Virginia man accused of burning cross on Black neighbor’s lawn following civil rights protest

MARION, Va. — Federal agents have charged a Virginia man with burning a cross on the front lawn of a Black neighbor whose son had organized a Black Lives Matter protest the day before, authorities said Friday.

James Michael Brown, 40, of Marion, is charged with lying to federal agents and criminal interference with fair housing based upon the victim’s race, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia. Brown, who is white, is being held in the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail, according to online records.

“The frightening act at the center of today’s complaint – a racially motivated cross burning – interfered with the victim’s federally protected right to fair housing,” U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said in a statement. “Acts of violence, threats, and other forms of intimidation prompted by racial animus are serious federal crimes, and we will continue to work closely with the FBI to hold offenders accountable.”

Federal court documents show that a Marion police officer was called just before 1 a.m. June 14 to Pearl Avenue in Marion on a call of a possible gunshot. When he arrived, he was flagged down by a Black woman who told them someone had put a burning cross on her front lawn.

The woman’s young son was an organizer of a civil rights protest held in Marion the day before.

The responding officer found a cross-shaped piece of wood propped against a burn barrel in the woman’s yard, the court documents state. A significant fire remained inside the burn barrel, with “red hot coals.”

FBI Special Agent Chad Potter wrote in an affidavit that the victim and her children were terrified for their safety.

“When interviewed by agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Victim #1 broke into tears while describing the incident,” Potter wrote. “I know from my training and experience that cross burnings have historically been used to specifically target and intimidate African Americans.”

Police investigators seized the cross as evidence.

“Agents observed that the wood was connected by a screw to make a cross shape,” Potter wrote. “Attached to the wood was a woven cloth attached by staples. The wood and cloth had a sweet smell, which is indicative of a propellant being used.”

Marion police officers used a fire extinguisher to put out the blaze, the court records say.

Read the criminal complaint and affidavit in James Brown’s case below.

Federal agents relied on three confidential witnesses who led them to Brown, according to the documents. The first witness told authorities he walked out onto the porch of a nearby home around the time of the incident and saw a fire in front of the Black family’s home.

Then he heard a bang.

“(Confidential witness 1) walked toward the fire, where he observed a white, skinny man walking away from the victim’s residence … toward a peach-colored house across the street from the victim’s residence, which is the residence of Brown,” the affidavit states. “This description of a ‘white, skinny man’ matches the description of Brown, who is believed to be of Puerto Rican descent.”

A second confidential witness told authorities he was at Brown’s house the day after the cross burning when Brown was asked about the incident. Brown laughed and said, “(Expletive) those (racial epithet),” Potter wrote.

According to the witness, Brown also asked a question: “Hey, have you burnt any crosses lately?”

The third confidential witness told federal agents he was asleep at a home in the neighborhood at the time of the incident when he awoke to the loud bang. He dressed and went outside to find the cross burning in the victim’s yard.

“(Confidential witness 3) walked into Brown’s residence and observed him sitting on the couch,” Potter wrote in the affidavit. “(The witness) stated that Brown had previously talked about burning a cross in Victim #1′s yard.

“Brown said, ‘I did it,’ referencing the cross burning in Victim #1′s yard.”

FBI agents interviewed Brown on June 15, at which time he told the investigators he was watching TV the previous morning when he heard a bang that sounded like a firecracker or a shotgun blast.

“Brown stated he went outside and saw a fire burning in a barrel in front of the victim’s house,” Potter wrote. “(He) stated he then saw the victim walking up the street.”

Brown told the agents he went and knocked on the victim’s door after the woman began yelling for someone to get her child from the home, the affidavit states.

Brown, who denied any involvement in the cross burning, admitted having a troubled relationship with his neighbor.

“Brown stated he and Victim #1 were friends until he had an argument with (the woman) involving a female friend of (hers),” the court documents say.

Based on the witness statements and other evidence, agents arrested Brown.

“The FBI is committed to protecting all citizens, and will aggressively investigate acts of intimidation or violence against anyone based on race or ethnicity,” Neil Mathison, acting special-agent-in-charge of the FBI’s Richmond Division, said Friday. “We thank the Marion County Police Department, the Smyth County Sheriff’s Office and the United States Attorney’s Office’s Western District of Virginia for their swift and direct attention to this incident.”