published Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Bessie Smith Strut theft an inside job? Swastikas, KKK references thought to be subterfuge

Whoever strutted away from the Bessie Smith Cultural Center with tens of thousands of dollars in cash last week tried to make the theft look like a hate crime.

Or they maintained a peculiar level of respect while committing one.

The theft felt like a low blow in the community, coming just hours after one of its annual high points, the popular celebration known as the Bessie Smith Strut.

Chattanooga police are exploring leads that indicate the theft to be an inside job made to look like the work of racists, police sources with knowledge of the investigation confirmed.

Now in the second week of exploring the case, authorities continue to interview people of interest and are considering the use of polygraph tests on some, the sources said.

The Bessie Smith Cultural Center is a nonprofit organization located at 200 M.L. King Blvd. dedicated to promoting local African-American heritage and culture.

On June 10, the morning after the center hosted the Bessie Smith Strut along the street outside its doors, police found swastikas and Ku Klux Klan references spray-painted on walls inside the center and cash generated from the night before gone.

The spray-painters avoided items of value and caused no serious damage to property inside the center with their vandalism, a move that seemed strange to investigators for a crime supposedly committed by racially prejudiced outsiders.

Admission to the Bessie Smith Strut cost $10. In both 2012 and 2013 more than 5,000 people attended the event.

Rose Martin, director of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, declined to comment Wednesday on whether the center had insurance on Strut revenue.

But a review of the center's most recent 990 tax form showed that in the 2012-13 fiscal year it spent $17,031 on insurance.

Since the Bessie Smith Center took control of Strut in 2012, security at the event has increased with gated entrances and bag checks.

Police said on the morning after Strut that the theft occurred between midnight and 10 a.m., which would have been hours after police and citizen traffic cleared from the area.

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

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