Longform

Who was Angie Zapata? Her murderer's trial didn't tell the whole story.

Page 4 of 5

The next day, DeLeon, who is also transgender, says she called Angie's mother and offered to give her daughter advice. Over the next few years, Angie and DeLeon talked about once a month. "I told her, 'Angie, there's always going to be people who are very intimidated. You need to not listen to them. Because you and I both know it's not our fault.' I told her, 'You be proud of who you are.'"

DeLeon says she talked to Angie about what it's like to take female hormones and showed her exercises to increase her bust. She warned her against rushing to have sexual-reassignment surgery — "I told Angie, 'You should wait. You should wait. Don't do it right away, because you might regret it.... There's guys that like women like that." She encouraged her to compete in drag beauty pageants, like she did.

"She always did her makeup very beautiful, her hair very beautiful. And she'd always yell at her sisters when they wouldn't do it. She'd go, 'Ugh! Comb your hair!'"

DeLeon also told Angie to be careful with men. "I told her, 'Angie, not all men are going to be accepting to you, so it's very important that you don't lie to nobody. Nobody. Because you can set yourself up in a situation and...'"

DeLeon knows Angie listened. One time, DeLeon called the transgender section of Livelinks, a singles chat line, to leave a prank message for a friend — and heard a recording of Angie. "She used her own name — Angie — she said she was from Greeley, she said she was transgender and she described herself," DeLeon says. "I recognized her voice. And I was like, oh look, it's Angie. And she's following my advice."

Still, when DeLeon heard that Angie had been murdered, her first thought was that she'd died at the hands of some man. "When I got there and they told me everything, I was like, oh, he definitely did it. He definitely did," DeLeon says. "I think that what it was is that he was just getting uncomfortable with the whole thing. But he could have just left. He didn't have to go to the extent of killing her."


Maria Zapata, mother

It was the stares that got to Maria Zapata. One day, when she and Angie were at the checkout stand at the Greeley Wal-Mart, she sensed that someone was staring at them and turned around. "I looked and I told my Angie, I said, 'Who in the hell are they looking at?'" recalls Maria, who is 54. "She said, 'Mom, they're just staring at me.' I turned around and I said, 'Don't you have anything else to stare at?'

"I hated for people to be looking at her, looking her up and down like [she was] trashy."

Even though Angie was the fifth of six children, she was always Maria's baby. When she talks about her, she calls her "my Angie." "There was just something about Angie," Maria says. "There was a sense from the beginning that I needed to protect her more than the rest."

Angie was born in Brighton on August 5, 1989, as Justin David Zapata. Justin was Maria's second son. By the time he was born, she'd been married and divorced once and had four children from three different relationships. Justin was a skinny kid with eyelashes so dark it looked like he was wearing mascara, she says. He was never interested in dump trucks or baseball bats, but he loved to play outside. The second he finished a meal, he'd run out the door to ride his bike.

But Justin's life was hard. Kids at school teased him for being effeminate and called him "faggot." Teachers weren't much better. "I remember her second-grade teacher said she went to the bathroom in the girls' bathroom (as Justin), that's disgusting," Maria says. "A lot of people didn't know, but they were ready to judge."

It got worse as Justin got older. "She wanted to get involved with sports, she wanted to get involved with school, but it always came out that the kids were so rude," Maria says. Justin tried to join the soccer team, the track team, the band. But the same thing always happened. "Kids said, 'There goes that weird guy. There goes that gay guy.'"

Maria knew her youngest son was different, and she was scared. "It's not that I didn't accept it," Maria says. "I was afraid for her because I knew how people are." She insisted that Justin wear boys' clothes and cut his hair short. But he was miserable.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar