- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

Prince George’s County police and fire investigators say a cross burning early yesterday morning at an Islamic school in College Park was a hate crime.

Investigators said a 31/2-foot-tall wooden cross was sprayed or dipped into flammable fluid, then set ablaze at about 1:30 a.m. near the front gate of the Al-Huda School on Edgewood Road.

The incident was recorded by a building security camera.

“At the moment, the evidence indicates … it was a hate crime,” said Prince George’s County Police Chief Melvin C. High. “Certainly I think there’s enough evidence to give us some good leads and indications, but I wouldn’t say that an arrest is imminent.”

One witness, who was in a car waiting to pick up a school employee, told authorities he saw two or three young white males light the cross, then leave in a car.

Ronald Blackwell, the county’s fire and emergency medical services chief, said he could not determine the suspects’ race based upon the surveillance videotape and that the black-and-white tape may have to be enhanced because of poor lighting conditions.

Jose Acevedo, Al-Huda vice principal, said the school has received threatening e-mails and that buses and signs have been hit with minor vandalism, but he thinks the relationship with the community is good. Mr. Acevedo also said there was no indication the school would be the target of a hate crime.

“This terrible crime that was committed is not a reflection of our College Park community,” he said.

About 300 students, from prekindergarten to eighth grade, are enrolled in the school. Students are on summer recess, but roughly 70 youngsters are attending summer camps there. The camps were closed yesterday.

Nihad Awad, national director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said to his knowledge this is the first cross burning in a Muslim community since the September 11 attacks.

“It’s a cowardly act, and our community will not be intimidated,” he said. The council is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case.

Under a 1979 county law banning cross burning, whoever set yesterday’s fire could face up to a year in jail.

Chief Blackwell said other charges could involve violations against open burning.

Prince George’s County police and the FBI are working on the case, but the county fire department is the lead investigative agency because the case involves arson.

Fire investigators also are investigating a series of arsons in Prince George’s County and the District.

Chief Blackwell said yesterday that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has completed geographic and behavioral profiles of an arsonist who has set at least six fires and could be connected to at least 18 more fires since March.

“We don’t have a suspect but we do have some very, very good, and I believe significant, leads that will eventually help us get these crimes solved,” Chief Blackwell said.

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