hate crime

Victim’s 911 Robbery Call Helped Catch “Vicious Killer”: Police

The gunman returned to shoot Deshawnda Sanchez several times as she was reporting an earlier robbery to a 911 operator

The final phone call of a woman killed after a robbery attempt last year helped investigators piece together what happened on the night she was shot by a man police described as a "vicious killer."

Robert James Spells, 30, is suspected of gunning down Deshawnda Sanchez outside a South Los Angeles residence on Dec. 3. The Inglewood resident was taken into custody at a relative's home in Los Angeles at around 4 p.m. Wednesday, Los Angeles police said. 

Sanchez, a transgender woman, was on the phone with a 911 operator to report the robbery in the 6100 block of South Wilton Place.

"Deshawnda's last words were helpful in tying together what occurred," said LAPD Detective Chris Barling. "She informed the operator that the suspect was returning. As he was returning, she sought shelter by pounding on a residence at 4 a.m."

As Sanchez knocked on the door, the man got out of a vehicle and shot her multiple times before leaving in the car.

"No words were exchanged on the 911 tape," said Barling.

Additional calls came in from neighbors who reported hearing shots fired.  Officers and paramedics responded to the scene and Sanchez was found dead on the porch of a residence.

At a news conference with Los Angeles police Thursday, family members said they feel the arrest provides justice for the woman they call "TaTa."

"Sometimes these cases just get thrown out," said sister Diana Williams. "But they stayed on the case and got justice for us."

Williams turned to a photo of her sister that was displayed at the news conference.

"We did this," she said, addressing her sister. "You were the bug in our ear. You didn't deserve how you got treated. We love you Ta Ta."

Diane Williams, the victim's mother, said through tears, the suspect "took a good boy."

"I'm just so lost without him and I miss him and I want him to pay for everything he did to my child," she said.

Added sister Keyocean Williams: "I'm just glad we're getting justice for him. We've been wanting this since day one and I'm happy now and I want my brother to know I love him and I miss him so much."

Sanchez grew up in Compton, but had lived outside the Los Angeles basin in recent years, in Las Vegas and Victorville.  There was some type of relationship between Spells and the victim, but officers declined to provide details about the relationship or what was taken during the robbery at a Thursday news conference.

Last year, LAPD detectives declined to call her shooting a hate crime, though the National LGBTQ Task Force linked the shooting to 11 other anti-transgender homicides they documented in 2014. At Thursday's news conference, Barling said prosecutors will have to determine whether the case meets the federal criteria for hate crime charges. 

"Mr. Spells, at some point, realized Sanchez was a transgender person and that played a factor in the killing," Barling said. "That's my opinion.

"In my opinion, I think hate was used by Mr. Spells. But my opinion does not meet the list of criteria formed by the federal guidelines."

LAPD Capt. Peter Whittingham described Spells as a "vicious killer." He was arrested on a parole warrant, but Whittingham said a murder charge will likely be filed Thursday in the Sanchez case.

The Operation South Bureau Human Trafficking Task Force also identified Spells as the suspect in the human trafficking of an 11-year old girl which occurred on Feb. 8. It was during that investigation that authorities said they linked Spells to the other crime.

Spells is a former gang member and parolee who's served time for robbery and weapons charges. A few weeks before Sanchez's murder, Spells was interviewed by Strides for Social Justice @UCLA, and said he'd turned his life around.

It was not immediately clear whether Spells obtained legal counsel.

Toni Guinyard contributed to this report.

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