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Cross burning investigated as bias crime, provides stiffer penalties for those convicted under state law

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NORTHERN TOWNSHIP - The investigation into the burning cross in a yard here early Friday morning is being investigated as a bias crime.

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An 8-foot-tall burning cross was reported in a Northern Township yard at about 12:40 a.m. Friday. A woman reported she saw the light of the flames from her bedroom window and ran outside, dousing the 3-foot flames with water.

The Beltrami County Sheriff's Office said officers are investigating the report, and requested the public help by reporting any information related to the incident by calling 333-9111.

The case has been labeled a "bias crime," which carries with it the potential for higher penalties. Per state statute, a bias crime refers to criminal conduct committed because of the victim's race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability or national origin.

The victim who found the cross is white; her two adult children are mixed-race with a black father.

If identified and located, a suspect in the case could face a charge of gross misdemeanor fourth-degree assault, as the crime would allegedly have been committed because of bias.

Fourth-degree assault can be charged against those accused of intentionally inflicting bodily harm or those who committed an act with the intent of causing bodily harm.

State statute states that the crime would be punishable by up to one year in jail with a $3,000 fine.

"Obviously, we're concerned about this," Beltrami County Attorney Tim Faver said Wednesday. "Nobody should be subjected to threats or intimidation or assaultive behavior based on their race."

Officials agree that this is the first cross-burning case that the area has encountered since at least the early 1980s. Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp has been here since 1985 and Faver since 1983. Neither could recall a similar report since their arrivals.

"We certainly have had assault cases where someone was motivated by some-body's race or sexual orientation," Faver said. "We've had more of those, though they're pretty infrequent."

Kyle A. Loven, Minneapolis media coordinator for the FBI, said the FBI is aware of the incident and has been in communication with the Sheriff's Office.

The FBI will continue to remain in touch with the sheriff's office as the case progresses, he noted.

Audrey Thayer, the coordinator of the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project (ACLU-MN), said Wednesday she has been in frequent contact with the victim family.

Thayer intends to meet with the Beltrami County Board of Commissioner during its meeting Tuesday to ask them to support a resolution and press release that would state that this kind of behavior and criminal activity is not acceptable for the community.

She also intends to approach the Bemidji City Council with a similar request.

Shared Vision, a community effort to address racial diversity and racial disparity in the greater Bemidji area, also released a statement denouncing hate crimes.

"This is not acceptable," said Thayer, a Shared Vision member who noted the victim is a working professional in Bemidji. "It's sad when we invite professionals to come to our community, serve our community and they get mistreated."

Incidents like this "set race relations back many feet" all over again, she said.

The organization plans to coordinate a community roundtable to discuss the historical context of cross burning, the impact on communities, and the how communities can address it. A date and location has not been set.

"This trust in this community, the dynamics in this community have always been challenging," Thayer said. "Despite every little move we make in this community in regards to cultural understanding, this (burning cross), it just sets us back."

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