The county's top prosecutor met last night with members of an African-American coalition to discuss a racially tinged case - vandalism at the statue of a prominent black Annapolis leader - that was dropped last month.
The man initially charged with defacing the statue of Aris T. Allen, a physician and legislator who died in 1991, said he is sleeping with a loaded shotgun at his bedside - worried about strangers seen near his rural Crownsville cottage.
"I don't feel safe here anymore," John Exner Jr. said Wednesday night in his first interview since his arrest in August. "It's gotten so I don't even want to pull out my credit card. I want my name cleared."
Exner insisted that he is innocent and a victim of false statements by reward-seeking enemies. "I'm not a racist," said the 37-year-old mechanic. "But it's like I've already been convicted."
The community is upset that no one has been convicted in the July 4 incident, in which a pillowcase hood was put over the statue and Confederate flags were taped to its hands.
The vandalism came after a series of hate crimes, including an anonymous death threat mailed to Anne Arundel's African-American school superintendent, and brought reward offers totaling $8,000. The arrest was cheered by black leaders as a sign that racial crimes would not be tolerated. But the community leaders were outraged when the case was dismissed last month.
Last night, State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee explained why the case was dropped in a meeting at the Stanton Community Center in Annapolis with members of RESPECT, a coalition of African-American organizations in Anne Arundel County that helped organize and contributed to the reward fund.
"As far as I'm concerned, this case is still under investigation," said Weathersbee, who added that his top investigator is expected to complete another review of the matter in about a week.
He said he would confer with coalition leaders about the continuing investigation.
Court documents show that a couple from central Pennsylvania told police they overheard Exner boasting about the vandalism at an American Legion post in Edgewater. But the witnesses failed to appear for the Jan. 2 trial, saying they wanted the reward money before they testified.
"The bottom line was they weren't coming to Maryland unless they were paid up-front," Weathersbee said, pointing out that such a payment would have tainted their credibility.
The prosecutor's office would have paid for travel expenses, but the couple still wouldn't come to court, he said.
Weathersbee said it left his office no choice but to drop the charges of vandalism and racial and/or religious harassment. The decision left open the option of reinstituting charges if police find evidence or witnesses that link Exner to the vandalism.
"I will prosecute the case, if there is a case," Weathersbee said.
The state's attorney said the vandalism does not constitute a hate crime as defined by state law because no permanent damage was done to the Allen statue.
The audience, which peppered him with questions at the forum, seemed satisfied with his answers.
Exner said there was never more than flimsy hearsay evidence to link him to the crime.
"I wasn't even in town that weekend," he said. "I was in Salisbury helping my mother fix up her place and visiting some friends."
Exner and the prosecution witnesses have known each other for decades - from school days at South River High, according to Exner and sworn statements by the witnesses. But Exner said they have long disliked each other. "Frankly, I think they were in it in for a quick buck," he said.
An Edgewater native, Exner said he dropped out of South River High at 16 to work and help his family, and is in debt from legal fees for his defense.
During a police search of Exner's cottage, a Confederate flag bandanna was among the items seized. Exner said it wasn't his.
"It was probably left here by someone during a party or something," he said. "I just threw in the closet and forgot about it."
Exner brought up his criminal record, which includes several assault and battery convictions, before being asked about it.
"I was a hothead," Exner said. "But I'm older now. I'm trying to stay away from trouble. That's why I moved out here, so I wouldn't have to deal with the riffraff."