Florida fire continues recent spate of attacks; appeal for feds to investigate
On July 25, in an incident reminiscent of an earlier, hate-filled racist era, arsonists torched and burglarized the home of a young Florida couple long subjected to anti-gay taunts and threats. The arsonist’s intent was made clear by the chilling message spray-painted on the low stoop of the men’s home: “Die Fag.”
The Florida fire is the latest in a recent spate of arsons in the South targeting gay people, including fires at gay bars in Louisiana and Texas and a church in Virginia. The attacks have prompted the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects, a consortium of local organizations that track anti-gay bias crimes, to call on the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate the incidents.
Clarence Patton, the leader of the national coalition and the executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, said, “While there is no evidence that we’re aware of at this time indicating that all the cases of arson in the Southeast and Texas are connected, or that the same individual or group is responsible for them, it is increasingly clear that there is a problem that warrants some coordinated response.”
The Florida couple—Paul Day, 25, and Christopher Robertson, 23—could not be contacted for this article. A gay activist, who has assisted the men since the fire, said that the men are now living in an undisclosed location out of concern for their safety.
The men spoke to a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel and said that local teens have taunted and threatened them, includng young men living around their home in King’s Manor Mobile Park Home, situated in a rural area of Polk County outside Orlando.
Day told the newspaper that when he lived in another part of the county, someone riddled his mailbox with shotgun pellets. Day and Robertson—Polk County natives—are not unfamiliar with homophobia. Day, an auto parts employee, told the Sentinel that since he moved into King’s Manor several years ago, young men have taunted him and he has disassociated himself from his neighbors. Robertson said, “For the past six months, I’ve been saying, ‘I want to move, I want to move.’ I don’t want to be here anymore. It’s stressing me out.”
Cheryl Edwards, a spokeswoman for the Lakeland Fire Department— which responded to the blaze that roared through a room in the home, destroying a carpet, ceiling and walls—said that fire investigators empowered as law enforcement officers are investigating what has been deemed an arson fire with an intent to burglarize. Edwards, in a separate voice-mail message, said, “Every detail in this incident is under investigation and we are not releasing further information at this time.” The damage to the home is estimated at $15, 000.
Many of the men’s belongings, including electronics, were stolen.
Florida has a hate crime law that includes sexual orientation—along with race, color, religion, ethnicity, national origin—as a protected category. The law provides for an enhancement of a charge, in this case arson, if anyone is apprehended for setting the fire.
When asked how investigators had concluded that burglary, not anti-gay bias, was the motive for the crime, Edwards, the fire department spokeswoman, said that she was not authorized to comment.
Steve Kodak, an FBI spokesman in Washington, D.C., said that federal agents are not working on the Florida fire investigation, nor is the FBI mounting a task force to investigate the series of recent fires. “Regretfully, there is no federal statute that allows us to investigate,” said Kodak.
Federal law mandates that federal law enforcement agencies investigate certain hate crimes, such as those motivated by racial or religious bias, but not those committed out of anti-gay bias.
In the case of church fires, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives, otherwise known as ATF, is mandated to investigate acts of arson and regularly deploys personnel to arson scenes.
Brian Winfield, a spokesman for Equality Florida, the state’s gay and lesbian advocacy group, said that the Tampa ATF office has not returned phone calls from the organization.
In Texas, fire investigators are seeking those responsible for torching the Heart Rock Club in Brownsville on July 23, only two months after the gay bar opened. Earlier in July, a fire nearly gutted Studio 716, a gay bar in Fayetteville, Arkansas, that had been previously targeted by arsonists. “There was substantial damage to the building itself and a total loss of the contents,” Fayetteville Fire Department battalion chief Terry Lawson said.
In Virginia, vandals lit a small blaze in the sanctuary of Staunton’s St. John’s Reformed United Church of Christ on July 9, less than a week after the denomination’s national synod approved a resolution allowing local congregations to perform same-sex marriages. A parishioner at the rural church, whose congregants include a number of gays and lesbians, noticed anti-gay graffiti spray-painted on the church’s brick exterior, and entering the church, noticed the fire.
Destruction of church property is a federal crime and the ATF is taking a lead role in the investigation of the Virginia fire.