Death of Alloura Wells tells a story of a vulnerable community
The case of Alloura Wells, a biracial and transgender woman found dead in a ravine, is a consistent reminder of the risks this demographic faces
They are old pictures of Alloura Wells, mementos from less tragic times. One taken as a year-old baby. Another in elementary school. Two snapped in a photo booth.
They are creased and worn because Alloura's father, Mike, kept them in his wallet during his years on the street and in supportive housing.
He pulls out the photos when describing the day a decade earlier when Alloura came out to him as a transgender woman.
"Dad, I don't want you not to love me," she said.
"I'm thinking, 'What did you do?' He goes, 'I want to be a woman,'" recalled Mike, who, like many of Alloura's relatives and older friends, slips back and forth between gender pronouns.
"I was just, 'That's all? Really? Do what you need to do. Just be a good person.'"
Last month, Alloura's name was finally put to a body that had been found in a Toronto ravine during the summer. The news had been a long time coming for her father, siblings and friends at Maggie's sex-worker advocacy group, who had been coping with her disappearance for months.
It also put a spotlight on the Toronto Police Service and the 519 community centre in the Church-Wellesley Village. Both have been criticized for the way they handled communication in the case of Alloura – a homeless, biracial transgender woman and, by extension, one of the city's most vulnerable people.
This has been a difficult year for the community in and around the Village. A dedicated police probe is looking into the disappearance this year of two gay men, Andrew Kinsman and Selim Esen.
In late November, Tess Richey, 22, was strangled to death after clubbing in the Village; her body found days later by her mother, who searched for her because she felt police weren't looking hard enough. And all of this comes after the police looked in vain into the cases of three Village regulars who vanished between 2010 and 2012.
Alloura's story is tragic but consistent with the fact that people such as her are at extremely high risk of poverty, violence, homelessness and drug abuse. The Washington Blade, a U.S. LGBTQ publication, estimates the average life expectancy for a transgender woman of colour at 35. Alloura only made it to 27 and how she died may never be known.
On Aug. 5, during a hike through the Rosedale ravine, real estate agent Rebecca Price and a friend found a body near a tent. It was badly decomposed, wearing female clothing and a wig. There was drug paraphernalia, but other than a purse, there were no personal belongings.
The coroner estimated the death happened some time in July. The remains were in such bad shape that the race or cause of death couldn't be determined. However, the coroner informed police that the body had male genitalia, likely identifying the victim as a transgender woman.
Alloura's death would not be confirmed until Nov. 23, and in the roughly four months until the body was identified, her family, friends and advocates would experience frustration as they attempted to solve the mystery of her disappearance.
Alloura's family was aware she was part of a demographic that often fell through the cracks. When her father, Mike, went to report her disappearance at 51 Division, whose district covers the Village, he said he was told that, because of her itinerant history, she wasn't a high priority so he was given a non-emergency line to contact.
"It all plays a part, being transgendered, addicted, homeless. It's like he's a nobody," he said.
Alloura was born in Toronto, the third of four children.
"My family was always poor," said Michelle Wheeler, Alloura's older sister. Their mother, Mary, had a small but stable income as a Tim Hortons manager. Mike's wages as a labourer were less reliable and the family moved often, sometimes going without food, at one point living in a hotel.
Alloura "definitely had a tendency to show that he was trans," said her sister, who remembers a child who would wear a T-shirt over her head, pretending to have long hair.
At school, Alloura was generally shy, but sweet and funny with her friends. "She always had a certain kind of flair," said Alisha Ryan, who knew her in grade school and later at Wexford Collegiate, an arts school for which Alloura was enrolled in the specialized drama program.
After Alloura came out at 18, Mike embraced his daughter's transgender friends, inviting them to sleep over if their own parents had rejected them.
"I'm not politically correct, not even close," said Mike, a small man with weathered skin indicating a hard life. "But I tried for Alloura."
Even with her family's support, Alloura's teenage years were tumultuous. She disappeared for long periods – Ms. Ryan would run into her downtown "looking different every time, but still the same person." Stephanie, a drag performer, remembered a young Alloura full of questions about dressing up and becoming "glam."
"I always told her, change to different wigs 'til you know who you are," Stephanie said.
Around 2012, Alloura settled down for a bit, signing up for Ontario Works and renting a flat in Scarborough, near where Ms. Wheeler lived with her then-husband. She visited her sister daily, helping care for her young niece and nephew, while Ms. Wheeler gave her food, comfort and cigarettes.
"We were all going through stuff," her sister said. "I was just there for him and he was there for me."
But in February, 2013, Alloura's mother died of lung cancer and the family unravelled.
Ms. Wheeler and the youngest brother, Darnell, stayed afloat, but Mike was unable to work because of chronic pain and became homeless. Will, the oldest son, also drifted on to the street, while Alloura stopped paying rent and was evicted. From then on, she lived mostly in a tent in the Rosedale ravine.
Although she has been called a sex worker, her friends at Maggie's say she wasn't.
"Alloura may have done survival sex work, but that was not her main focus," said Mandii Nanticoke, Maggie's Indigenous co-ordinator. "Her friends were sex workers, but … she was not out there selling herself."
