Crime Warp: Fake Hate Crimes Lose More Than Money

September 14, 2009

Richard Wu’s apparent kidnapping was a near-death experience laced with racial hate. Four men grabbed him and a friend, took them to the New Star Asian Cuisine in Columbus, Ohio, set the place on fire with them inside, and spray-painted an anti-Chinese slur on a wall.

Or so Wu said. But Wu actually was an employee of the restaurant. The owner hired him to burn down the eatery for insurance money. Investigators found backpacks full of scorched clothes smelling of gasoline near the owner’s restaurant home. Wu ended up in the hospital with burns, and faces up to 20 years in federal prison when sentenced.

He’s among an extreme breed of insurance arsonists who disguise their fires as hate crimes. As the arsonists often see it, fraud investigators will be fooled by an act so extreme, and distracted by public sympathy that frequently arises for the supposed victim. No reliable data document whether fake-hate insurance crimes are rising, but they’re common enough that fraud investigators are hardly shocked when they uncover a scam.

Pamela Morrow Graf’s home in Forsyth County, Ga., went up in flames. She and her boyfriend allegedly spray painted “your black boy will die” on a fence along her property. Racists had punished Graf for actively supporting Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, she told investigators. But it was an insurance con. Investigators say Graf stored many of the personal possessions she claimed were lost in the fire.

Mizra Akram burned down his store, Continental Spices — a Pakistani and Middle East Grocery in Everett, Wash. The store was in financial trouble and Akram wanted out. So he hired a crony to help him burn down the place. They spray-painted anti-Muslim graffiti around the store and doused the place with gasoline. Akram received three years in federal prison.

Christopher Michael Robertson said he and his partner Paul Day returned from shopping to find their mobile home in Lakeland, Fla., a charred ruin. Someone had spray painted “Die Fag” on the front steps — the act of a cowardly bigot, many people assumed. Outraged supporters offered the couple money, furniture and even free legal assistance. But neighbors said they never saw anyone start the fire. Nor did they see anyone suspicious prowling around the home.

Robertson finally admitted he’d torched their home for insurance cash and to convince the unknowing Day they had to move to another locale. Robertson received 18 months in state prison.

Samuel White’s Houston home burned down, and investigators found racial slurs spray-painted on 14 walls of the African-American man’s home. But investigators quickly closed in. White was behind on his home mortgage, insurance and taxes. He was just days from foreclosure when his home was torched. The slurs also were misspelled and the swastikas were painted backward, investigators allege.

Neighbors also allegedly saw White removing possessions from his house less than a day before the fire broke out. There were no furniture or blinds inside the burned-out home, investigators allege. White even had stashed his refrigerator at a girlfriend’s home, officials charge. His trial is pending.

Facing foreclosure, Christina Snyder allegedly wanted to burn up her rural Russellville, Ind., home for an insurance payout. But she disguised the arson as an attempted rape, prosecutors charge. Snyder offered a neighbor $5,000 to tie her up with duct tape, slap her around, write whore on her shirt and set her house on fire, prosecutors allege. The neighbor then would “rescue” Snyder, and she’d tell police a masked man had invaded her home. But the neighbor told police about the suspected plot.

Fake hate cons are more than money grabs. They risk eroding our sense of social justice. People can become skeptical when hate crimes are reported. Was a vulnerable minority viciously abused or woman really raped, or is this another insurance con? Should we rush to support the seeming victim and voice our outrage? Or sit back and see if the racism is real?

If we become unsure that hate graffiti reflects real hate — and if skepticism dulls justified outrage — then cheaters risk looting our national values. Perhaps even more than insurance fraud, that’s the real crime.

Quiggle is director of communications for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. Quiggle’s Crime Warp column is featured exclusively on Web site:

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