Murders, church arsons, and mosque bombing among FBI-investigated hate crimes left out of data
By: Jamie Grey and Lee Zurik, InvestigateTV
AMITE, La. (InvestigateTV) – A 22-year-old woman was locked in an outdoor cage made of chicken wire. It was covered in blue tarps and tree branches. She was held captive in that cage, a shed, and a tent for nearly a year in this southern Louisiana town.
She was forced to perform sex acts, forced to eat her own mother’s ashes and shot with a BB gun, the pellets lodging under her skin. Prosecutors said all of this happened from August 2015 through June 2016 under threats of death if she dared to attempt an escape.
The reason they said her tormentors did this: She has a disability. She is autistic.
A federal indictment charged four people with a variety of crimes from forced labor to attempted sex trafficking to hate crimes – because prosecutors said the abuses happened because of the woman’s disability.
Despite the horrific allegations and hate crime charge in that case, it doesn’t show up in federal hate crime data. Neither do dozens of others investigated by the FBI and publicized by the Department of Justice, InvestigateTV has found.
In its failure to report, the FBI is breaking the Uniform Federal Crime Reporting Act of 1988. The law allows local and state agencies to voluntarily report hate crime data to the FBI’s system. But as InvestigateTV reported in February, the law requires all federal agencies, including the FBI, to report.
“If they’re not [reporting], I will land on them like a ton of bricks,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the senior-most member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Since our initial report, InvestigateTV analyzed 10 years of the justice department’s news releases about hate crimes it prosecuted. At least 65 high-profile hate crime cases the FBI investigated never ended up in the federal database the agency itself maintains.
“They should have been submitting, and someone needs to hold them to account for that,” said Cynthia Deitle, a former FBI special agent and programs and operations director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a Denver-based organization that works on hate-related issues.
Those dozens of crimes that never made it into the federally-mandated data include shootings, bombings, brutal beatings, arsons, murders, and kidnappings.
For nearly seven months, InvestigateTV pressed the FBI for answers about hate crime statistics, why it does not report its own numbers and what it plans to do to comply with the law. The agency responded in mid-March, saying only in an email that it will again not be reporting its numbers in the 2019 hate crime data collection. A spokeswoman said it is working toward reporting in the next few years.
Admissions of guilt and convictions – but not counted
On December 8, 2015, Matthew Gust went to a Grand Forks, North Dakota gas station and filled a 40-ounce beer bottle with gasoline, turning it into a Molotov cocktail.
Wearing a facemask, he punched out a front window of the local Somali restaurant, lit the homemade bomb and threw it inside. Juba Café exploded in flames.
At the time, the local Somali community was in disbelief over losing their coffee shop.
“I don’t know what their agenda is, I don’t know what they mean to do, but this is unacceptable,” Mohamad Ismail told Gray Television affiliate KVLY at the time.
His agenda, Gust later admitted in court, was to intimidate the employees and customers because of their national origin.
In its public news releases about the incident, the justice department listed the FBI, ATF and Grand Forks Police as the investigating agencies. But the crime does not appear in the federal database.
The FBI also failed to report a 2008 church vandalism case tied to a high-profile planned killing spree by two men who were amassing the supplies to execute dozens of black people, culminating with the assassination of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman planned to kill 88 people, according to court documents – 88 because that’s the number used by white supremacists to symbolize the “Heil Hitler” salute, with H being the 8th letter of the alphabet.
The duo met over the internet and discussed their plans: Schlesselman sawed off the barrel of his shotgun in front of Cowart via web cam. They secured floor plans of a gun shop they planned to rob. They bought ammunition.
They traveled to different states gathering supplies and ultimately ended up in Brownsville, Tennessee where they shot into the window of a Baptist church. The Crockett County Sheriff’s Department caught the pair before they could continue with their plans. Both men pleaded guilty to multiple crimes.
Yet this is another hate crime left out of the statistics – city, county and federal law enforcement agencies did not report it to the database.
Deitle surmises the FBI’s reason for not reporting cases with multiple agencies is avoiding a double count, but she said that’s not a reason to leave out cases altogether.
“All of that jumbled data needs to be parsed out and categorized and counted the correct way,” she said.
Among the other 65 crimes identified as hate-motivated by the justice department but not reported into the data by the FBI or local agencies:
- The destruction of a Joplin, Missouri mosque by an arsonist.
- The shooting of three black men as they tried to evacuate New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. They were shot by white residents who decided to use force to keep black people out of their neighborhood.
