Local News

FBI Investigates Cross Burnings As Community Reacts

Posted Updated

DURHAM, N.C. — Federal authorities are investigating this week's burning of three crosses as a hate crime while hundreds of people have turned up at protest vigils in shock.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation sent three agents to work with Durham police, said Mike Saylor, resident agent in charge of the FBI's Raleigh office.

The crosses -- each about 7 feet tall and 4 feet wide -- were burned in separate spots across town during a span of more than an hour Wednesday night. Police said yellow fliers with Ku Klux Klan sayings were found at one location.

"I really didn't believe it at first,'' Durham police chief Steve Chalmers said. ``I think the total community is in disbelief right now. We certainly don't want this to send the message to other communities that there is a problem here with race relations."

The crosses seemed to be put together similarly and the burnings involved the same people, Saylor said.

The first burning cross was reported at 9:19 p.m. outside St. Luke's Episcopal Church. A second was reported at 9:54 p.m., positioned atop a large pile of dirt near an apartment complex construction site.

The third was reported downtown at 10:28 p.m. At that location, authorities found fliers with a drawing of a hooded Ku Klux Klansman. They included a message to "Gangbangers," saying "Local police have let your activities go too far. TAKE NOTICE: YOU WILL ANSWER TO US!!! SINCERELY, KKK.''

The national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan denied Thursday that his organization was involved.

"I'm confident they'll find this was either perpetrated by some small kid or, most likely, by some kind of minority who is trying to create sympathy for whatever cause he may feel like he had,'' said Thomas Robb of Harrison, Ark.

Dr. Michael Hill, the national director of neo-Confederate group League of South told WRAL Friday that with all the gang problems in Durham, residents are "making a mountain out of a mole hill" when it comes to the cross burnings.

"Which is worse?" Hill went on to say. "Gang violence or cross burnings?"

Police remain uncertain who burned the crosses, Chalmers said.

"At this time, we're exploring all possibilities," he said. "We can't say that it is anything at this time. We're not ruling out anything and, at the same time, we're not taking anything for granted."

Burning a cross without the permission of the property owner is a misdemeanor in North Carolina. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that, under the First Amendment, cross burning could be barred only when done with the intent to intimidate.

Cross burnings have been associated with the Ku Klux Klan since the early 20th century, and the first known cross burning in the country occurred as a Georgia mob celebrated a lynching, the Supreme Court noted in its decision.

Senior Assistant District Attorney David Saacks said prosecutors would seek the maximum punishment allowed.

Three burnings in one night ``makes me believe it was a coordinated effort,'' Saacks said. "That is evidence of intent to intimidate. If it was merely a political statement, why not do just one or get a permit and do it publicly so you would get more attention?''

Community and religious responded with three candlelight vigils Thursday night near each location where the crosses burned. Several people said they see the burnings as an attack on the city's diversity.

"We feel like we were victims" said the Rev. Ryon Price, a white 28-year-old who attended the vigil with his black wife, Irie, with nearly 100 people downtown. "Regardless of motive, we feel we are victims of a hateful act."

Copyright 2023 by WRAL.com and the Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.