Tuesday, May 6, 2003

Hate-crime dispute in Brown County

Family, prosecutor at odds over racial-threat allegations

By Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer

PLEASANT TOWNSHIP - Her steps are sure as she maneuvers through the tree trunks. Dodging a limb here. Sidestepping a gnarled root there. She knows this thicket like the back of her hand. It's one of many on her family's 70-acre farm.

Marcia Fields and Othel Cooksey Jr., at right, posted a sign on the fence of their Brown County farm detailing their allegations.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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But as she draws closer to the place where she says seven white men pointed guns at her and shouted racial slurs, Marcia Fields' steps slow. Her open, happy face with its smooth brown skin turns downward. Her expression is serious.

"My family has never done anything to anyone. Why did this happen?" she asks. The sign explains it all. The rectangular piece of plywood is nailed to the wooden fence lining the Cooksey/Fields farm along Centerpoint Road south of Georgetown in Brown County.

In bold black and red paint, Marcia's father, Othel Cooksey Sr. succinctly outlines his family's dilemma:

"On Dec. 7, 2002, seven white men held GUNS on two of our UNARMED family members and nothing has been done and you're worried about TERRORISM outside the country."

The Cooksey/Fields family, five of about 70 African-Americans in this rural community of 3,700, believes the sheriff's department and the prosecutor's office have failed to adequately investigate their complaints of racially motivated harassment. They fear for their safety and say they can't trust local authorities to protect them.

Representatives from the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP are looking into the claims, as are the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Although no one has been charged with racial intimidation or similar crimes, the alleged incident illustrates an ugly trend in Ohio. According to FBI statistics, hate crimes in the state more than doubled - from 172 in 1998 to 363 in 2001. Officials from all three agencies have declined to comment on the Fields case, citing continuing investigations.

The Brown County Sheriff's Department also declines to discuss the case for the same reason.

But county Prosecutor Thomas Grennan insists the family's concerns are not valid. He says there is no proof that the December incident, and a second one a month later, were anything more than a property dispute.

Fields, he says, has given conflicting statements and admitted making threats herself during the December confrontation. Specifically, Grennan says, Fields said she would "bring 100 blacks from Cincinnati out here."

"That can be considered a menacing event, if she is threatening to bring a group of people out to challenge him," added Assistant Brown County Prosecutor Joseph Reder.

They say the only provable crime is criminal trespassing, but that could have been jeopardized because the family initially refused to let a court-ordered surveyor onto their property to officially determine property lines.

A surveyor was permitted on the property April 16. Amy Renshaw, whose family runs the surveying company that performed the court-ordered inspection, said the site of the confrontation is well within the boundaries of the Cooksey/Fields farm.

So far only Rick McElroy, a neighbor, has been charged with trespassing. His trial is scheduled later this month, and he could face a maximum 30 days in jail if convicted.

McElroy, 44, denies any wrongdoing.

"There was no gun," he says. "We was way on our property. (The Cooksey/Fields family) are real nice people. They just got mixed up a little bit."

But Jim Cummins, attorney for the family, disputes that claim.

"The idea that this is a property dispute is preposterous," he says. "This occurred right in the middle of their property. They have a basic right to live peacefully on their own land.

"Someone comes onto an African-American family's property with guns and threatens them and all they can do is charge him with trespassing, claiming it's a property dispute?"

Fields, 42, says her statements have not changed. She says responding deputies ignored what she told them and tried to refer her case to the county's game warden.

About 4 p.m. Dec. 7, Fields says, she heard a shot and felt what she thought was a bullet whiz by her. She looked to a wooded area at the rear of the farm and saw a hunting party.

In the past, when hunters were told they were on private property, they left immediately. But these seven men - five wearing hunting masks - refused.

She says they pointed their guns at her, and one aimed at her head.

She began saying whatever came to mind to get them to put their guns down. But they became more belligerent, and at least two started firing into the air.

"I guess our mouths are more dangerous than guns," says Othel Cooksey Jr., 32.

He was in the farmhouse fixing a water pipe when he heard one of the shots and rushed to his sister's aid.

The men, he says, continued to point their weapons at them, cursing, hurling racial epithets and saying, "This ain't no private property."

One of the men, Fields says, even told her his name: "Rick McElroy."

Eventually Fields and Cooksey backed away. "I really felt like they were going to kill me," Fields says.

She says responding deputies ignored her complaints about men who pointed guns at her and her brother. They mainly wanted to know if a deer had been killed.

Fields says she repeatedly called the sheriff's department to request that investigators take her statement. There was no response.

But on Dec. 22, the sheriff's department let her know a warrant had been issued for McElroy's arrest, Fields says.

On Jan. 12, she adds, McElroy and another man returned to her family's farm.

When Fields called 911, a dispatcher told her, "We know he's down there. He has a right to be there. He's looking for (markers) on the property." No arrests were made. Investigators also failed to quickly collect evidence proving guns were involved in the initial incident, the family alleges.

Two of four shell casings the family found near the site of the incident washed away before the prosecutor's office collected them, the family says.

"This transcends a hate crime. It goes beyond this family. Everyone should be concerned. The system that is designed to protect us failed to do that,"Fields says.

Othel and Dora Jean Cooksey, both in their 60s, moved to Georgetown in 1986 after selling their house in Madisonville. They'd always dreamed of living in the country.

And with the help of their adult children, Marcia and Carmen Fields, 40, and Othel Jr., they restored the farm's three-story, 1892 Victorian house. They raise horses and hay and do the work on the farm themselves.

In 1999, Better Homes & Gardens magazine named the farmhouse one of 12 winners in its residential restoration contest.

And despite their troubles, the family has no intention of moving.

"This is the American dream," Othel Cooksey Sr. says. "We have just as much right to be here as anyone else."

E-mail mmccain@enquirer.com

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