Nebraska. A small-town -- Heartland. Life here was fine for the 2l year-old man -- until everyone discovered he was actually a woman.
Brandon Tenna was born Teena Brandon. He was a transsexual whose mother supported his situation. He had successfully passed as a male in the nearby town of Falls City, where he was known as a boy, going by the name of Brandon Tenna.
Indeed, Brandon's outing appears to have been the turning point for her life in Falls City. Up until three months before her death, Brandon had lived in Lincoln, about 60 miles northwest of Humboldt. Friends there say Brandon started posing as a boy and dating girls from other schools when she was in high school. They say Brandon -- who was 5 foot 5 and weighed 115 Pounds -- was popular with the girls she dated and loved the way she felt as a male. She dressed in men's clothing, often Western wear, and wore dark brown hair close-cropped.
Brandon moved to Humboldt in early November 1993. Her friends say he was in trouble with the law for forging checks and wanted to escape his problems by going someplace where no one would know his true identity. Brandon moved in with Lambert, whom he'd met through a mutual friend.
Lana Tisdel, 19, the woman Brandon was dating just prior to her death, says she would never have guessed Brandon was female. "He was like a normal guy," she says. "He talked like one; he acted like one. He was really a sweetheart, and he made a handsome Man -- he really did."
Soon afterward Brandon met Tisdel at a party held at Tisdel's home in Falls City on November 12. They met again on December 4 in a local convenience store and started dating. Two days later Brandon began staying over at Tisdel's house. Through Tisdel, Brandon met Nissen and Lotter. It was also at Tisdel's that Brandon met DeVine, an out-of-town friend who was staying with her over the holidays.
Everyone got along fine until December 15, when Tisdel took Brandon to the Richardson County courthouse because Brandon had been cited in November on suspicion of being a minor in possession of alcohol. While there Brandon was arrested on a forgery charge. That's when Tisdel began to have her suspicions about Brandon's gender. "They put him in a women's cell, and I began to wonder," says Tisdel. "Then he bent over. He was wearing a V neck, and I could see [that he had breasts]."
With a blank check that Tisdel's father had given her to get her hair done, he paid the $250 bail to get Brandon released. Because of the arrest Brandon wasn't welcome at the Tisdel residence any longer, so Nissen let him stay at his house.
Tisdel says that when she confronted Brandon after the jailhouse incident, Brandon told her she was undergoing hormone treatments to become a male. But earlier in the relationship, when the issue of sex had come up, Tisdel says Brandon told her that she was a hermaphrodite, so questions lingered even after the arrest. Tisdel says she didn't want to believe Brandon was female, though, and still wanted to be her friend when the two stopped dating.
And although the Falls City Journal had identified Brandon as a female when citing his forgery charge in its weekly listing of area arrests, Tisdel says no one else broached the subject of Brandon's gender until Christmas Eve. That night Lotter and Nissen got drunk, held Brandon down, and removed his clothes to prove to Tisdel that he was really a woman. Later in the evening of this assault, Tisdel says, Lotter told her she was wanted at home so that she would leave. When she discovered the lie and returned to Nissen's house, Brandon, Nissen, and Lotter were gone. She didb't know that in reality Lotter and Nissen kidnapped, raped, and assaulted Brandon.
The next time Tisdel saw Brandon was early Christmas morning. He showed up at her door without shoes or a jacket. His lips were bloodied, and his back was bruised. His pants and feet were muddy. Brandon told Tisdel he had been brutally beaten by Lotter and Nissen. He also said her that he'd been raped by his two "friends", John Lotter, 22, and Marvin Nissen, 21.
Despite threats of reprisal should these crimes be reported, Brandon filed charges with the Falls City Police Department and the Richardson County Sheriff, however, Lotter and Nissen remained free.
They became even more enraged and, fearing they would go back to the penitentiary, they decided to murder him and two friends with whom he was living in hiding:
Brandon had nowhere else to turn the night of December 31, 1993, when he took refuge at the small farmhouse that his friend Lisa Lambert, a single Mom 24 y.o, was renting just outside Humboldt, a town of 1,000 people in southeastern Nebraska. Opinion in the area had turned against him -- and he knew his life might be in danger.
About 1 a.m. New Year's Day, Tisdel says Lotter showed up at her house drunk. He hung around awhile and then before leaving said something to Tisdel that scared her. "John said, 'I feel like killing someone,'" Tisdel says. "Then he looked at me and said, 'You're next.'" A few hours later Brandon, Lambert, and DeVine were found shot to death.
On the early morning hours of New Year's Day in the small farmhouse, Lisa slept with her nine-month old son, Tanner. She had invited Brandon and Phillip DeVine, a 22 y.o. black male, to stay. They were awakened by two intruders kicking in the front door. Within seconds the first shot was fired. Lisa, Brandon and Philip were all dead within minutes, shot in the head and stabbed. Lisa's baby, Tanner, was the only survivor. The two men left him with the corpses, walked out and drove away.
Thomas Nissen had driven John Lotter out to the farmhouse and once there he and John had killed everyone. Tom admitted to stabbing Brandon "to be sure she was dead." He also informed the police that they had tossed the murder weapons in a nearby river. John Lotter has never confessed and continues to deny any part in the murders.
The next day Lisa's mother went to the house. The front door was standing open. She heard Tanner crying in the back of the house. Anna Mae rushed in, saw the body of amputee Philip Devine propped up by the sofa, and went into the bedroom, where she found the bodies of her daughter and Brandon. She picked up Tanner and called 911.
Later that day, the two Falls City young men, John Lotter and Marvin Nissen. were finally arrested on assault charge. with first-degree murder. Lotter and Nissen have also been charged with the Christmas Day rape of Brandon. But those charges -- to the shock of Brandon's family -- didn't come until after the killings. Brandon's sister, Tammy Brandon -- who says she was told by Richardson County sheriff Charles B. Laux that "he didn't need me to be doing his work" when she called on December 27 to ask why her sister's attackers had not been arrested -- holds Laux partially responsible for Brandon's death. 'I have no doubt that she would be alive [if Lotter and Nissen had been arrested]," she says. "I know she would." Tammy Brandon, along with her mother, is considering a civil lawsuit against the sheriff's department.
The Brandons aren't the only ones demanding justice. On January 5 both the New York Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project and Leslie Feinberg, a transgendered lesbian activist and author, called for the U.S. Department of Justice to look into the case to determine whether Brandon's civil rights had been vioIated. Says Terry Maroney, a spokeswoman for AVP: "I think it's clear as day that had they handled the rape case from the start, none of them would be dead."
In 1995 both men were found guilty of first degree murder. Nissen plea bargained in exchange for testifying against Lotter in order to avoid the death penalty. In August Nissen was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. In February of 1996 Lotter was sentenced to the death penalty. In May of 1997, Nissen's appeals were turned down by the Supreme Court. Lotter's appeals are waiting for final review by the Supreme Court.
It's fair to ask, if Brandon would still be alive today if authorities and the local newspaper had not forcibly outed him after he had successfully passed as a male in a small town.