ABINGDON, Va. — Forty-year-old James Brown buried his face in his hands multiple times in court Tuesday as a federal agent said the man admitted to witnesses that he burned a cross in the front yard of a Black family’s home.
“I did it,” Brown told two witnesses, according to FBI Special Agent Chad Potter.
Brown lives on Pearl Avenue in Marion, Virginia, near the property where a cross was found ablaze early on June 14, officials said. Pieces of wood, assembled to look like a cross, had been placed in a burn barrel, according to a criminal affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Abingdon.
Potter spoke to several witnesses in the days following the blaze, which took place at the home of teen Travon Brown, who also led a Black Lives Matter rally in Marion. The two individuals are not related, authorities note.
During a preliminary hearing, Potter said James Brown, who had also been observed by nearby witnesses, returned home following the blaze. There, two men said he admitted to burning the cross, Potter said.
James Brown had an ongoing conflict with Travon Brown’s family, Potter said.
Witnesses interviewed during the investigation said James Brown used racial epithets when referring to the family. The family also said the man had a history of making them uncomfortable with looks and trash being thrown into the yard.
The day after the fire, the family had a cookout at their home. James Brown was at his own home when he laughed about the fire, a witness told agents.
During an interview, James Brown denied being involved in the fire, according to court records.
As a result, he faces charges of lying to federal agents and criminal interference with fair housing based on Travon Brown’s race.
Brown shook and nodded his head often during Tuesday’s hearing. He also buried his mask-covered face in his hands as witnesses testified and counsel spoke.
Potter informed the court that detectives found shirts, staples, a staple gun and tiki fuel during a search at James Brown’s home. The fuel is believed to have been used as an accelerant. The shirts were similar to shirts used to assemble the cross, Potter added. The burn barrel and cross were last known to be obtained by the Marion Police Department, which assisted with the investigation.
Magistrate Judge Pamela Sargent granted James Brown bond Tuesday after determining that he is not a flight risk and is not a danger to the community. Sargent noted that although the man is originally from New York, his family now lives in Marion, where he will stay as the case proceeds.
Upon release from jail, Sargent said he must stay away from Travon Brown’s family and witnesses. She also gave him a list of “strict” rules to follow while he is on bond. She permitted him to stay with his girlfriend and two children at the home on Pearl Avenue.
Brown’s girlfriend said during court that she was sleeping at the time of the fire and said he had never used any racist epithets.
“It’s still mind-boggling to me,” she said.
Sargent said the “serious charges” will be sent to a grand jury, which could consider the case within 30 days.
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