'Victim' of hate crime staged it, police say Claim had triggered flood of gifts, support

July 13, 1996|By Ed Heard and Alex Gordon | Ed Heard and Alex Gordon,SUN STAFF

It was a crime that shocked normally placid Howard County: A black woman found her North Laurel townhouse ransacked, flooded and defaced with racial epithets. County officials called it the worst hate-bias incident in memory.

Yesterday, the same county officials announced that had been a lie.

Howard police say the woman admitted staging the April 23 vandalism at the Seasons Apartments. Police say it was staged to collect insurance money, and that she threw into an outdoor trash bin most of the goods donated to the family after the incident.

Sonia Andrei James, 28, of the 9500 block of Sylvan Still Lane was being held on $10,000 bail at the Howard County Detention Center yesterday, a District Court commissioner said.

She has been charged with theft, insurance fraud, destruction of property and falsely reporting a crime. If convicted, she could be sentenced to as much as 30 years in prison and fined as much as $42,000, said Marna McLendon, Howard County state's attorney.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker called the announcement yesterday s announcement "bittersweet."

"A horrible crime didn't happen in Howard County," he said. "This doesn't mean we're free from bias or bigotry. This is a time for healing."

James' initial report brought widespread attention.

Civic activists pointed to the incident as a vivid example of racism in a county that prides itself on harmony. The Police Department opened a satellite office in a nearby townhouse to help the neighborhood.

Although police now believe the hate crime never occurred, James Henson, head of the Howard County Office of Human Rights, said he is "proud of the response of our entire community. It really brought the community closer."

James told police that she arrived at the home she shared with her 2 1/2 -year-old son and mother in the 9200 block of Traders Crossing about 3 p.m. April 23 to find her furniture overturned, the family's clothes stained with bleach and her child's toys broken.

The kitchen and bathroom were flooded, and the walls were spray-painted with racial slurs telling her family to leave the neighborhood.

The most valuable items in the house -- including a large color television, a videocassette recorder and jewelry -- were not taken in the reported break-in.

Other residents, charities, businesses, police officers and strangers offered the family food, toys, clothes, money and sympathy.

The apartment management moved James to another home, and a stranger -- responding to James' claim that she was missing law classes -- sent her study materials.

Police say she was not enrolled in law school.

James collected $14,000 from an insurance policy and $5,000 from a fund residents established to help, police said.

But county police, the FBI, the county Office of Human Rights and the county state's attorney's office grew suspicious of James' statements after they found several inconsistencies. For example, they said, a hole cut in a screen wasn't big enough for a person to squeeze through, and no other windows or doors were damaged.

At a news conference yesterday, officials said that James was unemployed at the time, having quit her job in the Foster Care Unit of the Maryland Department of Social Services in Baltimore in November.

"It was all part of the fraud," Police Chief James N. Robey said.

Detectives said that when they questioned James again Thursday, she confessed to staging a fraud. She was arrested at her home Thursday night, police said.

Police also said James placed fliers from a fictitious group called WAN, "Whites Against Niggers," on cars in the court of her parking lot two weeks before damaging her home.

Police and county officials said yesterday that James had betrayed Howard County citizens.

"I'm hurt," said Robey. "It's one thing to stage a break-in and obtain insurance money; it's another thing to use discrimination and racial hatred."

Some residents of the Seasons, including Sylvia Vacchio Chiodaroli, said the incident destroyed the sense of community and trust many residents felt.

"It really makes me angry," she said. "It caused tension. People were pulled against each other."

Richard Legemah, a black man who moved to the neighborhood just before the incident, said he couldn't make sense of yesterday's revelations.

"She's a disgrace as a parent, to the community and to herself," he said. "She needs to be ashamed and should get what's coming to her."

Pub Date: 7/13/96

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