College football player kills transgender girlfriend to cover up relationship
02/20/2017 1:02 pm PST
Police and paramedics respond to a single car accident in Tyler, Texas in January 2015. The vehicle has slammed into a telephone pole. But when first-responders arrive -- things are not what they seem.
But if this was just a fender-bender, why all the bullets? Why all the blood? Was this a freak accident, or was this woman silenced?
Ty Underwood -- beautiful, vivacious, unique -- was born a man.
"She would introduce herself as Ty," said Jacob Putman, Smith County, Texas assistant district attorney. "That's how her friends knew her."
At the age of 24, Ty abandons her tiny hometown of Lufkin, Texas for the city of Tyler, Texas. For Ty, it's a life-changer. But Tyler, Texas wasn't exactly transgender-friendly.
"You've got a very, very heavy religious base around here," said McCoy. "We're considered the 'Buckle of the Bible Belt,' if you will. LGBT people in general, they kind of keep quiet. There's a decent-sized population but they don't feel safe here."
That didn't hold back the 24-year-old Ty Underwood.
"Ty was a person who wasn't scared of anything," said Ty's friend Kenyaah Darks. "Ty wasn't fearful, so when it came down to the world accepting who she was, it was 'live it to the fullest every day, because you just never know.'"
What Ty never knew is her life would end in bloodshed at 2:36 a.m. on a quiet street in Tyler on Jan. 26, 2015. Neighbors call 911 to report a car crashed into a telephone pole, with the headlights on and the engine still running. One caller said they thought gunshots were heard.
Within minutes, officers are on scene. They find Ty Underwood sitting in the driver's seat with her head slumped over. She did not respond to officers or paramedics. It doesn't take long for cops to realize this is more than a simple accident.
"There was blood on the steering wheel, the dashboard, the front windshield, inside the doors," said Detective Nathan Elliott, Tyler Police Dept.
Underwood is dead in the drivers' seat, having bled out.
"It's not a car wreck like they initially thought," said Jacob Putman. "This is a homicide. These are gunshot wounds."
"Five gunshots were fired, four of the rounds struck the victim," said Det. Elliott.
"The gunshots came from the right side of Ty, towards the left, which indicated that the shooter was sitting in the passenger seat shooting towards the driver," said Putman.
Ty's killer was sitting right next to her. Cops believe the shooter opened fire, then jumped out while Ty was driving. Bleeding, her punctured lungs failing, Ty hits the accelerator.
"And that person kept shooting, chasing the car and shooting Ty, so obviously whoever's shooting at this person wants to make sure the job is finished," said McCoy.
"There was paint, broken glass, hit mailboxes, actually turned around and come in reverse and come back towards where the initial shooting happened, and then wrecked into the grass," said Putman.
Trapped in the mud, Ty can't escape.
"The wheels were dug into the dirt, it had been put into reverse, looking like Ty was trying to back out and get away," said Putman.
"The victim didn't have a chance to survive this," said Det. Elliott.
"There's money in the car, there's nothing taken, but you know, Ty was shot while fleeing so clearly there's motive other than robbery or just an altercation," said McCoy.
Did Ty know her killer? The answer could be locked up behind the four-digit pass code of Ty's phone, found in the car.
At the station, police interview Kenyaah Dark about Ty Underwood's relationships. One name stands out.
"The last one I knew of was this dude named 'Carlton,'" Kenyaah tells police. "He spent two or three nights at our apartment."
The heartbroken roommate tells investigators one more crucial detail:
"The only reason Ty would have left the house that night is to meet her boyfriend, Carlton," said Jacob Putman.
The man Kenyaah names is Carlton Champion, a 21-year-old freshman at nearby Texas College.
"Carlton Champion did grow up with a pretty bad childhood, got into some trouble as a youth but towards the end of high school had found some stability and was accepted into college here at Texas College, and moved to campus, moved into a dorm, and tried out for the Texas College football team," said Jacob Putman. Champion makes the team.
"We kind of revere football players around here, we hold them to a higher standard," said reporter Cory McCoy. "We put them on this pedestal and especially when you have a college that small and a community that small, that person is really thrust into the spotlight."
Now police put Carlton under a different spotlight in handcuffs -- the hot glare of suspicion surrounding Ty Underwood's murder.
"They asked him if he knew someone named Ty. He said he had only met Ty one time," said Putman. "Carlton said he did not know that Ty was male, that he thought Ty was female, and he indicated that Ty drove a white car that he had never been in."
Police ask Carlton how he communicated with Ty -- it was through the Kik chat app. But strangely, Carlton says he deleted Kik from his tablet just that morning.
If cops want to see who Ty was chatting with, there's only one way. Police guess at the PIN code for Ty's phone -- risking losing the data permanently. Finally, a Hail Mary: They guess Ty's date of birth, correctly. When Ty's iPhone opens, all of her communications -- texts, instant messages, and "Kiks" -- are suddenly revealed, including incriminating chats with Carlton Champion.
"They had had a sexual relationship," said Putman. "That was clear from the nature and language of the text messages between them."
The unlocked phone exposes a treasure trove of romantic conversations and X-rated "selfies."
"It's obvious that Champion is lying about not knowing whether or not Ty was a woman," said Cory McCoy. "Ty had been clear about who she was and the text messages revealed that."
The texts also revealed their newfound romance was about to change. On the night of the murder, the messages with Carlton grow darker. Ty accuses the college freshman of meeting other sexual partners online, and she furiously texts: "i'm on my way up there"... "i'm coming to the school"... To which Carlton replies "no your not!"
"Carlton certainly indicated with his communications with Ty that he wanted to keep that relationship a secret," said Putman. "Whether it was from his friends or the other football team or the people on campus, he did not want Ty coming to campus and exposing that part of his life to the people on campus."
Then the phone reveals Ty's final messages to Carlton, including: "I'm here." Cops use that text to place Ty and Carlton together the night of the murder.
The freshman football player insists he never left his dormitory room the night of the murder. But cops go to the surveillance tape -- and Carlton clearly fumbles. Buried in hours of footage, Carlton Champion is seen exiting his dorm right before the murder, then returning home just minutes after Ty is left shot, and bleeding behind the wheel.
"The time-stamps on the surveillance tape were narrow, but just enough time for Carlton to leave the campus commit the murder and then return," said Jacob Putman.
The DNA sample from inside Ty's car comes back from the lab.
"They found Carlton's DNA on the seatbelt and the door handle inside the car, which is the same car that Carlton said he had never been inside of," said Putman.
Detectives believe they have Ty's killer. They bring Carlton in to the police station for an interview.
Cops think he'll crumble under the overwhelming evidence, sitting in handcuffs. But the young football star shamelessly jukes through question after question, without showing a single sign of remorse. He repeats that he's hungry and wants a fast-food burger.
"It was real apparent that Carlton Champion wasn't taking this serious," said Det. Nathan Elliott. "And I really believed he thought that he was going to beat this charge."
A confession never comes, but there's enough evidence to put Carlton Champion in front of a jury.
"He kind of laughed and chuckled the whole time," said Ty Underwood's friend Kenyaah Darks. "You see his lawyer kind of like tapping him telling him to be quiet, straighten up, sit up and things like that, and he took it as a joke."
But it's no joke when the verdict comes in: Guilty of first-degree murder. He could have received as little as five years, but after another outburst of arrogance in court, Champion gets life.
But even that life sentence doesn't stop him from taunting still members of Ty's family as he leaves the courtroom.
"Carlton Champion Jr. killed Ty Underwood because he was afraid the secret was gonna come out, that if this relationship went south, everyone was gonna find out that he's in a relationship with a transgender woman, and he could not take that thought," said Cory McCoy.
Unbelievably, Carlton Champion still thinks he can get out of this. He sent a letter to Crime Watch Daily, writing "the police did dirty work" and that he's "looking good, feeling good... Waiting to get free so I can see what the world got to offer me."
Champion's lawyer indicated his client will appeal. Carlton Champion will be eligible for parole in 2045.
Underwood was among the first of 21 transgender women reported murdered in 2015. And sadly, that number grew to 27 transgender murder victims in 2016 -- nearly all of the victims being transgender women of color.