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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE CLOSURE: UPDATES, RESOURCES, AND CONTEXT

Bulla Brodzinski remembers KC Johnson, one year after her murder

Two white women in their mid-twenties smile in a dimly lit selfie.
Courtesy of Bulla Brodzinski
KC Johnson was killed last January. Bulla Brodzinski, her former girlfriend, shares her story.

It's been a year since K.C. Johnson, a trans woman from Carolina Beach, was found dead in Georgia. Now, her girlfriend Bulla Brodzinski tells her story.

Last year, Wilmington made national headlines following the violent murder of a trans woman named KC Johnson. Her death had a major impact on the LGBTQ+ community in Wilmington and beyond.

But it was Johnson's loved ones who felt the impact most keenly. Bulla Brodzinski, who was her girlfriend at the time, still lives in the area. And though her life has changed dramatically since Johnson's death, she still wants people to remember her life.

"I have had to find peace with it," Brodzinski told WHQR.

Who was KC?

Brodzinski said they met on a dating app in August 2022. It only took a few weeks for them to get serious.

"I took her out to Cici's Pizza," she said, smiling, "And … we had a day at the library again, and I asked her to move in with me."

Brodzinski told WHQR that she felt drawn to Johnson because they shared many of the same struggles. Johnson had experienced homelessness, mental illness, and transphobia. Together, they faced those challenges head-on.

"She was a proud trans woman, a proud Southern trans woman," she said. "I liked that about her."

There were also the more light-hearted moments: playing Fortnite together, going out to eat, discussing the future. Johnson had made a lot of progress on her gender transition: she started hormone replacement therapy in 2020, and was considering sex reassignment surgery.

Johnson grew up in Carolina Beach. She still stayed in touch with her relatives — particularly her grandma, who Brodzinski said was one of her biggest supporters. But she also found her own chosen family among other queer and trans people: her online friends, a friend named Scottilynne Blank, and of course, Brodzinski.

"She was very kind, very sweet," she said. "She was someone that could brighten your smile and brighten the room up."

Her life and death

On January 13, 2023, Johnson told Brodzinski she was going out. The two of them had a system for checking up on each other on late nights.

"Most of the time, she would answer me and say, 'Hey, I'm fine. I'll be home in a bit.' So I guess I let my guard down and didn't think much of it," Brodzinski said. "Then my instincts started to go off."

She and her friends spent the next day looking for KC — in the woods, on the highways, combing through Wilmington.

"Then the police came and told me there was no use looking anymore," she said. "She was dead, and they had the guy in custody."

Transgender Europe (TGEU) — a registered NGO that supports organizations working to combat discrimination against trans people and support trans people’s rights — reported that globally, 321 trans people were murdered in 2023. Johnson was one of them.

Most LGBTQ+ activists agree that fatal violence against trans people is a major problem, particularly for trans women and Black trans women. Tracking these deaths, however, is difficult. Many victims are initially misidentified by police as their birth gender. Sometimes, the press uses their birth names, or dead names, when covering their deaths.

Brodzinski said Johnson was one of the few who was gendered correctly by the media. Her death was met with an outpouring of support from LGBTQ+ rights organizations from across the United States.

But that didn't bring her back.

"I just fell down and cried," said Brodzinski. "It was awful."

"There's still scars"

It's been a year since Johnson's death — one of the hardest for Brodzinski. After her girlfriend's death, she turned to substance abuse.

"I know it wasn't the healthiest decision," she said. "But I was so, so hurt."

It brought her to a rehab center in California, where she stayed for several months. When she came back to North Carolina in June, sobriety forced her to begin the grieving process all over again. So she started to lean on her friends. Blank, who also knew Johnson, began coming by her house every week to make sure she was eating, sleeping, and taking care of herself.

"I knew she was hurt, too. But she was checking up on me," Brodzinski said.

Amidst the loss, they grew closer. Eventually, they fell in love.

"Scottilynne has definitely been my guardian angel throughout this whole process of grieving. I'm eternally grateful for her," Brodzinski said.

It was around Christmas that she said she had her breakthrough. One day, she woke up thinking of Johnson. She described the feeling of a weight lifting off her shoulders — of her heart feeling light for the first time in twelve months.

"There's still scars I will never be able to heal from," she said. "But I am doing a lot better now."

She wants everyone to remember KC.

"She was just an amazing person," she said.

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.