Saturday, November 9, 2002

Four teens charged in cross burning

Many in Oxford area relieved

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HAMILTON - Four juveniles have been arrested and charged with ethnic intimidation in connection with a cross burning at an Oxford Township home last month.

Butler County sheriff's officials apprehended four white males, ages 14 to 16, Thursday night, ending a three-week joint investigation by the Butler County Sheriff's Office, Oxford Township Police Department and the FBI.

The teens, whom authorities think are students in the Talawanda School District, were charged with ethnic intimidation by way of criminal damaging or endangering, and aggravated trespass, both first-degree misdemeanors.

"We want to send a strong message that we are not going to tolerate this in Butler County," said Sheriff Harold Don Gabbard. "We want people to know that this is a very serious criminal offense and anyone, regardless of age, will be charged."

The teens - two of whom are brothers - are being held in the Butler County Juvenile Detention Center. Police would not release the names of the suspects because they are juveniles.

After returning from a weekend trip on Oct. 20, Robert LeGesse reported finding the charred remains of a 3-foot wooden cross in his front yard in the 7600 block of Stillwell Beckett Road. Mr. LeGesse, who is white, has biracial children. Authorities said they believe that is why his home was targeted.

Detective Carrie Schultheiss, who headed the investigation for the sheriff's office, said information received from Talawanda students and faculty helped lead to the arrests. She said investigators had also linked forensic evidence found at the scene of the crime to at least one of the suspects.

"If the community did not come together like it did, this case may have never been solved," Detective Schultheiss said. "Those within the school district helped out a great deal."

Detective Schultheiss said one witness told police she routinely heard one of the suspects making racial slurs.

When police questioned the youths' parents about the incident, Detective Schultheiss said they were all "shocked and devastated to learn that their kids were involved."

"To us, these children have some kind of problem. They are disturbed and they need help," said Lt. Gary "Mike" Craft of the sheriff's office. "We are going to recommend (to the court) some form of counseling."

Friday afternoon, Talawanda Principal David Isaacs said police had not notified him that the suspects were students at his school. If they are, Mr. Isaacs said, they likely would not face administrative discipline because the incident did not take place during school hours.

"The court will deal with them," said Mr. Isaacs, a first-year principal at the school. "And when they eventually return, it will be our job to continue to educate to help them move forward productively and perhaps make amends. ... This is a real concern to all of us."

Many in the town of about 2,000 residents breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing the news that police had made an arrest. Oxford Township Police Chief Wayne Hall said the incident has tarnished the reputation of the community, but it has also drawn people from the farming, educational and religious sectors together.

The Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Oxford and an organizer of last Sunday's vigil denouncing the cross burning, applauded the efforts of local law enforcement.

"I'm pleased that they took this seriously and did not just blow it off," said the Rev. Mr. Tyler, who is African-American. "They did what they said they'd do, so I'm pleased with their response.

"But I'm troubled that four juveniles would exhibit this type of behavior," he said. "I'm concerned that they get some type of treatment - something that shows them that what they've done is not funny and that gives them an idea of the type of hurt they've inflicted on that family and the emotions and outrage they've stirred up in the community."

The Rev. Logan Dysart, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Oxford, said the fact that juveniles were involved only re-emphasized the need to continue to educate the community on issues of diversity.

"We need to educate our teens better so they can be strong and make better life decisions," said the Rev. Mr. Dysart. "We need to teach them that it is OK to disagree, but we don't have to go to these extremes to express our points of view. They are entitled to their opinions, but not the right to hurt others."


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