex-wife or siblings. A handful of friends, bartenders mainly, went to testify. Watching them take the stand, you got the impression they would have climbed the walls to get out of the courtroom.

The jurors found Navajo guilty of second-degree murder, and Gates gave her 10 years to life.

Outside the courtroom, Schmalfeldt’s mother, Mildred, said Navajo’s begging and pleading were just an act to get sympathy.

Afterward, three jurors came to her cell, including the forewoman, who was crying. They had wanted to convict her of the lesser crime of manslaughter, but that wasn’t an option.

Not that it made any difference to Navajo.

“My life still doesn’t matter to me,” she said. “I mean, nothing has mattered to me since that day. I’m sort of ready to go to prison for a long time.”

++++++++++

No good fit for prison transgender population in Nevada

Raven Navajo left the Clark County jail last week for a state prison system in which she will be one of only a few male-to-female transgender inmates, a prisoner taking daily estrogen doses in a world of caged men.

The prison decides where to place transgendered inmates — people who do not identify with or present themselves as their birth gender — depending on their genitals. If you have male genitals you’re imprisoned with men, no matter if you have artificially induced breasts, no matter if you consider yourself a woman and act like one.

It’s the same in most states, as well as in federal prisons. Nationally, the estimate is that transgendered inmates number in the low thousands. The actual population is unknown because it is not tracked by authorities.

Prison officials have historically feared that if they allow male-to-female transgendered inmates to bunk with women, inmates will pretend to be transgender just to be near women, said Alexander Lee, director of the San Francisco-based Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project. There’s also the fear that prisoners with male genitalia will impregnate female inmates.

As for simply keeping transgender inmates together and segregated from the rest of the prison population, Nevada doesn’t have enough of them for that. Officials can’t give them their own wing because those wings are built to hold dozens of prisoners, prison spokesman Greg Smith said. The crowded prison system doesn’t have the luxury of leaving any bunks empty.

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