News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 22, 2006

Family finds ‘KKK’ scorched into lawn

By Karin Grunden

A day after a northern Vigo County couple found the letters “KKK” burned into their front yard, the FBI joined the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department in the investigation.

“It’s not a joke. It’s not a prank,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Tim Gossett, classifying the probe as one into a hate crime, based on race.

Gossett, along with an FBI agent, spent part of Friday afternoon interviewing Emanuel and Amelia Smith.

The Smiths reported Thursday morning to a sheriff’s deputy that someone had singed their well-manicured lawn, scorching 6-foot initials for the Ku Klux Klan into the grass.

A tire on their son’s Dodge Neon also was flattened outside the Smiths’ home on North 38th Street, just south of Marquette Avenue.

“This is 2006. You just don’t think of this type of thing happening,” said Amelia Smith, who works as a bank branch manager. “People still have hatred toward African-Americans.”

Heidi Beirich, a spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., said Friday that these type of incidents happen more than people realize.

The FBI documented 7,649 reported hate-crime incidents nationwide in 2004, the latest statistics available. More than half — 4,042 — were motivated by racial basis, said Drew Northern, a supervisory special agent for the FBI in Indianapolis.

The law center where Beirich works tracks hate crimes and hate groups, including the KKK. The Klan is considered the oldest of American hate groups, with an estimated 6,000 members nationwide, including an organized chapter in Center Point in Clay County, according to the law center’s Web site.

In most cases it’s not hate groups, but individuals, who are responsible for painting offensive graffiti on walls and homes, Beirich said.

She estimated that fewer than 10 percent of hate crimes are carried out by organized groups.

Frequently, she said, it’s young, white kids who are the perpetrators. They may be motivated by information they find on the Internet, she said.

Police have received tips about the vandalism of the Smiths’ yard, but could not speak specifically about that information Friday.

“We’re going to follow up on” the leads, Gossett said, “and see where they take us.”

Smith noticed the destruction Thursday morning while a sheriff’s deputy was in the neighborhood, trying to locate the owner of a scooter. Smith immediately reported her discovery, a police report shows.

“I sure hope they get this solved,” said Virginia Lindley, a next-door neighbor who expressed shock over the occurrence. Lindley described the Smiths as great neighbors.

Another neighbor told investigators her Australian shepherd was barking incessantly around 5 a.m. Thursday.

Missy Garrison said she peered out her side door, which doesn’t provide a view of the Smiths’ home. She didn’t see anything unusual.

As neighbors spent Friday afternoon mowing, Gossett snapped photographs of the damage to the Smith’s lawn, which included a trail of burned grass in a swirling pattern.

“It might be a childish prank, but you don’t do this,” Smith said.

Karin Grunden can be reached at (812) 231-4257 or karin.grunden@tribstar.com.

Have a tip?

--Anyone with information about the vandalism of the Smiths’ front yard can call the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department at (812) 462-3226 or the FBI’s Terre Haute field office at (812) 232-0993.

--Anonymous tips can be phoned into the Crime Stoppers line at (812) 238-7867.