Woman's new house marred by vandals Use of racial slurs raises concern among federal agencies

October 08, 1998|By Brenda J. Buote and Donna R. Engle | Brenda J. Buote and Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

Just weeks before an African-American woman was scheduled to move into her first house, built in Taneytown with the help of an interfaith group, vandals marred its walls and appliances with racial and pornographic slurs.

Karen Magruder, 29, said yesterday she discovered the damage about 1 p.m. Monday. She had gone to the house in the 200 block of Maryland Ave. with her three children and a friend to complete a few finishing touches before moving in.

"At first I was surprised and shocked. Then I was numb for a while," said Magruder, who spent about eight months building the four-bedroom colonial with the help of Interfaith Housing of Western Maryland Inc., a nonprofit group with 17 affordable housing projects from Garrett to Carroll counties.

"I was totally hurt. I couldn't believe it happened," said Magruder, a lifelong resident of Westminster. "I know [prejudice] exists. I'm not blind. But I was shocked because I didn't think that a small town like Taneytown would have this kind of vandalism."

As Magruder tries to explain the incident to her children -- ages 11, 7 and 2 -- police search for suspects. Federal officials might become involved, though local authorities said they believe the incident was not racially motivated.

"We don't have a racial problem up here, and I don't think that's the cause of this. We have a malicious destruction problem," said Taneytown Police Chief Melvin E. Diggs. "A lot of it is just juveniles doing this stuff."

Diggs, who has been in Taneytown for about 10 years, said he cannot remember a racial incident in the community. He said that city police investigated 87 malicious destruction incidents in 1996 and 70 last year.

County mostly white

Carroll County is predominantly white, with African-Americans making up 3 percent of the population of 150,000.

Police said vandals entered two other houses in the newly constructed subdivision -- one belonging to a white family, the other to an African-American family -- and did nothing destructive in either house.

But the use of racial epithets is enough to cause concern, and perhaps prompt an investigation, by federal officials. Interfaith Housing asked the FBI and the U.S. Department of Agriculture yesterday to investigate.

"That's just outrageous. I'm heartbroken for the family," said Laura Trivers, spokeswoman at USDA, which administers the loan program used for the Taneytown project. "The inspector general's office will coordinate with the appropriate state and local authorities to investigate."

FBI may investigate

Though the FBI had not received a formal request to investigate by late yesterday, FBI spokesman Peter A. Gulotta Jr. said the agency probably would look into the matter.

"Based on what I've learned about the nature of this incident, it would be something that we would look into" because racial slurs are a violation of civil rights laws, he said.

James E. Upchurch Jr., president of Interfaith Housing, said he agonized over whether to make the incident public, fearing the ++ vandals might enjoy the publicity. But with plans for a similar housing project in Emmitsburg facing hostility by a longtime resident who has publicly stated that the project would lower neighboring property values, Upchurch said he had to take a stand.

"Our tolerance for this is not at zero, it's below zero," Upchurch said. "If society doesn't speak out and say this is wrong, such people can move on to another level."

Upchurch said he is contacting local ministers for support. He described Taneytown as "a community that has gone out of its way to help us. This is not Taneytown as we know it. This is a few individuals."

The vandalism at Magruder's home was the first such incident to occur at an Interfaith Housing project, Upchurch said. In the past six years, the group has built self-help houses in Brunswick, apartments for the elderly in Woodsboro, rehabilitated housing in Frostburg and a family crisis center for victims of abuse in Hagerstown.

Magruder, a single mother, and 18 other families are taking part in the Taneytown self-help project, on the northwest side of the city. Participants must have incomes too low to qualify for conventional mortgages and agree to put "sweat equity" into their homes by building them from the ground up.

It is the kind of program often touted by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who toured Magruder's house when he visited the Taneytown project in June. Glickman strongly supports federal rural housing assistance programs and favors the self-help concept that made homeownership possible for Magruder.

'I put my whole life into this'

"I put my whole life into this -- time, my heart and many hours," said Magruder, who refuses to let the incident alter her plans to move in. "Even though the walls will be repainted, what was written there will always be on my mind. They've violated my home and my family.

"My 7-year-old boy doesn't want to live" there now, she added. "This morning, when I was getting him dressed, he said, 'I don't want to live up there mom. There's bad people there.' "

Pub Date: 10/08/98

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