A transgender woman was murdered Thursday evening in Montgomery Village, Maryland, and police are investigating the possibility the act was a hate crime.
Zella Ziona, 21, was found with a gunshot wound to the head about 5:50 p.m. Thursday in an alley separating the Montgomery Village Plaza and Montgomery Village Crossing shopping centers, near 18312 Contour Road, police said. She was rushed to a hospital with serious injuries and later died.
Police initially had released conflicting information about the victim's identity, identifying her Thursday night as DeAndre Smith.
Police are still investigating but said they do not believe the attack was random.
"We are looking at many possibilities in this stage of the investigation," Montgomery County police spokesman Capt. Paul Starks said. "We are not ruling out the possibility that this could be hate-based."
Friends gathered Friday evening in the alley where Ziona was attacked, bringing candles and balloons.
"She was just amazing," Barbie Johnson said. "When Zella's around, there's not a single frown in the room."
Ziona was like a second mother to Johnson's daughter, she said. The child keeps asking, "Where's Zella?"
Ziona's quiet bravery in the face of people who did not understand her will always be an inspiration to Johnson, she said. Friend Jasmine Black also called Ziona an inspiration, saying she only had openly identified as transgender in the past several months.
"She just wanted to embrace her life. She wanted to show the world how to be transgender," Black said. "She helped people. She inspired someone else named Chris to be himself."
Ziona's mother arrived on the scene of the crime Thursday night and collapsed with grief.
No information about a suspect was released immediately. Witnesses saw a group of four of five young men near Ziona and heard what sounded like arguing. One witness told News4 he heard gunshots and then chased the shooter -- who was on foot -- with his car.
"[I] blew my horn, stayed on my horn long enough to get his attention, and then he looked up and took off running," the man said, providing his name only as Joe. The suspect then disappeared.
"This is a horrific crime and a tragedy for those who knew Zella," Chief J. Thomas Manger said in a statement Friday. "As with all homicides in Montgomery County, we have detectives working around the clock to thoroughly and completely investigate this murder.”
Anyone with information is asked to call police at 240-773-5070. A reward of as much as $10,000 is offered. Tips also can be submitted by calling 1-866-411-TIPS.