Investigators: Clay County suspected hate-crime case gone cold

Written by on August 21, 2012 in Children and Families, Clay, Community, Haywood, People, Region, Top News
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The investigation of a 2011 Clay County arson that some suspected was a hate crime has been inactivated, local law enforcement officials said recently.

Clay County Sheriff Investigator Todd Wingate said the case concerning an arson at State Line Grocery in Hayesville was inactivated in June after all leads were exhausted.

The business owner’s son, 36-year-old Arvinder Singh, alerted the Clay County Sheriff’s Office to a fire at the State Line Grocery Store around 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 7, 2011, Wingate said.

News coverage of the arson questioned whether the incident was a hate crime after the words “911 go home” were found spray painted on the side of the building.

Wingate said the business owner was Sikh.

Crimes against Sikh communities across the nation have gained hightened attention recently. Investigators in Wisconsin are still working to determine what prompted Wade Michael Page, 40, to kill six people at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee two weeks ago. Page, a former soldier, had reported connections to white supremacist groups. Many reports have speculated that Page mistook Sikhs for Muslims.

On Sunday, law enforcement officials met with the Charlotte Sikh community “in the latest effort to build communication and bonds between the two,” according to The Charlotte Observer.

In the Western North Carolina case, Wingate said investigators never determined whether the numbers “911” were referring to Sept. 11, 2001, or the emergency contact number.

Both state and federal agencies were involved in the investigation, though it never yielded any suspects.

“The FBI did assist with providing resources and assisting with the interviews and trying to develop suspects,” Wingate said.

FBI Spokeswoman Shelly Lynch said she could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation, though the FBI does enforce federal civil rights laws and investigate hate crimes.

An arson investigator from the State Bureau of Investigation helped determine the origin and cause of the fire itself, Wingate said.

The Clay County Sheriff’s office did have some evidence analyzed at the SBI crime lab, but it would not release any of the information from that report.

“We do know the fire was intentionally set,” Wingate said.

Though the case is inactive, Wingate said, it could be reopened at any time if new information was uncovered or if a similar incident occurred.

Attacks on the rise against certain religions

Stephen Brown, chair of the department of criminology and criminal justice at Western Carolina University, said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, religiously motivated attacks against Muslims have been the most rapidly rising type of hate crime across the country.

“Since we’re talking about people who, by and large, operate from a basis of ignorance and emotionally driven hatred, they’re not very adept at differentiating their targets,” Brown said.

Consequently, followers of Sikhism, who often wear long beards and turbans, have been mistaken for followers of other Eastern religions.

Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said attacks against Muslims and Sikhs don’t seem to follow any specific trends, but rather occur without rhyme or reason.

For instance, there were increases in attacks against Muslims on July 4 of this year and surrounding the death of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011, Hooper said.

The council called for an FBI investigation of the Clay County arson as a possible hate crime last year.

Hooper said local law enforcement often overlook the possibility of a hate crime when Muslims or Sikhs are victimized in crimes like arson.

“Our role on these kinds of incidents is to highlight them to bring them to national attention and to make sure they’re investigated with a biased motive in mind,” he said.

Three apparent hate-related incidents reported in WNC in 2011-12

Overall, hate crimes in North Carolina decreased from 2008 to 2010, according to annual FBI hate crime statistics.

In 2011 and so far in 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented three “incidents of apparent hate crimes and hate group activities” in the 18 westernmost counties of the state, not including a May incident in Clyde where three 17-year-old boys and one minor burned a cross in front of a home where a biracial 14-year-old girl was staying.

Haywood County Sheriff Detective Todd Marsh said the three teenagers are currently awaiting trial on one count of felony conspiracy, one count of felony burning a cross to intimidate and one count of misdemeanor burning a cross on another’s property without permission.

Because the three were under 18, the FBI did not recognize them as adults and did not involve itself in the investigation, Marsh said.

But Brown said that, like many crimes, large numbers of hate crimes are never reported or investigated.

The term “hate crime” didn’t come about until the 1980s, according to the FBI’s website. The relative novelty of hate crime definitions can also lead to uncertainty as to what constitutes a hate crime and can contribute to under-reporting, Brown said.

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded the existing definition of a hate crime to include crimes based on perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or ability.

“Hate crimes have not even been legislatively in place for a terribly long time,” Brown said. “There is still a lot of confusion among legal experts as far as what qualifies and what does not qualify (as a hate crime).”

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About the Author

Hank Shell

Hank Shell is a contributing reporter and photographer with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at shelljh@email.appstate.edu.

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