Slain transgender woman strived to climb out of addiction

Posted: July 25, 2013

NEAR THE end of her life, Diamond Woods searched desperately for help.

She had spent 14 years on the streets battling drug addiction and making money the only way she believed she could as a transgender woman sidelined from mainstream society: by selling her body, and she was tired.

Two weeks before authorities say Woods was slain and dismembered by a man who picked her up earlier this month on a desolate stretch of Old York Road in Hunting Park, she reached out to Rachel Rose, 30, and Cassie Hart, 35, who refer to Woods as their sister.

"She called and said, 'I need help,' " Hart recalled yesterday at a vigil for Woods. "So I went to see her, but she said she wasn't ready."

It was this kind of struggle that was all too familiar to the women who were the closest thing to a family that Woods had.

"She really wanted to change. She had a deep desire to have a better life," said Rees'e Murdock, 48, who also called Woods her sister. "She really had a strong desire [for] something better."

Woods, 31, was born Mark Williams and spent her childhood in North Philadelphia. Rose first met Woods in the 1990s when the two were placed in a group home together in West Philadelphia. Woods' mother, Rose said, battled with her own drug addiction and was unable to care for her.

The two became like sisters and later met Hart and Murdock, Rose said. Woods dropped out of Overbrook High but later got her high-school equivalency diploma. Eventually, all four women supported one another through their gender transitions.

"We weren't even who we are today when we met her," Hart said.

The women said Woods' mom was supportive of her daughter and stayed close with her. It was in 1999 when Woods' mother died of cancer that her life deteriorated, they said.

"Her mom was everything to her. Her mom was the only person [in her biological family] who accepted her, besides her great-grandmom," Rose said.

When her great-grandmother died in 2005, Rose said, things only got worse for Woods, who was estranged from one of her older brothers and had another brother who is in prison.

"She was like a lost soul," Hart said. "She had sisters who tried to help her, but there wasn't much we could do. She had a rough start from childhood."

Hart, Rose and Murdock said that on several occasions, they got Woods into treatment for her addiction. But each time, Woods' demons got the best of her and she wound up back on the street.

"We've helped her and we were there for her, but you can't force-feed," Hart said.

Woods would occasionally stay in Frankford with Rose or in Kensington with Hart, the women said. But for the last month of her life, the women said, as far as they knew, Woods was homeless - working the streets every day on Old York Road near Pike Street.

Friends who knew Woods well said she had taken steps to improve her life.

Hart said Woods would go through periods when she would get clean and start to take hormone therapy, but she always stopped eventually and turned back to the drugs and the streets.

"She just never got polished," Hart said, adding that Woods would often wonder aloud why she wasn't as pretty as the other women who were further along in their transitions.

"She was accepted in the streets. That's what was comfortable for her," Hart said.

Aamina Morrison, 33, who became friends with Woods in 2000 through the Attic Youth Center in Center City, which serves the LGBT community, said all Woods wanted was to be beautiful.

"She had dreams. She wanted to be the most beautiful woman in the world," Morrison said. "As trans women, we all do."

When Morrison was struggling with her own transition years ago, she said, Woods always knew how to help lighten her spirits.

"She would say, 'Smile. You have such a great smile,' " Morrison said. "And she doesn't know how much that changed my life."

On July 11, Hart and Rose stopped by the Hunting Park street that Woods worked almost daily to check on her. "We got her a Pepsi and a water on Thursday because it was hot, and she was out working," Hart said.

That was the last time the women saw their curly haired sister, who liked to wear hoop earrings and long eyelashes.

That weekend, police said, Woods was picked up by Charles "Nolan" Sargent, 43. He took Woods back to the Strawberry Mansion house he shared with his girlfriend and brutally killed the woman before dismembering her corpse with an ax and scattering the pieces of her body in a vacant, weeded lot about a mile from the house, police said.

Woods' brutal slaying rocked the transgender community.

"Diamond was just like any other African-American trans that didn't find much opportunity, that wasn't graciously accepted in many areas in life," said Jaci Adams, 55, a transgender activist and friend of Woods who spoke at the vigil, which was attended by more than 100 people last night in LOVE Park.

"I turned to drugs when I couldn't find nothing," Adams said. "When all the doors was closed on me, I gave up on myself. I'm talking in terms of me, but same with her. When we . . . give up on ourselves, we tend to throw caution to the wind."

Hart said that although the slaying will leave a terrible void in the lives of Woods' adoptive sisters and the community overall, one thing about it gives her relief.

"Her suffering was so immense on this earth, but the relief [in her death] was that she didn't have to suffer anymore," she said. "She's in a better place, and I would hope that she's looking and smiling down on us."

On Twitter: @morganzalot


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