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White man pleads guilty to hate crime for threatening Black neighbor with burning cross

A White Indiana man pleaded guilty Friday to federal hate crime charges for threatening his Black neighbor by displaying a burning cross, a sign with racial slurs and playing the song "Dixie," according to federal prosecutors. 51-year-old Shepherd Hoehn of Indianapolis pleaded guilty to threatening the neighbor because of the neighbor's race while the victim was exercising his right to fair housing, prosecutors say.

Hoehn also pleaded guilty to unlawfully possessing firearms, according to the U.S. District Attorney's office for the Southern District of Indiana. 

"It's unimaginable that harassment and intimidation such as this based on race, sexual identity or religious beliefs still exists in this day and age. Such incidents are intended to create fear and will not be tolerated by the FBI," Paul Keenan, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Indianapolis division, said in a statement.

On June 18, 2020, according to a criminal complaint, Hoehn became angry when a construction crew arrived to remove a tree on the victim's neighboring property. Hoehn created a swastika out of a reflective duct tape and placed it on the outside of his own fence, the complaint said, and placed and burned a cross above his fence line in full view of the victim and the construction workers. He also displayed a machete and a large sign next to the swastika with a series of anti-Black slurs, according to the complaint; loudly played the song "Dixie" on repeat and threw eggs at the victim's house.

During interviews with federal investigators, according to the complaint, Hoehn claimed he wasn't a racist, that his actions were protected by the First Amendment and that he didn't intend to threaten anyone. But investigators wrote that Hoehn admitted "he was aware of the specific racial connotations of his actions, that he knew his actions would be disturbing to [the victim] because [the victim] was Black, and that he took such actions with the intention of evoking an emotional response in [the victim.]"

In one interview, according to the complaint, Hoehn said: "I wanted to make him angry and upset, and psychotically [sic,] just, I just wanted to make him miserable."

Hoehn told investigators he was angry that the victim was removing the tree on the victim's own property, according to the complaint, but acknowledged the victim had the right to do so. In a second FBI interview, he allegedly admitted to throwing the eggs and writing the racial slurs on the sign, saying: "He's a Black man. Perfect opportunity, all right. So yes, I wrote a bunch of racial slurs on a piece of board and put them out there."

Hoehn told investigators his actions were also motivated by a desire to express opposition to Black Lives Matter protests and removal of statues around the country. He also allegedly admitted burning the cross and displaying the machete, which he called "a subtle threat." At one point, he admitted, "I realize that what I was doing was disturbing."

Hoehn faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 on each count. A sentencing date has not yet been set.

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