Transgender Woman Featured in Alt Weekly Cover Story Found Dead in Woods, Cops Call Death 'Suspicious'

Jessi Hart
Jessi Hart. Photo: Human Rights Campaign

In a June cover feature in an Oregon alternative newsweekly, Jessi Hart described the disruptions in her life, including housing insecurity and the rejection of her family, since she began her transition in 2016 from male to female.

Hart, 42, was then living in a Ramada Inn on the outskirts of Portland with her 13-year-old son Caleb, one of several people profiled by Willamette Week for a feature about those living by whatever means they could in order to fend off homelessness.

"I'm hopeful that Caleb will make it through this," she told the newsweekly. "I don't have much hope for myself. It's been four years and I'm exhausted."

On Oct. 17, police found Hart's body in the woods about five miles north of Banks, 25 miles west of Portland, along with evidence that cause them to believe the death was "suspicious," the Washington County Sheriff's Office states in a news release.

Hart's death is at least the 43rd violent killing of a transgender or gender non-conforming person in 2021, according to the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization Human Rights Campaign.

"Housing insecurity often places so many from our community in dangerous and concerning situations," Tori Cooper, HRC's director of community engagement for the Transgender Justice Initiative, said in a statement. "Had Jessi Hart had access to secure housing, it is possible that she would still be with us today. As transgender people, we often face so many challenges and uncertainties, including housing and employment security, and, sadly, these situations can lead to greatly unfortunate outcomes."

After Hart's death, her girlfriend Audrey Savage told Willamete Week, "I'll miss everything about her. She was intelligent and thoughtful and caring, and I loved her quirks. The whole shorts with the knee-high socks added to the stretch pants thing. She also took almost all my hats. When they found her, they found her in my camouflage hat."

RELATED: 3 Men Charged with Hate Crime for Allegedly Shooting Transgender Woman with Paint Balls Shortly Before Her Murder

Detectives who responded to the scene say evidence suggests Hart died at least two weeks prior to the discovery of her body in the woods. Initially, police were not able to make an identification, but an autopsy completed three days later by the Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office confirmed the remains were Hart's.

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She was wearing a camouflage hat, sweater, and stretch pants as well as black Sketchers tennis shoes, police said. Hart most recently was driving a black 2006 Saab 93 soft-top convertible that had been spray-painted white, and detectives have recovered the vehicle.

Detectives ask anyone who saw that vehicle, had contact with Hart in recent months, or has information about the death to call the sheriff's office at 503-846-2700.

A Devoted Mother

Last summer, Hart had described her transition as difficult, saying she felt the harsh gaze of those who looked at her differently and that she wasn't sure how well she passed in her new body. She said the toll had included the break with her family, the loss of her home, and the collapse of her construction business, although Willamete Week was unable to verify the latter and never succeeded in reaching Hart's other family members.

But the newsweekly witnessed and described her affections as a devoted mom to her son, Caleb. "He's a super-smart kid," Hart said. "He's into physics. You walk up to him and talk about regularities, it's quantum mechanics. He taught me about it: the top layer of a black hole."

After the feature article was published, Willamette Week reports that Hart's subsidized stay at the Ramada ended and she worked occasional car repair jobs while sleeping in her vehicle, as Caleb moved in with the family of a classmate. A nonprofit helped with their move together into another motel in July, after which the newsweekly says it lost touch with them.

Before then, Hart shared a text with the newsweekly that briefly addressed the "ebb and flows" in her life, writing of her exhausted wish for relief.

"I'm just getting a tide coming in that is just slow enough to keep me standing on my tip toes so I don't drown," Hart wrote, "but not going out so I can relax."

Updated by Jeff Truesdell
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