On July 6, Mary Wowy was found dead in her Bronx apartment.
Mary was a beloved member of the Brooklyn nightlife community, appearing at Bossanova or Holy Mountain parties, and known for doing tarot and past life spiritual readings at various club events. She was often described as the life of the party, a trans woman of color who lived her truth unapologetically from a young age, and inspired her friends and family to live fearlessly.
Mary loved music, fashion, Y2K style and Nicki Minaj, and could be seen dressing with fairy wings and ethereal flower headbands. Although the ones closest to her maintain that there are many suspicious circumstances surrounding her death, the NYPD has not taken the investigation of her case seriously. During a recent demonstration at the Marsha P. Johnson Memorial Fountain to draw attention to her story, around 40 people spoke on their memories of Mary. Afterwards, her close friend, New York DJ, artist, and nightlife icon Pauli Cakes, shared more memories of her with me for this story, and highlighted how the very organizations that were supposed to protect her were the ones that failed Mary before her death.
Pauli met Mary Wowy, who also went by Fernielle Mary Mora, as a kid in the West Bronx, where they lived on the same block off the 1 Train 231st and Broadway stop. Mary was born in the Dominican Republic and came to New York at a young age, where she attended Intech MIddle School and later Harvey Milk High School. Having grown up together as childhood friends, Pauli began DJing at events in Brooklyn nightlife, and Mary would offer tarot readings at their events, incorporating her spiritual and clairvoyant gifts into the underground scene. “She was New York’s princess, and the energy of New York is fast and spontaneous, she really carried that with her. People like Mary make New York a special place. She was so proud to be from the Bronx, she represented it and she had a lot of pride,” Pauli explained, adding that she had goals of becoming an actress, and also worked in a salon in Ridgewood called Kiss My Lipstick.
Another close friend of Mary’s is Doll M, who grew up with her on 231st Street. When I spoke to her about Mary, she told me that “Some days it doesn’t feel real, and some days it’s like, this is legit happening. It’s hard but we have to keep her name alive.” When I asked her what it was like to grow up together, Doll explained, “When we were in elementary school, we were essentially the only two openly gay people, and nobody was used to that. So me and her were unapologetically us. And one thing I loved about her, she did not take no shit, she always stood her ground. One of the last conversations we had, she said, ‘We survived the Bronx.’ And we laughed, it was such a beautiful moment because everything she went through, she overcame it. It honestly felt like a two woman army. Everyone knew what it was, but nobody really knew except me and Mary, because we’re the ones that went through the hardships, the bullying, everything in the book, me and her went through it. It just feels like I lost the one person that really understands what it is.”
Pauli Cakes was one of the last people to communicate with her before she died. She explained how Mary had been relocated to a dangerous living environment after reaching out for help from a group called Urban Pathways, and how after her death, the organization expressed complete apathy towards her investigation. “I didn’t know how bad her apartment was even though I had the address. June 30, the last I heard from her, she told me her phone was broken and I knew something was wrong,” Pauli explained. “I messaged her back a day later and my messages stopped delivering. This is not like her, she would always contact me, from bodegas or delis, she knew my number by heart. I knew something weird was happening.”
Mary’s apartment had been sealed when she was discovered on July 6. However, Pauli alleges that a detective from the 46th Precinct took a paid vacation the day after Mary’s case was opened; he has over 20 documented complaints of racism, homophobia, and transphobia which are available to the public on ProPublica. Instead of taking action, the NYPD left her DNA evidence to deteriorate inside the apartment in the middle of a heat wave. When contacted about the details of the investigation, the NYPD declined to make a statement.
To make matters worse, the employees of Urban Pathways allegedly showed a complete disregard for Mary’s investigation. When I met with Pauli, they told me, “The person from Urban Pathways who I spoke to on the phone was like, ‘I just want my apartment open so I can get my furniture, we need to get the apartment open so we can place someone in there.’ I called her today and told her as calmly as possible, ‘If this was your loved one, and you just wanted some closure of a physical thing of hers, a journal or whatever, how would you feel if without an investigation that you’ve been begging to get conducted, somebody broke into her apartment and wiped all her shit clear?’ And she just hung up the phone on me.”
Before Wednesday of last week, Pauli alleges Urban Pathways illegally broke the police seal on Mary’s apartment during an open investigation, and sent a cleaning crew into her home to scrub the entire unit. (Urban Pathways did not respond to my request for comment on this story.) At this time, all of Mary’s belongings, including personal journals and tarot cards, were thrown away. “The DA gave me the woman from Urban pathways info, like I’m about to call her up and press her, like what the hell? You’re a prosecutor, prosecute her, she illegally broke into a sealed apartment under investigation. People need to know what’s going on with these organizations that are supposed to be rehousing people. The very institutions that Mary turned to for help were the ones that ultimately led to the circumstances she was found dead under. If they placed her there, why weren’t they doing wellness checks on her? Why did she go one week without this organization checking on her, knowing that her mom has cancer, this organization knew that. Her grandfather is 80 years old and doesn’t speak English, this organization knew that.” Pauli elaborated that Mary had previously told friends and family that people in her area were making violent threats towards her, and knew where she lived.
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“They had her living in a very unsafe situation,” Pauli explained, highlighting the lack of care organizations like Urban Pathways and the police treat trans people with. Mary Wowy’s death is underscored by the fact that her body was discovered on July 6, the same date Marsha P. Johnson was found in the Hudson River 31 years ago. Mary wanted to eventually go back to school to help trans youth and victims of violence, to advocate for people who went through situations she had been through herself. “There needs to be a specialized task force that investigates trans death. These detectives don’t understand the intersections of discrimination that people like Mary, a trans woman of color, experience,” Pauli told me. “There needs to be victim advocates, who can show up with families to the precincts and to the courtrooms, and can offer services. Because what about the victims that don’t have immediate family, who is going to stand up for them?”
The people closest to Mary demand that her investigation be taken seriously by the NYPD, and that a cause of death be identified so that her passing isn’t unduly labeled another suicide or overdose. The neglect that Mary’s investigation has received so far reflects the experiences of trans people like her at the hands of an increasingly transphobic society. They seek answers from Urban Pathways as to why the seal was allegedly broken on her home before a thorough investigation was conducted.
Additionally, her family is seeking a lawyer to look over a Power of Attorney that has been drafted in the wake of her passing. Although it may be too late to conduct a proper investigation thoroughly, Mary Wowy’s life mattered, despite how the system has treated her death.
The only way to do that is to uplift her story with the respect and urgency she deserves, they say, and to keep a community eye on the institutions that claim to care about the trans community in New York City.