By Bill Morlin
Cross-burnings to instill fear in black Americans are not just footnotes in history books, but a continuing reality in the 21st Century, as a Florida hate-crime case illustrates.
On Halloween of 2012, a 6-foot wooden cross was set on fire in the front yard of an interracial couple—a black man and a white woman—living in Port Richey, a suburb of Tampa, Florida.
The man previously had received death threats and was called a “nigger” and assaulted—at one point beaten unconscious, court documents say.
The perpetrators, the documents say, hoped the cross burning—a hallmark of the Ku Klux Klan—would instill fear and drive the couple from their neighborhood.
A senior Justice Department official called the incident a “violent act of hate.”
Five years later, after Pasco County sheriff’s detective and FBI agents interviewed “dozens of witnesses in an exhaustive investigation,” three suspects have pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiring to “threaten, intimidate, and interfere with the interracial couple’s enjoyment of their housing rights.”
The case became protracted when a cooperating witness—the man who provided the wood to build the cross—suddenly died in June 2015. Another complication came when one of the suspects provided a false alibi during the course of the FBI investigation, court documents disclose.
On the eve of going to trial, William A. Dennis, 56, of Port Richey, pleaded guilty on Tuesday, April 4 in U.S. District Court in Tampa to the federal conspiracy charge.
Two other co-conspirators, Thomas H. Sigler, III, 45, and Pascual Carlos Pietri, 55, both of Port Richey, previously pleaded guilty to the same charge.
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Source: The Southern Poverty Law Center