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Florida Man Sentenced in Cross Burning

WASHINGTON – Neal Chapman Coombs, a 50-year-old resident of Hastings, Fla., was sentenced today to 14 months in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, the Justice Department announced today. Coombs pleaded guilty on August 16, 2006 to a racially-motivated civil rights crime involving a cross burning.

In August 2006, Coombs was charged with knowingly and willfully intimidating 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, it was alleged that Coombs’ actions were motivated by the family’s race and that he burned a cross on property adjacent to the house.

“Cross burning remains a vicious symbol of hatred and intolerance,” said Wan J. Kim, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “Our welcoming society encourages people to live where they choose, undisturbed by such racist threats. This prosecution sends a clear message that we will not tolerate such deplorable criminal conduct.”

“This display of racial hatred is alarming.  Victims of this crime can be assured that our office will vigorously investigate and prosecute those who would choose this form of ugly criminal conduct,” said Paul I. Perez, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida.

According to the plea agreement, on the afternoon of Jan. 15, 2006, an African-American family of four was looking at a house for sale 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.

The plea agreement notes that while the parents were inside the house with the real estate agent, their son and daughter, who were 15 and 12-years-old at the time, were outside the house, where they overheard the defendant, who was in front yard, speaking loudly, apparently to a man on the street. Coombs, who is Caucasian, made a remark about having a “house-warming,” and also made derogatory remarks about the visiting family.

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 stated, “I don’t want to see you around here again, boy.”

The family was alarmed and frightened by the defendant’s actions and words, causing feelings of intimidation and disinterest in living in the house.

Prosecuting the perpetrators of bias-motivated crimes is a top priority of the Justice Department. Since 2001, the Civil Rights Division has charged 163 defendants in bias-motivated crimes.

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.