ABINGDON — A Southwest Virginia man pleaded guilty Thursday to a federal offense in connection with the burning of a cross last summer on the front lawn of a Black teenager who had organized a civil rights protest.
James Brown, 41, of Marion will remain free on bond until his sentencing in August on one count of criminal interference with federally protected housing rights based upon the victim’s race, according to court records.
Federal prosecutors said Brown admitted to two witnesses that he burned the cross on a neighbor’s lawn and also was known to use racial epithets when referring to the African American family.
According to the plea agreement, Brown faces up to 10 years in prison, as well as a possible fine of $250,000 and a term of supervised release.
“Acts of hatred, intimidation and the threat of force, carried out by the racially motivated cross-burning in this case, illegally interfered with their federally protected housing rights,” said Daniel Bubar, acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia. “This illegal, divisive behavior destroys communities and will not be tolerated.”
According to an affidavit filed by an FBI special agent, the teen’s mother flagged down a police officer in June and told the officer that someone had put a burning cross in her yard. The woman’s son was an organizer of a protest the day before in Marion, a small town not far from where Virginia meets Tennessee and North Carolina.
A police officer extinguished a “significant” fire inside a barrel and recovered a wooden cross, according to the affidavit.
Authorities said last summer that video evidence from a neighbor’s home showed a fire erupting into a large fireball that burned for several seconds, which was indicative of the use of a propellant. No vehicles were seen traveling to or from the area, a complaint says.
One witness told authorities that they saw the fire in front of the home, according to the complaint written by the FBI agent. The witness walked toward the fire and saw a “white, skinny man” walking away from the victim’s home. The person was seen walking across the street to Brown’s residence.
Another witness said Brown laughed about the burning when asked about it and added an expletive. According to the complaint, Brown also told the witness: “Hey, have you burnt any crosses lately?”
A third witness heard a bang and saw Brown, who said, “I did it,” the complaint says.
When asked by the FBI if he had anything to do with the burning of the cross, Brown said “No.”
Bridgette Thomas said last June that she was walking home from the store when she discovered the blaze at her home.
“When I came up the street, it looked like my house was on fire,” she said. “It was so scary — my daughter was in there.”
Once she got closer to her home, she discovered the cross, fashioned from two large sticks. The barrel belongs to the family, she said, but there had been no fire in it when she left.
Thomas said she was concerned about the blaze being so close to her home, where her 16-year-old daughter was.
“It was scary ... and then to find out it was a cross. It made me feel some type of way because it was so close to my house,” she said. “My house could have caught on fire.”
Information from the Bristol Herald Courier and the Smyth County News & Messenger was included in this report.