Missing transgender teen's body found dismembered; suspect charged

The district attorney said it’s “one of the most heinous crimes” he has seen in his nearly 50-year career.

Pennsylvania authorities confirmed that dismembered human remains found late last month are those of a transgender teenager who had been reported missing. 

The Mercer County Coroner’s Office and Pennsylvania State Police confirmed last week that body parts found June 25 in Shenango River Lake, a reservoir in western Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio, were those of Pauly Likens Jr., 14.



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Likens was last seen early June 23 at a public park in her hometown, Sharon, Pennsylvania, about 15 miles east of Youngstown, Ohio, police said. She was reported missing two days later, the same day unidentified human remains were discovered nearby.

The coroner’s office identified the remains as those of Likens on Wednesday. Police said that the cause of death was “sharp force trauma to the head” and that her body had been dismembered by “some type of cutting instrument.” 

DaShawn Watkins, 29, was arrested last week in connection with Likens’ death and charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault, abuse of a corpse and tampering with or fabricating physical evidence, according to court documents. Watkins could face the death penalty or life in prison if he is found guilty. 

An attorney for Watkins declined to comment, and efforts to reach Likens’ family for comment were unsuccessful. 

Pamela Ladner, who leads the Shenango Valley LGBTQIA+ Alliance, an LGBTQ advocacy group in Mercer County, spoke with Likens’ relatives in recent days and said the family confirmed Likens identified as a transgender girl. Ladner said that Likens’ mother is “in complete and utter shock” and that she is requesting privacy and pressuring authorities to charge Watkins with a hate crime.

“Just the sheer severity of how Pauly was murdered and then cut up into pieces and put into bags and thrown into the river and various places,” Ladner said. “That alone exudes a large amount of hate to be able to do something like that.

Mercer County District Attorney Peter C. Acker said that, as of now, authorities do not suspect the homicide was motivated by anti-transgender hate, but he said that could change as the investigation proceeds. He called the homicide “one of the most heinous crimes I’ve seen in 46 years of being a lawyer.”

“I have pieces of a body of a 14-year-old murder victim, dismembered, brutally killed, sharp trauma to the head. I want justice,” Acker said. “People can say what they want, they can advocate whatever position they want, but, frankly, the first thing we have to do is get this individual convicted of the fundamental crimes.”

On the night before she disappeared, Likens was at a friend’s house and left to walk home between 9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., according to a criminal complaint shared with NBC News. Her friend told authorities that Likens communicated with her on Snapchat a few hours later, around 2:30 a.m., the complaint says.

Authorities connected Watkins to Likens and the crime scene through cellphone data and security video, according to the complaint.

The complaint says video shows Likens waiting for someone near Budd Street Public Park — which is alongside the reservoir where her body was found — between 3 and 3:40 a.m. on the day she went missing. Likens’ cellphone last communicated with cell towers in the area around 3:40 a.m., before its service was cut, according to the complaint. Likens’ phone has yet to be recovered.

Video from local businesses shows Watkins’ car traveling to and from the area near the park around the time Likens’ phone stopped communicating with cellphone towers, the criminal complaint says. Video from Watkins’ apartment complex that morning, June 23, and the following day also shows Watkins struggling to carry large duffel and garbage bags into and out of his apartment. 

The complaint adds that Watkins’ apartment tested positive for blood in multiple locations, including the bathroom and under the bathroom flooring. Watkins also bought a cutting saw on the day Likens disappeared, according to the complaint. When police recovered the saw at Watkins’ apartment last week, one of its exchangeable blades was missing, it said.

When authorities interviewed Watkins last week, he told them he had sex with an individual he met on Grindr, a popular gay dating app, on the morning Likens disappeared, according to the complaint. Watkins told police he had sexual contact with the same individual — whose description matched Likens — and that the individual never went back with him to his apartment. Asked about the large bags he took in and out of his apartment, Watkins told authorities that the bags were luggage he never removed from his car from a vacation he took a month ago. 

Watkins is expected to appear in court for a preliminary hearing on July 25. 

Ladner said a vigil for Likens will be held Saturday in Sharon.

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