Police say there is no evidence attack against gay teen was a 'hate crime'

bestep@herald-leader.comApril 22, 2010 

McKEE — The mother of a gay Jackson County teenager says an attack on her daughter by classmates was a hate crime, but a detective said he would not classify the incident that way.

Cheyenne Williams, 18, was attacked Friday because she is openly gay, said her mother, Dee Johnson.

"It is a hate crime," Johnson said.

State police Detective Joie Peters, who is investigating, said it appears the incident began as a practical joke but got out of hand, escalating to the point that Williams sustained minor injuries.

Peters said he was not minimizing the incident but has not uncovered evidence it constituted a hate crime.

The girls accused of attacking Williams are charged in district court with kidnapping and attempted murder, based on a criminal complaint Williams swore out.

Peters said he would present evidence to a grand jury for a decision on what charge correctly fits the facts of the case.

The grand jury could indict the girls on the same charges, a lesser charge such as assault or decline to indict them.

The investigation is ongoing, Peters said.

Those charged in the alleged attack — who attended Jackson County High School with Williams — are Ashley N. Sams, 18, of Annville; Corrine M. Schwab, 18 of Sandgap; and a 17-year-old girl. Her name and the charges against her have not been released because she is a juvenile.

Williams said the three teens took her against her will to Flat Lick Falls, physically abused her and tried to push her off a cliff.

Johnson said her daughter had the presence of mind to videotape the attack on her cell phone.

"There's proof on the video that this is a hate crime," Johnson said.

A hate crime is an offense motivated, in whole or in part, by bias based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or ethnicity/national origin, according to the FBI Web site.

The site notes that the presence of bias alone does not mean a crime can be considered a hate crime.

"Only when law enforcement investigation reveals sufficient evidence to lead a reasonable and prudent person to conclude that the offender's actions were motivated, in whole or in part, by his or her bias, should an incident be reported as a hate crime," the Web site says.

Johnson declined to disclose details of the video or of the attack, saying police had told her not to discuss the case.

Williams brandished a stick at the girls and was able to get away.

The girls found her and forced her back into the car but then let her go, warning her not to say anything, said Corbin attorney Tim Crawford, who represents the school system.

Williams also retrieved her phone and has given police the video.

The girls charged in the attack had been friends with Williams for years and knew of her sexual orientation. One of the alleged attackers roomed with Williams on a senior trip to Key West, Fla., and the Bahamas three weeks ago, Crawford said.

Williams and those charged with attacking her have been good students, said Keith Hays, principal at the high school.

Johnson said she has no clue why the other girls would try to hurt her daughter.

As for the timing, however, she noted that the alleged attack happened Friday, the day of a national observance for people who have faced bullying or harassment because of their sexual orientation.

The attack stemmed from that, Johnson said.

Crawford said he understood some students were wearing tags or stickers in support of the observance, while others were wearing stickers in opposition that said something like "Gay is not the way."

Superintendent Ralph Hoskins directed that students in both groups not to display the stickers because he didn't want the situation to escalate, Crawford said.

Jackson County Sheriff Tim Fee said Johnson called him Saturday and asked whether she could file a criminal complaint for her daughter.

Johnson said her daughter didn't want to do anything about the attack because she feared retaliation, Fee said.

However, he told her Williams would have to swear out the complaint.

The mother and daughter talked about it, Fee said, and Williams signed the complaint Monday at the county attorney's office.

Sams and Schwab turned themselves in Tuesday after finding out that warrants had been issued for them.

Schwab was released Wednesday on $25,000 bond. She is to be arraigned next week.

Sams remained jailed Wednesday. She is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday.

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