She worked briefly as a mall security guard. She also served short jail terms, which her father believes were for theft and breaking and entering.
Ms. Nanticoke, who wears a big, blond Farrah Fawcett wig, bonded with Alloura over a love of hair and makeup. Both had also lost their mothers and shared the occasional crying session.
Alloura was fun, sensitive and "a spoiled brat," Ms. Nanticoke said. "Asking her to do the dishes and take out the garbage was like asking a five-year-old. She'd literally stamp her feet."
Her father, who eventually found an apartment, said Alloura turned down offers to live with him.
Ms. Nanticoke also offered Alloura a place to stay, but by that time, she would only come along with her boyfriend, Augustinus Balesdent.Their relationship was tumultuous and marked by hard drug use – "needles," said her father, who met Mr. Balesdent a few times, the only guy her daughter ever introduced him to. Her phone was always stolen or broken and she kept in touch mostly through Facebook.
About three years ago, Alloura's sister found her sleeping on her Scarborough doorstep, unclean, disoriented, almost unrecognizable. "She told me this story that she had been ditched and had walked really, really far to my house. She told me these awful stories – she even told me she was lit on fire once."
Ms. Wheeler fed Alloura and let her sleep all day, but her husband didn't want her around. Not long after, Ms. Wheeler divorced and moved out of town. "I feel like if I never left in the first place, she'd probably still have a home," Ms. Wheeler said. "I do blame myself for the outcome of my sister's life."
The last posts on Alloura's Facebook page were made July 26: One stated her pride in her brother Darnell's military career, while another was more gloomy. "Is wondering [what] happened to me life love loss its to much to handle right now."
At the beginning of August, Alloura's family and Maggie's staff were in touch, worried about her lack of presence on Facebook. In early August, Maggie's outreach co-ordinator, Monica Forrester, called the Vanier Centre for Women, a correctional facility where Alloura had previously been incarcerated.
"We thought she was probably in for a misdemeanour kind of thing," Ms. Forrester said. But she thought Alloura's surname was Wheeler, and asked if there were any prisoners with that name. The answer was yes, and a relieved Ms. Nanticoke bought a card and sent it to Vanier with good wishes.
Around the same time, police were working on identifying the body that Rebecca Price had found in the Rosedale ravine. Investigators at 53 Division began to search local and national databases of missing people and, in mid-August, sent out an internal bulletin distributed within the police service. By September, they heard from provincial police about a missing transgender person from Northern Ontario, but the ages didn't fit. They next checked out a case in Alberta, but the DNA didn't match.
On Aug. 17, dissatisfied with what she felt was a lack of communication from the police, Ms. Price emailed the 519 community centre using the subject line "Transgender dead body found."
As a hub and important resource of the LGBTQ community, the centre would be a place where a concerned friend might show up in search of a missing friend. Ms. Price hoped that the mystery would be solved more quickly if they mobilized to help. But their delayed reaction left her unsatisfied.
She had to resend her e-mail before getting a response from staff, who replied on Aug. 25 that the centre would follow up with police.
That didn't happen. While 519 executive director, Maura Lawless initially said that the centre "made some effort to verify the information with the police," an internal review has since found that staffers only scanned police news releases and found no mention of an unidentified body.
The 519 didn't make Ms. Price's tip public, nor did it contact the police or other agencies, such as Maggie's.
Still waiting, Ms. Forrester checked in at Vanier again around Halloween, this time using both Wheeler and Wells. She learned that Alloura hadn't been in prison that summer and told Mike, who attempted to make a missing persons report. Although that didn't go well, by Nov. 8, 51 Division made a public appeal to help find Alloura. The following day, 53 Division was notified there was a possible link between the remains found in their area and Alloura's disappearance. Meanwhile, Ms. Price saw the news on television and got in touch with Maggie's. "If it wasn't for Rebecca Price … we would never have known there was a body," Ms. Forrester said.
Confirming that the body Ms. Price had found was definitely Alloura took another few weeks, requiring DNA samples. And even the Nov. 30 announcement that yes, it was her, came along with another indignity – because of the intense decomposition, the coroner was unable in the final autopsy report to determine the cause of death.
Police now want to talk to Mr. Balesdent, who is considered a person of interest. "He may be able to provide a more accurate timeline for Alloura's last days," police spokeswoman Meaghan Gray said.
On a chilly afternoon earlier this week, the sex-worker and transgender friends of Alloura, along with relatives and former classmates gathered at a memorial for her. Under high ceilings, an Indigenous drum group performed in honour of Alloura, a regular at their monthly performances. Mike paid tribute to a child who always loved music, especially singing karaoke and dancing with her black Nova Scotian grandmother.
That same day, the 519 issued a public apology. Its executive director, Ms. Lawless, met with Ms. Price.
Citing Alloura and Ms. Richey, police Chief Mark Saunders has ordered an internal review of his force's handling of missing people reports, acknowledging that "there are things that could have been done better." He also sat down with Mike, who said the police chief "apologized left, right and centre."
"I told him, you need to embrace this community, it is full of love and compassion," Mike said. "Too much has gone down and not enough is being done."