Romantic jealousy -- not revenge or hate-crime bias -- has emerged as the most likely motive in the torture killing of James J. Mack in January, investigators now say.
For more than a month, investigators have tried to determine why five people beat, tortured and strangled Mack, 17, inside a North Pearl Street apartment Jan. 21.
They now believe the most concrete motive appears to be Mack's relationship with a transsexual who goes by the name of Tashia. Friends and relatives apparently thought that Mack and Tashia had a normal boy-girl relationship and that Tashia was a woman.
"Mack's relationship with Tashia appears to be a motive for at least two of the five actors," Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark said Thursday, referring to the murder suspects. "I think jealousy is the right word for it."
Clark refused to explain further.
Investigators now believe that one of the five suspects may have been romantically attracted to Mack while another was interested in Tashia.
Four young men and one woman, ages 18 to 20, have been charged with second-degree murder in connection with the killing.
The district attorney revealed that he plans to ask a grand jury to consider first-degree murder charges against one of the five murder suspects already under arrest. He refused, however, to identify which suspect.
Investigators previously targeted one of the five, William Lauderdale, 20, as the ringleader. Lauderdale has been accused of dropping a television set on the defenseless victim and helping strangle him.
Any indictment on a first-degree murder charge, which could come as early as next week, would allow Clark to seek the death penalty against that person. Though he wouldn't tip his hand, Clark hinted it might be difficult to obtain the death penalty in this case.
That's because five people have been charged with the murder.
"Whenever you have multiple actors, it's difficult to distinguish, legally and morally, the acts of one person as compared to the acts of others," he said. "If I were to seek the death penalty, I would want to prove the guilt of each person charged under that statute, practically to a mathematical certainty, so there is no doubt in the minds of anyone."
Why would the district attorney's office seek a first-degree murder charge against one person if the crime were hard to prosecute as a death penalty case?
"Because you have the very real possibility of that person being given life without parole," Clark replied.
Under the state's death penalty law, a first-degree murder conviction can lead to a sentence of life without parole.
The death penalty law spells out certain specified killings that can lead to first-degree murder charges, including death by torture. According to the statute, prosecutors have to prove that the killer inflicted great pain on the victim and relished that fact.
Investigators, in their monthlong probe, believe they know the rough sequence of events in the torture killing and who was involved in each of those events:
Mack first was assaulted with beer bottles. Police have accused Lauderdale of striking the first blow, among several who wielded bottles.
The victim then was kicked and beaten by four or five of the individuals.
Next, Lauderdale is accused of dropping a small TV set on Mack's head.
One person stabbed Mack, and another person, believed to be suspect Kareemaha Luper, 18, assaulted him sexually with a broom handle.
Then Lauderdale and another person are accused of strangling Mack with an electrical cord.
Finally, a group of people put the unconscious Mack face-down in a bathtub filled with water, before burning his body in a large trash container.
Authorities revealed Thursday that Mack died of drowning in addition to blunt-force trauma and strangulation, according to new autopsy results. That means he was alive when placed in the bathtub.