A white couple who burned a cross in their yard facing Black neighbors’ home is investigated by FBI

Dec 20, 2023, 4:19 PM | Updated: 4:30 pm

The FBI is investigating a white South Carolina couple for racial discrimination after they set a cross on fire in their yard last month facing toward their Black neighbors’ home.

Federal civil rights investigators searched the white couple’s home in Conway on Wednesday, according to FBI spokesperson Kevin Wheeler. The retired Black couple also recorded video of the cross being burned on Thanksgiving weekend and described days of repeated threats from their neighbors. The next week, Worden Evander Butler, 28, and Alexis Paige Hartnett, 27, were arrested on state charges of harassment and later released on bond.

Cross burnings in the U.S. are “symbols of hate” that are “inextricably intertwined with the history of the Ku Klux Klan,” according to a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision written by the late Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The justices ruled that the First Amendment allows bans on cross burnings only when they are intended to intimidate because the action “is a particularly virulent form of intimidation.”

The cross wasn’t on fire by the time local police officers arrived, but was still “facing and in full view of the victims’ home,” according to a Horry County Police Department report. Shawn and Monica Williams, the Black neighbors, told WMBF-TV that the burning cross was about 8 feet (2.4 meters) from their fence. They said they’re reconsidering their decision to move to the neighborhood two years ago in light of this experience.

“So now, what are we to do? Still live next to a cross-burning racist who’s threatened to cause us bodily harm?” Monica Williams told the Myrtle Beach-area broadcaster.

The Associated Press did not immediately receive responses to messages seeking comment Wednesday from a publicly available email address for Butler and a Facebook account for Hartnett. AP also called several phone numbers listed for Butler and Hartnett and received no response.

One of the white defendants was heard on police body camera footage repeatedly using a racial slur toward the Black couple, according to the police report. Butler also shared the Black couple’s address on Facebook, and posted that he was “summoning the devil’s army” and “about to make them pay,” the report said. According to an arrest warrant, Hartnett also threatened to hurt the couple.

South Carolina is one of two states in the country that does not impose additional penalties for hate crimes committed because of a victim’s race or other aspects of their identity. Monica Williams told the AP on Wednesday she hopes the episode highlights the need for hate crimes laws. In the meantime, she and her husband will “patiently wait for justice to be served.”

“The laws are needed to protect everyone against any form of hate,” she said.

The Ku Klux Klan began using “cross-lightings” in the early 20th century as part of the hate group’s rituals and as an intimidating act of terror, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The image is so synonymous with racist ideologies that tattoos of burning crosses behind klansmen are found among European white supremacists, the ADL notes.


Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

National News

Associated Press

Southern New Mexico wildfire leads to evacuation of village of 7,000

RUIDOSO, N.M. (AP) — Residents of a village in southern New Mexico were ordered to flee their homes Monday without taking time to grab any belongings due to a fast-moving wildfire. “GO NOW: Do not attempt to gather belongings or protect your home. Evacuate immediately,” officials with Ruidoso, a village home to 7,000 people, said […]

5 hours ago

Associated Press

Convicted killer of California college student Kristin Smart ordered to pay $350k in restitution

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (AP) — A California judge ruled Monday that a man convicted of killing 19-year-old college student Kristin Smart in 1996 must pay just over $350,000 to her family for costs they incurred after her death. Monterey County Superior Court Judge Jennifer O’Keefe ordered Paul Flores to make the payments after a […]

9 hours ago

Associated Press

Central African Republic faces increased rebel activity and spillover from Sudan war, UN experts say

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Activities of armed groups in the volatile Central African Republic have increased, complicating a security landscape that has seen a spillover of the conflict in neighboring Sudan, U.N. experts warn in a new report. The panel of experts cite confirmed reports of air raids by the Sudanese military around border areas […]

9 hours ago

Associated Press

A judge temporarily blocks Iowa law that allows authorities to charge people facing deportation

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked an Iowa law that allowed law enforcement in the state to file criminal charges against people with outstanding deportation orders or who previously had been denied entry to the U.S. U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Locher issued a preliminary injunction because he said […]

11 hours ago

Image: This photo provided by the Washington Department of Ecology shows a derailed BNSF train on t...

Associated Press

Judge orders BNSF to pay Washington tribe nearly $400M for trespassing with oil trains

BNSF Railway must pay the sum to a Native American tribe in Washington after it ran 100-car trains with crude oil on the tribe's reservation.

12 hours ago

Associated Press

Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear a challenge to governor’s 400-year school funding veto

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear a challenge to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ partial veto that locked in a school funding increase for the next 400 years, the justices announced Monday. The Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce Litigation Center filed a lawsuit in April arguing the governor exceeded his authority. The group […]

12 hours ago

A white couple who burned a cross in their yard facing Black neighbors’ home is investigated by FBI