The Strange Case of Faked Hate Crimes

Source: U.S. News Online | November 3, 1997

The Strange Case of Faked Hate Crimes

An ugly form of fraud seems to be on the rise

BY ART LEVINE

It was a scene that tore at the heart of the community: Last fall, an interracial couple, Sandra Benson and Freeman Berry, stood in the back yard of their burned-out home in Jonesboro, Ga., describing to reporters and police how they had been the victims of a hate crime. Arson had destroyed many of the couple’s belongings, including, they claimed, $200,000 in computer equipment; their fence and shed had been spray-painted with swastikas and misspelled racial epithets. Soon the FBI joined with fire and police authorities to investigate the incident.

But doubts began to arise about the couple’s hate-crime claim when investigators noticed some oddities at the scene. For instance, while most hate crimes are intended to make a public statement, the racial slurs were spray-painted on the inside of Benson and Berry’s fence, where passersby couldn’t see them.

This past August, Benson and Berry were indicted on 23 counts of fraud for a series of incidents culminating with the burning down of the Jonesboro house. Prosecutors charge that the alleged scams netted the couple more than $600,000 over five years. The two have proclaimed their innocence through their attorney.

False charges. Although no group maintains complete statistics on faked hate crimes such as the one Benson and Berry are accused of committing, Lou Mizell, a security consultant who tracks crime trends, estimates that there have been nearly 100 recorded phony hate crimes since 1990. Most have taken place in the past two years. “These incidents injure the actual victims of hate crime twice,” points out Arthur Teitelbaum of the Anti-Defamation League, “because false charges run the risk of increasing public skepticism over real hate crimes.”

Dennis Jay, the executive director of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, contends that the rise in reporting of genuine hate crimes may account for the apparent rise in fraudulent incidents. “It gives people ideas,” he says. Jay believes many perpetrators are motivated in part by hostility toward insurance companies. “People are able to justify this to themselves more than in the past,” he argues. “They look at the insurance system and feel they got ripped off, they are an oppressed minority, and it’s a way for them to get back at the system.”

Faked hate crimes take many forms:

In September, Angela Jackson, a Chicago law student and distributor of African-American art, was charged with a bizarre scheme to defraud UPS by claiming the company’s employees had defaced four works of art with racial epithets while shipping them to her. Prosecutors also charge that to make her claim more plausible, she shipped 27 other packages containing racial slurs on UPS stationery to prominent civil rights leaders. Jackson maintains she is innocent.

In Miami last year, mechanic Al Rubin and his son Steven were sentenced to prison for arranging to have the Hillel Community Day School, where Steven worked, vandalized with anti-Semitic slogans. The pair aimed to profit from the expected repair work.

In 1995, an Iranian-American woman in Fargo, N.D., reported that assailants had carved a swastika into her stomach and burned down her family’s restaurant. Less than two weeks later, she was arrested on arson and related charges. She was ultimately found not guilty “due to lack of criminal responsibility” and was committed to a psychiatric institution.

“The typical perpetrator is an immature personality who is desperate for both money and attention,” says Mizell. Publicity, he adds, “helps them get the system to back down [from examining their stories].” Mizell claims to know of “scores” of cases where investigators have backed off pursuing suspicious claims rather than risk public backlash for investigating apparent victims. “This is a crime a lot of people get away with,” he contends.

One person who didn’t get away with it was DeWayne Byrdsong, a black minister in Coralville, Iowa. In 1995, Byrdsong stirred public outrage when he claimed his Mercedes-Benz had been spray-painted with racial slurs. After his insurance company delayed paying his claim, Byrdsong said he contacted everyone from local media to Oprah Winfrey, charging that the failure to pay was motivated in part by racism. All the publicity, though, prompted local body shops to report that Byrdsong had sought estimates on repainting the car before the incident purportedly occurred. Byrdsong was eventually found guilty of making false reports to authorities. Barry Bedford, Coralville’s chief of police, says he is still unsure what drove Byrdsong to fabricate the hate crime. “My best guess is that he wanted this car repainted very badly,” Bedford says.