The FBI is investigating whether two teens involved in a cross burning incident in a Center Grove area neighborhood should be charged with a federal hate crime.
The teens, a 17-year-old and a 16-year-old, were found by sheriff’s deputies after a black resident in Fairview Heights woke up early Jan. 2 and found a small cross burning in his front yard.
The Indianapolis FBI office received information about the incident and is investigating, FBI Special Agent Wendy Osborne said. The FBI has 45 days to prepare a report and submit it to the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, where federal prosecutors will decide whether to file charges, she said.
An FBI agent earlier this month contacted Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper, who turned over all the information he had about the incident and encouraged the agency to seek federal charges, he said.
Indiana does not have hate crime laws that Cooper could pursue, so prosecutors locally can only pursue juvenile charges, such as criminal mischief, intimidation or minor consumption of alcohol, he said.
Osborne declined to share details about the ongoing investigation but said it is handled like any other law enforcement investigation.
That can include gathering police reports or medical records if applicable and interviewing witnesses and victims, she said.
The FBI must send a report within 45 days, but there is no deadline for federal prosecutors to respond to it, she said.
“DOJ doesn’t have a deadline when they have to make a decision,” she said, referring to the Justice Department. “They might open the report and see they need more information and ask us to do some additional investigating.”
Hate crimes are defined under federal law as causing physical harm or attempting to intimidate a person based on race, color, national origin, familial status, religion, sex or disability.
Depending on the circumstances, people convicted of hate crimes can be fined and sentenced to serve up to one year in prison; up to 10 years in prison if they cause injury or use a deadly weapon or fire; or up to life in prison if the person kills, attempts to kill, kidnaps or sexually assaults the victim.
According to a police report, Johnson County Sheriff’s Office deputies were able to follow footprints in the snow from the home of the victim to another house in the neighborhood where the 16-year-old lives. Deputies talked with the two teens, and the 17-year-old told the deputy that he burned the cross.
Police also determined the 17-year-old had been drinking alcohol earlier in the night. Both teens were released to their parents and not arrested.
Information about the cross burning wasn’t initially forwarded to the FBI by the county sheriff’s office or prosecutor, but federal agents were aware of the incident and launched the investigation, Osborne said.
Sheriff Doug Cox said he had planned to send the report to the Indianapolis FBI office after the incident but said an agent contacted him before he could email it.
The teens told police that they did not know who lived in the house where they burned the cross. Cox said he doubted the incident was a coincidence because of the distance between the homes of 16-year-old and the victim.
County prosecutors are waiting to receive information about the case from juvenile probation officers who interviewed the teens to determine whether juvenile charges should be filed, Cooper said.
The teens had a hearing in juvenile court and a judge decided not to keep them at the county juvenile detention center, Cooper said.