Flames of suspicion: after being burned out of their Montana home in an apparent hate crime, a lesbian couple say they’re being victimized again—this time by police who they say suspect them in the arson – Crime

Lisa Neff

When Carla Grayson and Adrianne Neff filed a lawsuit last winter demanding that the Montana University System provide them domestic-partner benefits, the women hoped to improve their lives–and that of their 2-year-old son. But only a week later it seemed that life as they knew it was all but ruined.

Shortly after 3 A.M. on February 8, fire swept through the family’s ranch-style home in Missoula, Mont. The trio escaped through a bedroom window with only a few bruises, scrapes, and sprains. The home, however, was completely lost to what police quickly determined was a case of arson. “Inside it was a nightmare,” says Neff, who suspects the fire is linked to the lawsuit.

As Neff and Grayson started sifting through their charred and soot-stained possessions, Missoula investigators started sifting through evidence, speculation, and suspicion. Was the arson a hate crime, they asked, an attempted triple homicide, or a hoax committed by Neff and Grayson?

“The period where we thought we were being treated like the victims was very short,” says Neff, who has temporarily relocated with Grayson and their son to Ann Arbor, Mich., where they lived prior to moving to Missoula and where Grayson is working on research with the University of Michigan. “It became clear that [the police] suspected us,” Neff continues. “We were horrified and scared and angry all at once.” Grayson adds, “It feels like a witch trial.”

Authorities won’t discuss the investigation–the Missoula police refer inquiries about the case to Missoula County prosecutor Fred Van Valkenburg, who says succinctly that he can’t discuss suspects in the case because the county attorney’s office “isn’t involved in naming suspects–that’s the police.”

But a 17-page application for a warrant to search Grayson and Neff’s home safe, executed August 8 and made public by the Missoulian newspaper, makes police suspicions clear. The application states that arson investigators are skeptical about the couple’s account of the fire, since it allegedly involved the time-consuming process of stringing gasoline-soaked ropes, draped with gasoline-soaked rags and socks, through the house and pouring gasoline taken from the couple’s garage down a stairwell and over living room furniture.

“An outsider,” the application states, “would have been unfamiliar with the residence, would not have known where the items used would have been stored, and would have had to have laid down all the gasoline-soaked trailers in the dark without disturbing the residents who were in the home.”

The application also contains comments Neff and Grayson allegedly made at the police station the day after the fire. “We’re at the police station being grilled for hours,” Neff said during a telephone call, according to the application. “Neither of us broke though.” Grayson is quoted as telling Neff, “You need to be careful about sounding too congenial in here.”

Soon after the American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit against the university system and Grayson, a 34-year-old psychology professor at the University of Montana, and Neff, a 37-year-old social worker, became public figures, the couple received an envelope in the mail containing a white powder and a letter with three words printed in block letters–ANTHRAX and DIE DYKES.

Then, immediately after the fire, Missoula residents as well as state and national gay rights groups rallied behind the couple. Supporters raised money and held a vigil. They cooked casseroles and scoured soot from pots and pans. They shouted for hate-crimes reform and prayed for tolerance.

In fact, the response from the public was so immediate that police have even suggested that gay activists may have known about the arson before it occurred, according to Karl Olson, executive director of Pride, a Montana gay political group. Olson says he learned on August 22 that he too is a “person of interest” in the investigation.

He adds that Missoula detectives have asked him for an alibi for February 8 and also have asked if he would be surprised to hear that they had information suggesting he “probably” or “may be” involved in the arson. Olson said yes, he would be surprised.

“The implication in all this is, there was a conspiracy to create the arson in order to bring attention to our issues,” he says. “It’s bizarre. It’s surreal.”

There is, in police and prosecutor files around the country, documentation of faked hate crimes. Two weeks after the murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, for example, a lesbian student at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota slashed her face and then claimed two men, shouting antigay slurs, had attacked her. In a similar incident at Eastern New Mexico University, a lesbian student claimed she was attacked after her name appeared on an antigay “hit list,” but a surveillance camera showed her posting the list.

But civil rights advocates stress that there is also a history of law enforcement officials falsely suspecting people of perpetrating hoaxes for financial gain or political purpose.

“Obviously that happens; there’s a history of that,” says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. “J. Edgar Hoover tried to blame the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the murder of those four little girls [in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963], on black Communists trying to win sympathy.”

Potok also points to the FBI’s pursuit of Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney, two Earth First! environmental activists injured in Oakland, Calif., in May 1990 when a pipe bomb exploded in Bari’s Subaru station wagon. Hours after the blast, Cherney, who was slightly wounded, and Bari, who was hospitalized with a crushed pelvis, were arrested by authorities who said the activists accidentally bombed themselves. Six weeks later the charges were dropped. Earlier this year a federal jury ordered FBI agents and Oakland police to pay $4.4 million in damages to Cherney and the estate of Bari, who died of cancer in 1997.

“Yes, I can think of a few hoaxes,” says Cathy Renna, a spokeswoman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in New York. In recent years Renna has been dispatched to various cities and towns following reports of hate crimes, including the Shepard murder and the 2001 murder of a transgendered teenager in Colorado. “But what is much, much more common,” she says, “is that the police and other law enforcement officials do not really understand how to handle hate crimes. They many times are not sensitive. And they place blame on the victim.”

Such blame, says Sean Kosofsky, who works with hate-crime victims at Triangle Foundation in Michigan, constitutes “secondary victimization.”

“I’ve handled thousands of hate-crime cases,” Kosofsky says. “And frequently there is a high level of victimization by law enforcement–aggravating the situation by provoking the offender, blaming the victim, accusing the victim of lying. It is not uncommon.”

The suspicions, Kosofsky says, compound the victim’s fear. “Intense trauma and shock are symptomatic of someone who survived a hate crime,” he says. “But with arson, arson is especially terrifying. Imagine a Molotov cocktail flying through a window and everything you have is destroyed. There are few things people can do to stop a premeditated arson or homicide.”

Neff says her son doesn’t recall the fire–he was bundled up as she passed him to Grayson through the window that night–but she thinks he still senses their anguish and recognizes that his life has been turned upside down.

“There were, in the first weeks, times when he’d say `I want to go home’ or ask for a favorite toy that we didn’t have anymore,” she says. “We used to have good lives, but I don’t like our lives anymore.”

Still, Neff and Grayson remain committed to the pending lawsuit, which the university system has asked a state court to dismiss. “Hate crimes are supposed to keep us silent,” Neff says. “And if we are silent, as a result, then they win.”

And though the couple say they’ve lost hope that police will arrest the arsonist, they plan to return to Missoula next year. “I miss Montana,” Grayson says. “I miss my friends, my students, the mountains.”

Find The Advocate’s previous coverage of the Montana arson case and updates at www.advocate.com

Neff is managing editor of the Chicago Free Press.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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