published Monday, December 9th, 2013

Alabama man pleads guilty in cross burning

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A Dothan man has pleaded guilty to burning a cross at the entrance of an African-American neighborhood in Ozark, federal prosecutors said Monday.

Thomas Windell Smith, 24, pleaded guilty to a count of conspiring to violate housing rights late last week in a Montgomery federal court.

Smith and his alleged co-conspirator, Steven Joshua Dinkle, 28, were trying to intimidate the neighborhood's African-American residents when they burned the cross on May 8, 2009, officials have said.

Dinkle was indicted in late November, and is a former Ku Klux Klan leader, prosecutors have said. The man's mother has also been charged with perjury for denying being involved in the Klan or knowing that her son was involved with the group.

The wooden cross was approximately 6 feet tall and investigators have said the men draped it with a cloth and doused it with fuel before it was lit on fire. The men loaded the cross into Smith's truck and Dinkle gave him directions to the town of about 15,000 about 85 miles south of Montgomery, prosecutors have said.

"This defendant not only committed a federal crime, but committed a contemptible action of hate," U.S. Attorney George L. Beck said in a statement.

"We'd like to think these offenses are a thing of the past, but the reality is that they happen here in the 21st century," said Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Jocelyn Samuels.

Smith faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. His sentencing date hasn't been set.

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