Authorities have not ruled the fatal shooting of a 21-year-old Maryland transgender woman as a hate crime, but they haven't ruled out the possibility, either.
"We are not ruling out the possibility that this could be hate-based," Montgomery County (Md.) Police spokesman Capt. Paul Starks told NBC Washington.
However, the family of Zella Ziona believes that a hate crime is exactly what her death is.
"I do believe in my heart that this was a hate crime," Ziona's aunt Kalany Thomas told WUSA 9.
Police have arrested 20-year-old Rico LeBlond in Ziona's shooting death, charging him with first-degree murder Friday. Charging documents show that LeBlond may have become angry and embarrassed after his relationship with Ziona became public, WUSA 9 reports. Witnesses reportedly said that Ziona "began acting flamboyantly towards LeBlond and greatly embarrassed LeBlond in front of his peers."
Ziona suffered gunshot wounds to the head and groin. She was on her way to lay flowers on her grandmother's grave, according to family members, when she was killed. LeBlond reportedly has a criminal history that WUSA 9 reports includes theft and attempted murder.
According to the Huffington Post, Ziona is one of at least 21 transgender women who have been killed this year in the U.S. Most of the victims, like Ziona, were transgender women of color.
"She was just amazing," Barbie Johnson, a friend of Ziona, told NBC. "When Zella's around, there's not a single frown in the room."