Hatred’s legacy is difficult to overcome

Donald Richards said he is sorry, deeply sorry.

Marla Lehnerz has it in writing. In March, Richards wrote Lehnerz a letter apologizing "for what happened on June 4, 1998."

What happened was a hate crime.

Every detail of that night is seared into Lehnerz’s psyche.

"It was a Thursday night," said the 44-year-old woman, who at the time lived in Silver Firs east of Everett. She now lives in Kent.

As Lehnerz’s 17-year-old daughter stood doing dishes, she looked out through the kitchen miniblinds and told her mother, "It looks like Don just wrote something on our car."

Lehnerz thought her neighbor might have written "wash me." Her son, then 13, went out to check. On the car, in black felt pen, was the ugliest racial slur and "KKK."

"I was in shock. The kids were saying, ‘call the police, call 911.’ My daughter called my boyfriend. I was shaking when I told him," Lehnerz recalls.

Lehnerz, who is white, had for a year been dating a black man. He lived in Seattle, but was a frequent visitor to her home.

Still stunned by the words on the car, Lehnerz was horrified to see the neighbor back in her yard with a gas can. "He was pouring it in my yard," she said. "I just screamed at him, get out of my yard."

Donald C. Richards was charged in Snohomish County Superior Court with one count of felony malicious harassment. He pleaded guilty, and under the plea agreement was sentenced in December 1998 to do 120 hours of community service.

In the face of hatred such as that endured by Lehnerz’s family, Snohomish County is marking Oct. 2-8 as Bias Crime Awareness Week. The nonprofit Human Rights Coalition for Snohomish County and the Snohomish County Diversity Council are co-sponsoring events aimed at shining light on the evil of hate and saying out loud, "Not here."

Hatred is here, though. It sometimes rises to the level of crime. It is far more often heard in a muttered comment about someone’s race, religion, ancestry or sexual orientation.

"People think they’re safe in an area like Silver Firs," Lehnerz said. "I thought it was a good neighborhood, but there’s no such thing as a good neighborhood. It’s people who hate, and they can be anywhere."

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that uses education and litigation to fight intolerance, each day in the United States eight black people, three whites, three gays, three Jews and one Hispanic are hate-crime victims.

"It’s really under-reported in this county," said Pam Wessel-Estes, of the Human Rights Coalition for Snohomish County. "It’s much like domestic violence was. The similarities are striking. People victimized in this way are so afraid and hesitant to report. They’re not even sure what happened to them is against the law."

The Human Rights Coalition produced an information card, "What to Do If You Are the Victim of a Bias Crime," and distributed it to law enforcement agencies.

It explains bias crime, differentiating criminal actions from thoughts or beliefs. The card provides steps victims should take, outlines legal options and lists community resources.

For Lehnerz, the criminal charge against her neighbor wasn’t the end of the story. Her nightmare became the heart of a civil action filed a year ago in U.S. District Court in Seattle. Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Studer handled the case in which defendant Richards was accused of committing unlawful discriminatory housing practices in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

It wasn’t about money, Lehnerz said, although this past April Donald Richards was ordered to pay $5,000 to be divided between her family and her former boyfriend.

Richards was also ordered to complete a Community Anti-Bias Reconciliation Program sponsored by the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity. The 40-hour program required him to read "Hate Crimes: The Rising Tide of Bigotry and Bloodshed," by Jack Levin and Jack McDevitt; see the movie "Rosewood," about a black community destroyed by hatred in the 1800s; and watch two documentaries, "Not in Our Town" and "Forgotten Fires." He also had to make three community presentations.

Is Donald Richards a changed man? I don’t know. I wasn’t able to reach him. Lehnerz doesn’t know. She hasn’t spoken to him.

She has only his brief words in a court-ordered apology.

"He’s done; he doesn’t have to live with it. We do," Lehnerz said. The incident, she said, has shaken the way her family sees the world.

"I’m not who I was. I’m afraid. I’m cautious," she said. "When I moved to Kent, I never introduced myself to the neighbors. I was afraid. My son was afraid to be at home. It changes your whole life.

"It happened. It hurts. It’s a scar," she said.

She wonders about Richards’ exposure to the literature and the movies.

"Now he’s got a little bit of a scar," she said.

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