Lynchburg police are investigating a fatal shooting on Rivermont Avenue early Sunday in which the victim identified as a transgender woman, but they have not publicly disclosed anything to indicate the homicide was a hate crime.
The department named the victim as Phineas Rufus Neville, 28, who was found with multiple gunshot wounds at 303 Rivermont Avenue shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday.
Police confirmed Sunday the victim used the name Ebony Morgan but had not legally changed her name before her death.
Police found the victim after responding to a report of a possible malicious wounding at about 1:07 a.m., according to a news release. The victim was transported to Lynchburg General Hospital and later pronounced dead.
There was no evidence yet to establish the shooting as a hate crime linked to the victim’s transgender status, but if any such information is uncovered, then detectives will pursue that as a lead, Lynchburg Police Sgt. Bryan Williams told The News & Advance Sunday evening.
Williams said detectives are aware the victim had identified, at least at some point, as transgender and they will actively investigate the possibility of that factoring into the motive. “I'm sure all that is being looked at,” he said. “At this point I don’t know if there’s any indication one way or another.”
If police do conclude the victim’s transgender status was a motive, it would be up to the commonwealth’s attorney to decide how to prosecute any defendants, Williams said.
Police used the name Phineas Neville because it was still the victim’s legal name, he said.
There was no information about any suspects in the shooting, and Williams said investigators will release more details about the crime “as they get more in and it’s appropriate.”
The city’s transgender community reacted swiftly to reports of the shooting.
Isaac Zralii, founder of the Lynchburg Transgender Alliance, said the organization is doing everything it can to support the victim's family and members of the transgender community following the shooting.
“We're trying to be very compassionate for the family in their time of need,” said Zralii, who also is deputy executive director of the Lynchburg Diversity Center.
That group posted on Facebook on Sunday, “This is a sad day for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community of Virginia. And a very sad day for us in Lynchburg.”
The diversity center, founded in September 2015 and located in the Riverviews Artspace on Jefferson Street, opened its doors for an open house Sunday as a gathering place and resource after the shooting. Its mission is to empower, educate, support and advocate for LGBTQ+ individuals in Lynchburg and surrounding areas.
Andi Miller, the center’s executive director, said she learned through multiple friends Sunday the victim had identified as transgender.
Miller said she understood the legal reasons behind referring to the victim by the person’s legal name but hopes the victim’s identity as a transgender woman is still recognized.
“Victims become doubly victimized when they’re not identified correctly by their name choice and the gender pronouns they use with their friends and family,” she said. “This is not really so much an issue with the police, [as] making sure we are respecting the victim.”
Miller said as of late Sunday “we have no information whatsoever” establishing the homicide as a hate crime.
Last year, a drive-by shooting in front of the JazzE Ellington concert hall, a block and a half from Sunday’s shooting just past Rivermont Avenue Bridge, took the life of 21-year-old Shawn L. Johnson Jr., of Lynchburg. Four victims suffered gunshot wounds in the incident; police have not made any arrests in the case.
Anyone with information regarding this incident is asked to contact Detective A.O. Kittrell at (434) 455-6170 or call Crime Stoppers at 1-888-798-5900.