Tracey Thompson - also known as Billy Joe Turner - was beaten with a baseball bat along a dirt road in Wilcox County in 1999. Photo: Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

COLD CASE: A transgender murder in rural Georgia baffles police

Before daybreak on March 30, 1999, Tracey Thompson stumbled up to a house in tiny Seville, Ga. and banged on the door. Bleeding from the head, she asked for water, a blanket and a place to rest. The residents called 911 and some 10 hours after Thompson arrived at a local hospital she was dead.

Eighteen years later, her killing remains unsolved. Authorities are still searching for a break in the case which, at the time, attracted national attention because Thompson — also known as Billy Joe Turner — was transgender.

MORE AJC COLD CASES:

UGA student’s murder remains a mystery

Case goes cold on fatal killing that chilled Atlanta

PHOTOS: A look at Georgia’s cold case files

One of law enforcement’s initial theories was that the 33-year-old Thompson, who commonly dressed as a woman, was beaten to death by someone who didn’t know that, biologically, she was a man. There was also speculation that the Wilcox County killing was a hate crime.

The case in 1999 prompted transgender activists in California to declare a “state of emergency and national crisis,” according to a Bay Area Reporter article at the time. Thompson’s death marked the fifth publicly-reported murder of a transgender person that year and activists portrayed the killing as further evidence of an emerging epidemic.

But years later, authorities say they have not found any evidence that the killing was related to Thompson being transgender.

On a dirt road about a half mile from the farmhouse where Thompson sought help, authorities found blood and shattered pieces of a baseball bat. But it didn’t lead them to the killer.

ANOTHER COLD CASE:

Authorities believe it was a racially motivated crime.

“We were able to find a crime scene on the road [where she stopped at the house for help],” GBI special agent Lee Weathersby said. “We’ve tested that evidence multiple times now, using newer technology, and do not have a viable suspect.”

A drifter known to hitchhike across Georgia’s interstates and spend time at truck stops, Thompson lived on the fringes. She had a long criminal history for non-violent charges such as criminal trespass and drunken driving and served some time in prison for theft, Weathersby said.

Thompson was from Dalton in north Georgia, although she also had lived in Miami and Ft. Meyers, Florida, Weathersby said. How she ended up in in a rural area — some 75 miles south of Macon — is unknown. But relatives and friends told authorities Thompson would visit friends and family in Florida, sometimes staying six months to a year. It wasn’t unusual for her to hitchhike on the interstates accessible to Dalton and Wilcox County, Weathersby said.

On her death bed, Thompson told authorities she’d been struck repeatedly with a baseball bat by an ex-boyfriend. But agents tracked him down and learned he was out of town at the time. He’s been ruled out as a suspect, Weathersby said.

FOR MORE CRIME NEWS: Go to MyAJC.com/crime/

JOIN THE DISCUSSION: The AJC’s crime and public safety Facebook group is your source for breaking news.

Authorities identified other suspects or persons of interest, including a man who served time in prison with Thompson. Weathersby said the prisoner denied knowing Thompson but has not been ruled out as a possible suspect.

In 2009, all physical evidence was re-evaluated relying on new DNA technology. Witnesses also have been reinterviewed throughout the years, Weathersby said.

Former Wilcox County Sheriff Mike Martin, a deputy at the time who worked on Thompson’s killing, said in an interview with WMGT-TV that murders are rare in the area and unsolved murders even rarer.

“We don’t have ‘em here much and most times when we have ‘one here they’re solved pretty quickly,” Martin said.

Anyone with any information about the case is asked to call the GBI office in Perry at 478-987-4545 and ask for Agent Weathersby.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.