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Hastings Man Pleads Guilty to Cross Burning

WASHINGTON – Neal Chapman Coombs, a 50-year-old resident of Hastings, Fla., pleaded guilty to a racially-motivated civil rights crime involving a cross burning, the Justice Department announced today.

In a one-count information filed on Aug. 10, 2006, Coombs was charged with knowingly and willfully intimidating and interfering with an African-American family that was negotiating for the purchase of a house in Hastings, Fla., by threat of force and the use of fire. Specifically, the information alleges that Coombs’ actions were motivated by the family’s race and that he burned a cross on property adjacent to the house.

Today, Coombs waived his right to indictment in open court before U.S. Magistrate Judge Howard T. Snyder, and pleaded guilty to the civil rights crime pursuant to a written plea agreement. The maximum penalty Coombs faces is 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, three years of supervised release, and a special assessment of $100. “Cross burning remains a vicious symbol of hatred,” said Wan J. Kim, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “All families have the right to live where they choose, undisturbed by such racist threats. This prosecution sends a clear message that we will not tolerate this criminal conduct.”

“No one in our country should have to suffer the fear and intimidation caused by such a cruel act of racism,” said Paul I. Perez, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida. “We will continue to ensure this type of outrageous conduct is investigated, prosecuted and punished.”

“The investigation of violations of Civil Rights remains a top priority for the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” said Michael J. Folmar, Special Agent in Charge of the Jacksonville Division of the FBI. “As such, the FBI will vigorously investigate and seek the prosecution of these egregious acts of violence, intimidation, and racism.”

According to the plea agreement, in the afternoon of Jan. 15, 2006, an African-American family of four was looking at a house for sale located at 9710 Crotty Avenue, Hastings, in St. Johns County. The family was accompanied by their real estate agent and his wife. The parents were in the process of negotiating to purchase the house.

While the parents were looking at the inside of the house with the real estate agent, their son (who was 15-years-old), and their daughter (who was 12-years-old), were sitting on the front porch of the house with the real estate agent's wife. The son noticed some ducks flying by and left the porch to get a better look. The son walked to the front yard, where he noticed the next door neighbor, Neal Chapman Coombs, standing in his front yard talking in a loud voice, apparently to a man who was walking by on the street. Coombs, who is Caucasian, made a remark about having a “house-warming.” Coombs also made some derogatory remarks about the boy's family, including referring to them as “niggers.”

Erected in Coombs' front yard was a set of wooden beams in the shape of a cross. The cross, which was approximately six feet tall, faced the house the family was considering purchasing. Coombs squirted a flammable liquid from a bottle onto the cross, and lit the cross on fire. Coombs then looked at the boy and told him, “I don't want to see you around here again, boy.”

The son went inside the house and told his parents what had happened. The entire family, the real estate agent, and his wife went to the front yard and watched the cross burn in front of them. The boy’s mother was alarmed and frightened by both Coombs' actions and words to the son, making her unwilling to purchase or live in the house they had been viewing. The father and children were equally alarmed by the incident, causing feelings of intimidation and disinterest in living in the house. The case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Scot Morris and Andrew J. Kline of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.