WASHINGTON – The Justice Department announced today that Sean Popejoy, 19, of Green Forest, Ark., pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of committing a federal hate crime and one count of conspiring to commit a federal hate crime. This is the first conviction for a violation of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was enacted in October 2009.
Information presented during the plea hearing established that in the early morning hours of June 20, 2010, Popejoy admitted that he was part of a conspiracy to threaten and injure five Hispanic men who had pulled into a gas station parking lot. The co-conspirators pursued the victims in a truck. When the co-conspirators caught up to the victims, Popejoy leaned outside of the front passenger window and waived a tire wrench at the victims and continued to threaten and hurl racial epithets at the victims. The co-conspirator rammed into the victims' car, which caused the victims’ car to cross the opposite lane of traffic, go off the road, crash into a tree and ignite. As a result of the co-conspirators’ actions, the victims suffered bodily injury, including one victim who sustained life-threatening injuries.
“James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard were brutally murdered more than a decade ago, and today the first defendant is convicted for a hate crime under the critical new law enacted in their names,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “It is unacceptable that violent acts of hate committed because of someone’s race continue to occur in 2011, and the department will continue to use every available tool to identify and prosecute hate crimes whenever and wherever they occur.
“It is terrible and disturbing that violence motivated by hatred of another’s race continues to occur,” said Conner Eldridge, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. “We are committed to prosecuting such crimes in the Western District of Arkansas.”
If convicted, the defendant faces a maximum punishment of 15 years in prison.
This case is being investigated by the FBI’s Fayetteville Division in cooperation with the Arkansas State Police Department and the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office. The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Edward Chung of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyra Jenner for the Western District of Arkansas.