- The attack of an elderly man on a south Texas sidewalk because he was black. The attacker, a man from Katy, Tx., filmed the assault on his cell phone.
Accurate numbers are important for victims and police
While these crimes and threats weren’t counted, they were very real for the victims and others in their communities.
In the summer of 2017, members of an Augusta, Georgia mosque were repeatedly terrorized by a caller threatening to blow up the mosque and murder Muslim people in various gruesome ways to “end Muslim religion in this country.”
“We tried to see how we could make ourselves more secure both physically and mentally prepared and emotionally prepared for this kind of event if it ever happens,” mosque member Hossam Fadel told InvestigateTV affiliate WRDW after the suspect was prosecuted.
That caller turned out to be a Wright City, Missouri man who ultimately pleaded guilty to making the threatening calls. Though his crime was filled with hate, it too was not counted.
Having accurate numbers should matter to everyone, Deitle said, because data is the main tool agencies use to identify threats ahead of time.
“You need to know where there is a greater likelihood of a hate crime occurring. And the only way you’re going to know that and be able to stop it is if you’re relying on good, accurate information and intelligence and data,” she said.
The crimes themselves are also a concern to Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana. He agreed with Deitle that prevention is a main reason this data needs to be accurate.
“Police look for patterns. They look for patterns, and if they see a lot of hate crimes or any kind of crime in a particular area, that’s where they can shift their resources,” Kennedy said. “We can’t put a police officer on every corner. We don’t have the resources to do that. So … we track the data, and we look for patterns. And if they’re not being reported, then we don’t know where to put our law enforcement resources.”
Senators plan to confront FBI and attorney general
After hearing about the FBI’s lack of reporting on its own cases, Senators Kennedy and Leahy both said they planned to address the justice department.
“I’m hoping they’re not ignoring a Congressional mandate,” Leahy said. “I think that the questions we’ll be asking the FBI when they come before the judiciary committee and the appropriations committee [are] : ‘Are you reporting these? And if you’re not? Why not? Because you’re required to.’”
As a former prosecutor, Leahy understands how responsibilities become muddied when multiple law enforcement agencies are involved in the same investigation. But that does not excuse the FBI from its duty to report.
“They can’t say, ‘We’ll tell you when we feel like it if a crime occurs in your state.’ Whether it’s Vermont, California or anywhere else,” Leahy said.
Kennedy also said the FBI should be reporting and told InvestigateTV he will approach newly-confirmed Attorney General William Barr about issues with crime data.
“I’m going to say, ‘Look, there are reports, you’ve seen the media reports that crimes including, but not limited to, hate crimes are not being accurately reported or completely reported by the FBI. Could you look into it? What’s your response? What can we do to improve it? What can we do to get local law enforcement to participate in the program?’” Kennedy said.
The Department of Justice announced in October it would award an $840,000 grant to the University of New Hampshire to study ways to improve hate crime reporting. Ironically, part of that study will include a survey of local law enforcement agencies about reporting rates and barriers to reporting.
“I hope the FBI is given the opportunity to talk about why didn’t they report? Because if that study is going to focus on nonreporting agencies, the FBI has to be a part of that,” Deitle said.
In a March email to InvestigateTV, an FBI spokeswoman said the agency is currently working toward including its own cases in all crime data collections, including the hate crimes dataset.
The FBI said its goal is to report data to the Uniform Crime Reporting Program by Jan. 1, 2021. It said it has completed some “enhancements” and “data is currently being tested.”
For Deitle, knowing that the FBI has been violating the hate crimes reporting laws for so long is disappointing – but she’s now blaming herself a bit for not pushing for reporting when she was inside the agency.
“I can’t cast blame on the FBI today without looking in the mirror and saying, ‘Hey I was chief of the Civil Rights unit for a number of years, and I had some control and authority over the hate crime program,’” Deitle said. “I should have done more to figure out why we were not reporting, figure out how we could report our crimes to make sure they weren’t being double counted or triple counted, or that we were not giving inaccurate data.”
She said the solution now is to fix the data – and even retroactively go back and add in the agency’s cases, including the dozens of serious, unreported cases identified by InvestigateTV.
“That would go such a long way to show their leadership, to show that they made a mistake in not reporting in the past and to show that they have fixed this problem, and this is the way forward,” Deitle said.
InvestigateTV’s partner ProPublica collects reports of hate crimes and maintains a database of those incidents for journalists to report more fully on hate crimes. To submit a tip to Documenting Hate, use the form below.