It’s been over two years since Nikki Kuhnhausen, a transgender 17 year old in Vancouver, Washington, went missing in June 2019. On Thursday, Kuhnhausen’s killer, David Bogdanov, was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison—and for Kuhnhausen’s family, friends, and supporters, the end of the murder trial granted closure.
“It has taken a lot of hands, voices, power, to get us to this moment,” said Devon Davis Williamson, a supporter of Kuhnhausen’s family, at a vigil held Thursday evening in Vancouver’s Esther Short Park. “Nikki’s story is a story that’s similar to hundreds of other stories of trans people… Usually, no one is caught, no one is charged, no one is convicted.”
In December 2019, Kuhnhausen’s remains were found in a wilderness area about an hour outside of Vancouver. Ten days later, the Vancouver Police Department arrested Bogdanov and charged him with Kuhnhausen’s murder. Police said Bogdanov killed Kuhnhausen after arranging a “sexual encounter” with her over Snapchat, and that in police interviews, Bogdanov admitted to being “really, really, disturbed” when he learned Kuhnhausen was trans.
After an emotional trial, Bogdanov was convicted of second-degree murder and malicious harassment last month, and sentenced this week.
“Everyone in this courtroom has been 17 at some point in their lives,” Clark County Judge David Gregerson said during Thursday’s sentencing hearing, according to the Columbian. "[Kuhnhausen] could’ve been anyone’s son or daughter."
For the community of supporters that has grown around the tragedy of Kuhnhausen’s death, Bogdanov’s conviction and sentencing is seen as a rare victory for trans lives, and an opportunity to finally honor her life without the dark shadow of the trial hanging over them.
Thursday night’s vigil, held in a spot where Kuhnhausen loved to take selfies with her friends because of the optimal evening lighting, saw a mixture of mourning and joy. The vigil was organized by the Justice for Nikki Task Force, a group that includes Kuhnhausen’s mother, Lisa Woods, as well as other local parents of trans kids who were struck by Kuhnhausen’s story. Many task force members attended every day of the trial.
“While this moment is about justice for Nikki and her family, it’s also about the moms, dads, friends, siblings, neighbors, of all of the trans people lost to violence who have never had someone charged or convicted in those crimes,” Davis Williamson said at the vigil.
Rep. Sharon Wylie, who represents Vancouver in the Washington State Legislature, also spoke at the vigil. Wylie was lead sponsor on the Nikki Kuhnhausen Act, a bill outlawing the LGBTQ+ panic defense in court which passed and was signed into law last year. (Oregon passed a similar law this year.) At the vigil, Wylie remembered reading cards and letters written by Kuhnhausen when she was alive on the House floor. A colleague who had originally planned to vote “no” on the bill later told Wylie that they couldn’t do it after hearing those letters—in the end, there was only one “no” vote against it.
“Nikki’s words made a difference,” Wylie said. “I held hands with Lisa [Woods] when that bill was signed into law by the governor.”
“I never thought, back in 2019, that Nikki’s murder would have made such an impact on so many lives,” Woods told those gathered at the vigil, alluding to passing that law. “Nikki was full of energy, love, and loved to help others… My hope for Nikki’s legacy is that these changes create a domino effect.”
“Thank you for showing up, thank you for caring,” Woods continued, before the vigil ended with people holding up candles and listening to an acoustic performance of “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga, one of Kuhnhausen’s favorite songs.
“Thank you for making sure Nikki’s legacy lives on,” she added. “Most of all, Nikki, thank you for being an amazing daughter.”