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Disputes led up to alleged assault in Cape neighborhood
Neighbors of Jeana Terry and Lisa Lange described life at home for the Cape Girardeau couple as a "peaceful existence" until the past several months.
Mima B. Poole has lived a few houses away from Lange for nine years.
"Now I am afraid to come down here and visit," Poole said Friday as she sat in the couple's living room.
What she said she saw when she looked out her front door last Tuesday evening is why.
"They were kicking, stomping and beating the hell out of her," Poole said of the alleged attack on Terry, 41, by three siblings who live in a house across the street. Two girls, ages 16 and 13, and their 11-year-old brother are still in custody in the Mississippi County Regional Juvenile Detention Center, authorities say, charged with assault and burglary.
Terry and Lange are gay, and believe what they experienced -- they say the oldest girl rounded up her siblings and some friends and came onto their front porch with the intention of an attack -- is a hate crime, though the juvenile's mother tells a different version of events.
Terry, who works nights at a Cape Girardeau residential facility that treats children and adolescents with severe emotional disturbances, said she was resting in her living room Tuesday evening with Lange when the incident began.
"Lisa looked out the window because she heard someone talking, and it was Michelle on her phone," Terry said. (Michelle's name has been changed to protect the identity of the juvenile.)
The couple say the teen began shouting slurs at them, as had happened on several other occasions, and they responded by telling her to get off their property. There have been other times in the past several months, the couple said, that they have told the children's parents that they were concerned with anti-gay slurs coming from the children. But no physical threats had happened until now.
The couple say the 16-year-old girl brought her younger brother onto the couple's porch and pulled Terry outside when she opened the door, then began hitting her. The fight was then joined, Terry said, by the 13-year-old sister and two friends, who neighbors say were summoned by the oldest girl by phone just before the commotion began. Neighbors said the two friends were able to get away before police arrived. They are not in custody.
Terry showed bruises on her arms from where she said the 16-year-old "grabbed me and swung me around," resulting in Terry falling to the ground.
"Once I was down, it was pure chaos," Terry said, as she described how she felt as she said she was repeatedly hit and kicked.
Lange, in the meantime, called 911 and asked for police to respond before she said she ran out the door to help pull off Terry's attackers. The couple say the children scattered quickly when the police showed up at the scene.
Cape Girardeau police spokesman Darin Hickey wouldn't comment on the specific location where police made contact with the children in response to the call, but did say "they made contact with three juveniles in the area."
The children's mother, Nancy Harris, tells a conflicting account of the incident, and of the relationship between her family and the neighbors.
"My oldest daughter was outside on her phone with a friend, and they heard her say something about 'gay,'" Harris said, "then they started yelling at her."
Harris said her daughter then went to her aunt's house where she told her younger brother about the incident. The aunt, Harris said, is also gay. The two siblings returned together to the street in front of the house, according to Harris. She said the couple then came outside and began arguing with the children.
"Even before this happened they would nitpick at the kids," Harris said. "Before this there was some arguments and the neighbors would try to provoke them to hit them."
An ambulance was called to the scene to transport Terry to the hospital, where she was treated for what police described July 25 as "minor injuries." Terry said she has since seen a doctor several times for the possibility she may need eye surgery and is suffering from unexplained nausea and dizziness as a result of the incident. Days later, her face and body remained badly swollen and bruised. The officer at the scene noted in the report she was bleeding from her face, Hickey said.
Harris said her two younger children pleaded guilty to lesser charges of trespassing and second-degree assault during a hearing held this week and will soon be released from custody. Her oldest daughter, however, goes back to court this month, where Harris said she may face assault and burglary charges as well as hate crime-related charges.
One element of assault incidents authorities will take into account when assessing whether to file for more extensive charges for juveniles are the extent of a victim's injuries, said Randy Rhodes, chief juvenile officer of Missouri's 32nd Judicial Circuit Court.
Hickey declined to release the Cape Girardeau Police Department's report from the incident, citing the reason as an ongoing investigation. Both Rhodes and Hickey said they could not take a position on whether the incident should be charged or regarded as a hate crime. Hickey did, however, reiterate several times last week during an interview with the Southeast Missourian that the motive for the assault was "not about age."
"We deal with the facts only," Hickey said. "And when an officer is taking a report, if that is how [Terry] feels, that has to be accounted for."
Rhodes said Monday that the juvenile office's attorney was still gathering information on the incident for an upcoming hearing that will determine whether more charges are warranted for the juveniles, and may consult with Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle about the possibility of charging one or more of them as adults.
"That happens in quite a few of our more serious cases," Rhodes said.
Swingle did not respond to messages left Tuesday requesting comments on the case or how his office determines charges related to possible hate crimes.
Missouri statutes define a hate crime as "a criminal offense committed against persons, property or society which is motivated, in whole or in part, by offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation or ethnicity/national origin." Some misdemeanor offenses, assault included, can be can be raised to a felony under the state statutes. Additionally, the federal government amended the Hate Crime Statistics Act in 2009 to mandate that any crimes that are committed by or against juveniles based on a bias motivation must also be reported as a hate crime. The couple admits that on the day of the incident that they did respond verbally to the oldest girl's alleged slurs related to their sexual orientation, and said now they wish they'd ignored her comments, as they have done on other occasions.
"Before now we'd always just bite our tongue, but you can't just brush it off forever. You can only take it for so long," Terry said.
Lange said she is worried someone will attempt to make the issue about race -- she and Terry are white, the children are black -- but she and her partner's desire to see justice served is not about that, she said.
"It's about the fact that we are two women who live together and happen to love each other," she said. "That's it."
Harris said her children do not have discriminatory attitudes.
The family's landlord, Elena Perryman, said she was aware that problems between neighbors and the family were taking place just before the incident last week and has made several attempts during the past few months to serve Harris with an eviction notice. Perryman said she received calls from the couple before the incident about run-ins with the children, and received a call from Lange on July 25.
"I really hope something can be done," she said.
Harris said she intends to move soon because nothing like last week's incident has ever happened to the family before and she doesn't want her children to live there anymore.
The couple, concerned about retaliation over the incident, say they were granted a protection order that applies to the family by a judge last week.
Andrew Shaughnessy, a spokesman for the Missouri-based lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization PROMO, said as more people throughout the state are coming out and becoming comfortable with who they are, there is a growing need for education about what it means to be LGBT. The Cape Girardeau incident -- if it is determined a hate crime -- is a "breakdown in understanding," Shaughnessy said.
"I think one thing to be said is that LGBT are everywhere," he said. "They are our neighbors, our friends, our family, and we need to have a greater focus on what that means and how we can all live together."
Park Street, Cape Girardeau, MO