Hate-crime 'victim' pleads guilty Tenant painted slurs in her townhouse

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sonia James admitted in Howard Circuit Court yesterday that she slashed her furniture, spray-painted her North Laurel home with racial slurs and called 911 to report what police first believed was the worst hate-bias crime in the county's recent history.

Responding to Judge Dennis M. Sweeney's questions in a soft voice, the 29-year-old woman, who is black, admitted to ransacking her townhouse in the Seasons apartment complex on April 23 of last year -- using a knife from the kitchen to carve racial epithets in the furniture -- so that she could collect an insurance settlement.

According to a statement of facts read by Assistant State's Attorney Sang Oh, the incident was the latest in a string of unrelated fraudulent claims and statements made by James that were discovered by police during the course of the investigation. None of the other questionable claims has resulted in prosecution.

In a plea bargain struck with prosecutors, James pleaded guilty to one count of felony theft and one count of insurance fraud. She collected $38,000 from two insurance policies taken out just before the incident and received about $5,000 and clothing donations from community members.

Prosecutors are asking that James receive a two-year prison sentence and be ordered to make full restitution to the insurance companies and perhaps pay money to the neighbors who came to her aid. Oh said that it may be impossible to determine the exact amount James owes donors because not all of their donations were in cash.

She is to be sentenced Feb. 28. The prosecution request is well above the state sentencing guidelines, which call for penalties ranging from probation to six months incarceration, Oh said.

James told police she had spent about $10,000 of the insurance money on clothes, bills, household items and car repairs. A bank account holding $14,000 from one of the insurance companies was frozen by authorities in July. There was no mention of the rest of the money.

After the April incident, donors sent or offered everything from children's toys, detergent and furniture to clothes and law school study notes to help James and her then-2 1/2 -year-old son and her mother, both of whom lived in her apartment. The statement said that police later found many of the donated goods in a trash bin outside the townhouse complex.

At the time, the incident was widely condemned as a hate-bias crime by county officials, local civil rights leaders and others throughout the county. The July revelation that James had faked the incident stunned many and left police and neighbors feeling betrayed.

But yesterday, James' attorney, Joann Woodson Branche, downplayed allegations that James exploited racial tensions when she faked the attack.

"This is not the first time race has been disguised as a motive," Branche said. "This is being blown out of proportion. This is a case of insurance fraud, nothing more."

Branche said James did not write the racist flier she distributed ,, outside the complex two weeks before the staged incident in order to set it up.

She said James found the flier -- which was allegedly written by a hate group -- at The Mall in Columbia. James told police she just added more racial slurs to the flier, according to the statement of facts.

Sgt. Steven Keller, spokesman for the Howard County police, said investigators found no evidence that the anti-black group cited in the pamphlet exists.

Keller said that the incident will not change the way hate-bias crimes are investigated by Howard police, but speculated that it might cause others to react differently.

"Now, people are less likely to be as caring" and supportive if an incident is reported, he said.

But Jenkins Odoms Jr., president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said this incident will not undermine the credibility of others who report hate-bias incidents. Racism is ever present in this county, said.

"One fake does not out do 300 cases that are true," Odoms said.

One of James' former neighbors in the Seasons complex in north Laurel, Argena Legemah, added yesterday: "She shouldn't have done what she did. Everybody was so upset."

Police began to suspect James when they found inconsistencies in her story, the statement of facts says. The hole cut into her screen door was too small for a person to climb through and there were no other signs of forced entry into the house, the statement says.

And police discovered that James had lied about her education, her job status and her position as a law student at the University of Maryland.

James also falsified college documents to show that she received a scholarship so she could qualify for a better rental rate at the complex and faked court records from New York so that Seasons complex managers would believe that she received $850 a month in child support, according to the statement of facts.

She told police she did not have insurance to cover the damage from the incident, but police saw her talking to insurance adjusters.

Then police discovered that spray paint on the walls matched paint deposits on James' boots, the statement of facts says. Footprints in black spray paint on the rug underneath the overturned furniture also matched James' boots, the document says.

Confronted with the evidence in July, James confessed to police that she staged the incident.

At the time, James owed more than $8,000 to creditors and $19,251 to New York state higher education administrators, according to the statement. James attended, but was asked to withdraw from, Syracuse University in upstate New York, the statement of facts says.

James yesterday was allowed by the judge to return to her home in Atlanta pending sentencing.

Pub Date: 1/16/97

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