Friday, July 09, 2010

Eastpointe Fire on Street Where Racist Letters Were Sent to African American Households

Posted: 7:13 a.m. July 9, 2010 | Updated: 8:50 a.m.

Eastpointe fire on street where racist letters were sent raises questions


Authorities in Eastpointe are investigating a suspected arson fire in a home Thursday night on the same street where black residents received threatening letters with racial slurs this week, police said.

The home on the 15100 block of Sprenger was marked with signs warning of a fire marshal investigation and offering a $5,000 reward for information about the fire.

Eastpointe Police said this morning that there were no injuries in the fire, but additional information wasn't immediately available.

A search warrant posted on the front door of the home said authorities are searching for evidence “in relation to a home invasion, arson, or used to write hate mail.”

The warrant specifically mentioned that any fingerprints, evidence that might contain DNA, fire accelerants, handwriting samples, paper or envelopes that might be related to the fire.

The fire appeared to have caused minor damage to the home. No one was at the home this morning.

The fire came as police investigated letters sent to black families Tuesday on Sprenger Avenue. The letters said the writer or writers were "tired" of blacks moving into the neighborhood, that they need to move "back across 8 Mile" and listed addresses along with a threat to kill blacks "one by one."

Neighborhood residents said this morning they can't understand why black families were targeted with the letters, describing the area as diverse and friendly.

Rosie Stokes, 38, bought a home on Sprenger about two months ago, moving there from Detroit. Stokes, who is black, said she did not receive one of the racist letters.

"I'm actually very surprised about it," she said of the letters. "It's a very quiet neighborhood. That's one of the reasons I moved over here. Eastpointe is very diverse."

Stokes and another neighbor, an African-American man who declined to give his name, said residents of Sprenger are talking about setting up a block club or neighborhood watch to keep an eye out for one another.

The 45-year-old man said he's loved living on Sprenger for six years and talks regularly with neighbors both black and white.

"I know a lot of people on the block are keeping their guard up," he said. "We have some idiots out here, but not everybody is like that."

Ruth Gustafson, a retiree and longtime resident who is white, said she believes someone from outside the neighborhood is trying to stir up trouble.

"We've had an integrated neighborhood for 10 or 15 years and we've had no problems," she said as she walked her dog along Sprenger this morning. "I have lovely neighbors."

She added about the letters: "It kind of makes you sick to your stomach."

Meanwhile, Daniel Krichbaum, interim director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said in a statement Thursday that the department "is both alarmed and upset at news that families in the city of Eastpointe received threatening letters conveying hate and intolerance. Such an event provides a disappointing view into the minds of those who would use hate to communicate a worldview of exclusion. It is not only a criminal offense committed against these particular victims, it is also an attack upon the very essence of community."

Krichbaum said the department is encouraged that law enforcement is taking the matter seriously, and the department is looking at a potential system for the city to be better prepared for and prevent hate crimes.

Eastpointe Police Lt. Scott Bourgeois said today that the initial investigation of the fire was inconclusive as to what started it, but the department is treating it as suspicious, although not necessarily related to the racist letters. The FBI is working with Eastpointe police on the investigation of the incidents, he said.

The occupant of the home, a rental property, is an African American male, Bourgeois said.

"The occupant had only been there a few months and he very infrequently stayed there," Bourgeois said, adding that the man arranged his own alternate accommodations.

"We're still conducting our investigation," Bourgeois said. The department hopes to collect all 17 of the racist letters distributed to black residents and send them by Monday to the Michigan State Police crime lab for evidence such as fingerprints that could help determine who sent them.


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