An 18-year-old found dead inside her Colorado apartment last week may have been targeted because she was transgender, police said.
"The bottom line is, we can't rule it in, we can't rule it out," Sgt. Joseph Tymkowych, a police spokesman in Greeley, Colo., told ABCNews.com.
Born a male, Justin Zapata, 18, identified herself as a woman and was known to family and friends as Angie. Her body was found in her apartment a week ago, with wounds to the head and face, police say. Missing was her green 2003 Chrysler PT Cruiser. Authorities have not yet recovered the car, which they hope will provide evidence that might help crack the case.
"The sooner we can find it, the better," Tymkowych said of the car.
Authorities have released few additional details about the case. They will not say whether the apartment, located in a quiet part of Greeley, about 60 miles north of Denver with a population of 75,000, had been broken into. They also have not said whether any items -- beyond Zapata's car -- were missing from the scene. They do, however, think the suspect -- or suspects -- likely had some type of relationship with Zapata.
"We believe the victim knew or was an acquaintance with the suspect," Tymkowych said, adding that they have almost been able to clear a former roommate initially identified as a possible person of interest.
About 200 friends and family -- many from the local gay, lesbian and transgender community -- gathered Wednesday to mourn Zapata's death.
On the same day, the Colorado Anti-Violence Program, working with Zapata's family, issued a statement asking for the public's help finding Zapata's car and condemning the crime as possibly motivated by an anti-transgender bias.
"We want the whole community involved to find this person who hurt my sister and to let everyone be aware that all she wanted was to be beautiful," Angie's sister, Monica, said in the statement. "We want this violence to end. Transgender people deserve to be treated with respect."
There were 177 bias-motivated incidents against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in Colorado in 2007, according to data collected by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. That number was down from 242 in 2006, but the severity of the incidents, according to the report, intensified.
Sexual-orientation bias accounted for more than 15 percent of the 7,722 total hate crime incidents in the United States in 2006, according to the FBI's Bureau of Investigation Statistics, which also tracks crimes based on race, religion, ethnicity and disability. In more than 60 percent of these incidents, homosexual men were targeted.
Greeley police have not been able to confirm that Zapata was the victim of a hate crime. But the Colorado anti-violence group, and Zapata's family and friends, claim there is enough circumstantial evidence to consider it a strong possibility.
"A hate crime like this serves to intimidate and disrupt an entire community," Kelly Costello, director of victim services for the Colorado Anti-Violence Program, said in a statement. "No one should ever live their lives in fear and intimidation, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity."
While Zapata may have lived as a young woman, Tymkowych, the police spokesman, explained that because she never legally changed her name to Angie, prosecutors can only bring charges in the case using Justin Zapata to identify the victim.
"We don't have a problem using 'Angie,'" Tymkowych said. "We don't want to offend the family or anyone with gender concerns, but for it to be a good, clean prosecution, we can't identify a victim who doesn't exist."
As they continue to search for Zapata's car, Tymkowych said that authorities are processing fingerprint and DNA samples collected from the scene. They are also awaiting the results of toxicology tests taken as part of Zapata's autopsy.
The 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, put a spotlight on hate crimes targeting homosexuals. A pair of men posing as gay bargoers kidnapped and tortured Shepard, beating him into a coma. He was alive when a cyclist found him, but later died of brain damage suffered during the attack.
Shepard's murder has inspired lawmakers in Washington, who have spent years trying to pass measures aimed at strengthening existing federal hate crime laws to make it easier to prosecute crimes based on sexual orientation bias. The bill, officially called the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007, is also known as the Matthew Shepard Act. Versions of the bill have passed both the House and Senate, but the bias provisions were dropped during conference.
Hate crime laws exist in all 50 states, but vary from state to state and do not all include crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity.