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Slab City Murder Probe Pushes in New Direction

Investigators Ask Public’s Help to ID "Person of Interest"; Friends Start Social Campaign to Pressure Results

Poe Delwyn Black, who was killed and his body dumped in the Coachella Canal near Slab City in May, speaks about life in the Slabs in a YouTube interview that posted around March or April. Lead into who killed Black have dried up at the Slabs and now investigators are seeking help to find a person of interest known as “Knives” while looking into Black’s home state of Tennessee. | VIDEO CAPTURE
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SLAB CITY — Months after the body of a 21-year-old transgender man, Poe Delwyn Black, was pulled from a canal north of Slab City riddled with stab wounds, investigators have shifted the theater of the murder probe in two directions: Black’s home state of Tennessee and the Pacific Northwest.

Imperial County Sheriff’s Office investigators have exhausted their local leads and lost track of two individuals — possibly traveling together — in a winnowing list of “persons of interest,” Chief Deputy Robert Benavidez said in an interview last week.

Investigators took to social media on Wednesday, Sept. 15, to elicit the public’s help in locating a trans woman who investigators identify as “Knives,” among other aliases.

Knives’ legal name is unknown at this point, Benavidez said, but investigators believe, based on prior interviews, that the “person of interest” left Slab City with the domestic partner that Black arrived in Imperial County with from their native Nashville in winter 2020.

Imperial County Sheriff’s Office investigators have turned to the public to identify a person of interest in the case known as “Knives,” and other aliases. | COURTESY OF IMPERIAL COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE

The domestic partner, whom Benavidez would not identify, is also a “person of interest,” the chief deputy explained during an interview on Sept. 9.

“We’ve reached out to the hometown of both to look into any local reports or instances of any altercations with the initial lover/domestic partner, to see if there’s anything there,” he said.

Additionally, Benavidez explained, “we’re looking for any information on the person from the Slabs whose name is ‘Knives’ who apparently left with the domestic partner, and (we’re) just trying to get any information as to a name on that subject.”

The chief deputy confirmed on Sept. 9 that investigators lost track of them in the Pacific Northwest, possibly in Oregon, when they traveled outside the county’s networks of contacts. The bulletin issued by the Sheriff’s Office states Knives’ last known location was Wolf Creek, Oregon.

Sources dispute reports that Knives is travelling with Black’s partner, saying the timeline of when each left Slab City spans almost two weeks, and the source saw the partner in the Bay Area in August.

The Slab City homicide investigation of Poe Black first went public on June 2, when the Sheriff’s Office posted a “public assistance request” for information in the apparent murder of the only legal identity they had for Black, his female birth name, or “dead name,” Tommi-Deane Jackson.

The decomposing remains of Black, who also went by the name Oliver while in Tennessee and the nickname “Legion,” were found in the fast-moving waters of the Coachella Canal on May 11 by two Coachella Valley Water District employees working in the area around Siphon 9, a little more than a mile northwest of artist commune East Jesus, on the farthest northern reach of the loosely connected communities of the Slabs.

Advocates, Friends Are Keeping Pressure On

The stalled progress of the murder investigation comes as some of Black’s friends have started a social media-based campaign in the last few weeks to pressure action on the part of the Sheriff’s Office to not let the case fall off its radar, according to a woman who was one of Black’s closest friends during their high school years in Nashville.

Imperial County Sheriff’s Office investigators have turned to the public to identify a person of interest in the case known as “Knives,” and other aliases. | COURTESY OF IMPERIAL COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE

“Part of my goal with this (campaign) is to directly hold the department accountable and make them be more transparent about it with making updates available, and obviously, since they’re about to ask for help from the public, we know that there’s some transparency, that’s going to be inevitable. So that’s good,” Fochik Hashtali said in a Sept. 9 interview.

“But we want to make sure that they are aware of the fact that people are counting on them to handle this correctly, and we want to make sure that they know that the trans community is in need of their protection,” she said.

The case, while involving the LGBTQ+ community that lived among the Slabs in a collective known as Flamingo Camp, is not being investigated as a hate crime or due to Black’s identification as transgender or nonbinary, Benavidez has explained on a few occasions.

Hashtali, who spoke to this newspaper anonymously in early June on the condition that her real name not be used for fear of retaliation, understands that is the case, but she also points out that crimes against the trans community often go unsolved due to a lack of urgency by law enforcement because of either overt or unintended discrimination.

Throughout the investigation Hashtali has been a regular conduit of information between the Sheriff’s Office and Poe Black’s friends and acquaintances in Slab City and his family and friends in Tennessee. She initially helped further along the probe after she urged Black’s mom to contact the Sheriff’s Office in May when investigators had a body but no legal identity to go on.

Word of Black’s death reached Hashtali through her combined social networks of trans and Slabs community members tied to Poe Black, who she identifies as Poe Jackson in the social campaign.

Although she did not wish to reveal publicly what she does for a living, Hashtali is well-versed in advocating for families and victims of crimes against murdered, missing, or exploited minority groups.

Black belongs to two such populations — he is also of Wyandot Native American descent, Hashtali told this newspaper in June.

Poe Black (center) smokes cannabis with other Slab City residents in what appears to be an LGBT+ establishment at the Slabs. It wasn’t clear whether it was Flamingo Camp, the collective of LGBT+ and trans persons living in the area. This was part of a filmed interview with Black about life in the Slabs in March or April. | VIDEO CAPTURE

Where the Sheriff’s Office Stands

During initial conversations about the Black case, Benavidez said there were a number of persons of interest, including the two remaining individuals. At the time, he said everyone was accounted for.

It’s unclear when investigators lost track of Knives and Black’s partner, but Benavidez said on Sept. 9 that once they reached their first stop in the Pacific Northwest, law enforcement could no longer keep tabs on them. Hashtali said her contacts placed them in the Portland, Oregon, area at one point.

Benavidez confirmed that federal authorities “reached out to offer assistance in the matter,” but “at this time, there isn’t enough for us to actively use them.”

Some of the early steps of the investigation seemed to have been marred by timing and the state of the body. Although Black was pulled from the water on May 11, it would be several days before coroner investigators realized they had a homicide on their hands.

Due to the deteriorating state of the remains from heat and water, a few cuts on the body were initially thought to be postmortem injuries sustained in canals traveling at high speeds, such as cuts inflicted by rebar or the general violent nature of thrashing that a body can take in a large high-volume canal like the Coachella Canal, which is eastern Riverside County’s main source of its Colorado River water.

Benavidez is still not narrowing down when investigators believe the homicide occurred or any timelines associated with when Knives and Black’s partner left Slab City.

It appears some in the Slabs didn’t learn of Black’s murder for almost two weeks after his remains were pulled from the canal. One source who has spoken with this newspaper on several occasions said Black’s partner was interviewed about the homicide and shown autopsy photos of Black around May 23, 12 days after his discovery.

Benavidez said he would not reveal any further information about the number of knife wounds or what was the lethal strike, all answers that could aid in identifying the killer when a suspect is in custody, he said.

A map of the Slab City area and the path of the Coachella Canal shows where the body of 21-year-old Poe Black was found at 9:38 a.m. May 11, around Siphon 9 (exploded area in upper right, white dot is at Siphon 9). A closer image of Slab City (exploded area lower left) is shown. | CALEXICO CHRONICLE/HOLTVILLE TRIBUNE GRAPHIC

To that end, Knives and the partner have not been named as suspects in the homicide, he said.

Clearly, though, this emphasis on the relationship between Black and the partner prior to heading west involves looking for some pattern of abuse.

When specifically asked about domestic violence as being a cause or contributing factor to the killing, Benavidez would not say.

“We’re not wanting to go that far into assuming that. … That’s why any kind of reports that we might get, more information we can get from the original hometown, might help us kind of paint the picture,” he said. “To put this puzzle together.”

Friends Go Where Sheriff’s Won’t

Hashtali doesn’t know Knives’ true identity either nor do many Slab City acquaintances, she said.

And while the Sheriff’s Office apparently knows the legal female identity of Black’s domestic partner, Hashtali and others only know them by their transitioned nonbinary identity of “Cecil Arnett.”

Further, there seems to be a fairly well-known pattern of abuse between Poe and Cecil prior to them leaving Nashville.

Poe Black, who in a YouTube video refers to his “fiancée” that he arrived at the Slabs with, is seen as being quite slight of build, short and thin. Cecil, by contrast, according to Hashtali, is a decidedly larger figure known among friends in Tennessee to push around Black and get physical with him.

Poe Delwyn Black, who was killed and his body dumped in the Coachella Canal near Slab City in May, speaks about life in the Slabs in a YouTube interview that posted around March or April. | VIDEO CAPTURE

Black’s mother, Hashtali said, “had been worried about the violence between Cecil and Oliver (Poe) for a while, and (Black’s brother) had brought up suspicions about it” before they left Tennessee.

“One of Cecil’s old roommates who witnessed a fight between them” had spoken with Hashtali, as well as people who saw the violence firsthand in Nashville, with Black always on the receiving end.

Black and Cecil’s troubles seemed to follow to Slab City, she said, adding that her Slabs contacts had told her there were domestic violence issues there and ongoing “polyamory” — open or non-monogamous romantic and/or sexual relationships — between Poe Black, Cecil, and Knives.

Even though Hashtali and Black spoke several times on the phone in the weeks before he would be found murdered, Black never let on about any tumult in the relationship. Details and instances of abuse and Slab City trouble came later.

Hashtali met Cecil, who started a relationship with Black sometime in early 2020, and she knew of some tensions but not much about their lives in Imperial County.

“Poe very much was somebody who would not want anyone to be worried about him. So, a lot of what I heard was actually from his friends (in Slab City) telling me what was going on after he passed away,” she said.

“When I was talking to them, he didn’t mention a lot of that to me. … He tried to make it sound like everything was going OK,” Hashtali explained. “He was hopeful, he was optimistic about it. Like he mostly talked about the people who were doing good stuff out there, like trying to start up opportunities for trans people to get resources and other stuff like that, and some of the crazy experiences he had had.”

Although details are sketchy on her part, Hashtali would learn from certain people in Slab City that Knives and Cecil were in a harried state to leave Imperial County around the time the body was found.

One person told Hashtali that they had helped Knives get the same older-model Honda Accord shown in the Sheriff’s Office call for information unstuck from soft sand near the Coachella Canal, but that they had no idea Black’s body would be found in the canal later.

A trans man Imperial County Sheriff’s Office investigators are seeking as a person of interest tied to the killing of Poe Black is seen by a Honda Accord that one Slab City resident said they helped get unstuck from the soft sand near the Coachella Canal. The man’s name is “Knives” and the canal is where Black’s body was found on May 11. | COURTESY OF IMPERIAL COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE

“Knives was freaking out saying, ‘I am running from, like, gang stalking and being harassed and being abused,’ all this stuff, like something really big was going on,” Hashtali said. “And they’re like, ‘I need to leave immediately.’”

This was between May 6 and May 8, she said, but after the car was stuck and eventually freed, Knives ended up leaving Slab City sometime around May 9.

“Then (they) realized, afterwards, after everything came out after (social media) posts around everything, like ‘I might have helped, you know, gather the money and stuff to get (Knives) out of the Slabs after committing a crime,’” Hashtali added. “And so that’s when I started contacting law enforcement.”

She said there is heightened suspicion all around at the Slabs, so many people don’t want to speak and are afraid of being hurt themselves.

The source with information about Cecil contacted this newspaper on Saturday, Sept. 18, to say the assertion that Knives and Cecil left together and are traveling together is incorrect.

He said the timelines for Knives leaving is accurate, but that Cecil wouldn’t leave Slab City until May 23, when investigators spoke to them. Cecil was in the Bay Area last month.

The source had attempted to alert investigators to the discrepancy, but that he had received no return calls from the Sheriff’s Office as of Saturday.

What’s more, sources told Hashtali over the weekend that Cecil has resumed his social media activity, and she said she hoped it could be a lead for investigators.

What’s Next; Violence Against Trans, Native People

Poe Delwyn Black’s case was the second-known trans homicide in Imperial County in a year’s time.

In July 2020, the burned body of Marilyn Monroe Cazares was found on a vacant lot on the east side of Brawley, a case that has yet to be solved, has never had any named persons of interest, and little is known about the investigation, other than the FBI was a called in to assist at one point.

For the trans community, 2020 marked the deadliest year on record, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an organization dedicated to advocating on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community.

At least 37 transgender and gender non-conforming people were violently killed last year, the most since Human Rights Campaign started tracking such data in 2013.

Although no statistics exist on violence against trans people who are indigenous, or indigenous descent — like Poe Black — abuse against Native American women occurs at a higher rate than national averages.

Some of that has to do with jurisdictional issues of sovereignty on reservations and a general lack of awareness, according to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA.

Indigenous women are two and half times more likely to be victims of assault, and more than one in three (34.1 percent) of indigenous women will be raped in their lifetimes, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA states.

The Facebook profile photo of Poe Delwyn Black, 21, also known as “Legion” to his friends at the Slabs, is shown. Black, who went by Oliver in his native Nashville, was stabbed and his body was dumped in the Coachella Canal near Slab City. Black’s body was found in early May. | FACEBOOK PHOTO

As friends and family await justice, Poe Black’s remains are at home with his mother, Hashtali said.

Sometime between late June and early July, Black’s mom and a supportive friend, flew to California and picked up Black’s ashes and drove his van back to Tennessee. Benavidez confirmed that the van was being investigated initially to see if it was connected to the killing, but when it was cleared, it was released to the mother.

Poe’s mother declined to speak with this newspaper, after Hashtali reached out.

Although the social media campaign to pressure the Sheriff’s Office to not let go of Black’s case got started before Hashtali and others knew Imperial County investigators were pushing forward, the campaign will still continue.

“There’s been multiple murders of trans people. I know one other person was mentioned in that slide (Marilyn Cazares), but there’s a lot of trans people in that area,” she said of the Slabs. “That’s kind of a hub for queer people, and then California as a whole is — at least where (Poe comes from) in the South who are LGBT — they see California as kind of this hub.

“The fact that California is where they want to be, that means that they’re going to need you,” she said of the law enforcement community.

“Obviously, they need protection all over this country, but you would expect that California would offer more of that right off the bat. And now we’re really seeing with this, that California and its treatment and justice for the LGBT community, it’s not really all that it’s cracked up to be.”

(This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18)

Imperial County Sheriff’s Office investigators have turned to the public to identify a person of interest in the case known as “Knives,” and other aliases. | COURTESY OF IMPERIAL COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE

Slides from Social Media Campaign from Friends of Poe Black

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