Possible hate crime at Howard home being investigated

An image of a cross was formed on front lawn of black school official

July 09, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Howard County police are investigating a possible hate crime after the shape of a cross was formed on the grass of a top education official who was recently cleared of allegations she abused her power by seeking preferential treatment for her daughter.

Howard police and the county chapter of the NAACP denounced yesterday the vandalism at the Ellicott City home of Kimberly Statham at a news conference at police headquarters. Police also offered a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest and indictment.

"We will do everything in our power to resolve this as quickly as possible," Police Chief G. Wayne Livesay said. "This is the first hate crime [in Howard County] I can recall in many, many years."

Jenkins Odoms Jr., president of the Howard County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the county's image has been hurt by "the actions of a few individuals filled with hate and bias."

"I was hoping that in the year 2004, we were beyond this," Odoms said. "We thought Howard County was beyond anything of this nature. We figured this is one of the better counties in the state to live in."

The Stathams did not attend yesterday's news conference.

Statham's husband, Michael V. Statham, discovered the image Wednesday afternoon and called police, Livesay said. At the time, his two teenage children were home with him, an NAACP spokeswoman said. The Stathams are African-American.

Investigators found discolored brown grass in the shape of a cross on the lawn. Two shallow holes in the ground -- within the outline of the cross -- indicate where investigators had taken soil samples for chemical analysis.

The incident at the Stathams' house is being investigated as a hate crime because of the destruction of property involved, a police spokeswoman said.

The cross begins at the curb and is about 3 feet wide at the base, and extends 12 feet into the center of the yard and spans about 8 feet.

Any chemical applied to the lawn probably would have taken some time to discolor the grass, according to Livesay. Police believe the chemical was applied Tuesday or early Wednesday.

Livesay declined to comment on whether police had focused on any suspects or person of interest.

In February, then-Howard County schools superintendent, John R. O'Rourke -- who stepped down in March -- demoted Kimberly Statham, the former deputy superintendent, and Roger Plunkett, a former assistant superintendent, for allegedly intimidating educators to change a grade for Statham's daughter, who attended Centennial High School in Ellicott City.

But Statham and Plunkett were reinstated in May by the county school board, triggering angry reactions from many parents and teachers.

When asked if the incident was connected to the events surrounding Kimberly Statham and Centennial High, Livesay said: "I don't know enough yet to say it's in retaliation for anything."

While Statham had been the focus of the school system inquiry this year, her husband had also been drawn into the controversy. An anonymous letter, allegedly written by a teacher to the school board, claimed that Michael Statham, a former Prince George's County attorney, verbally intimidated school staff members.

When Odoms was asked if the cross incident on the Stathams' lawn was an attempt to run the family out of town, he replied: "You're intelligent. You figure it out."

Last month, after angry parents and staff at an emotional meeting at Centennial denounced the board's decision to reinstate Statham and Plunkett, the Howard NAACP published a letter in local newspapers charging there is "an underlying core of racism in Howard County, which has become embedded in the culture of some of our schools."

Livesay said that he had spoken with Michael Statham and that police had taken "many precautions" for the safety of the family and the neighborhood.

The Stathams have lived in the home since it was built in 1989, according to state property records. It is in a quiet cul-de-sac lined with neatly trimmed homes, and is less than a mile from Centennial High.

At the home yesterday afternoon, Michael Statham, appearing visibly shaken, came to the front door but declined to discuss the incident.

"We have no comment," he said. "We've turned it over to the police, and we trust that they'll investigate thoroughly."

His wife, through her attorney, George Nilson, also declined to comment.

"She knows the police are looking into the matter and has confidence that they'll do their job," Nilson said.

Sun staff writer Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.

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