Tangela Mahone is a tall, confident woman. But when she unzips a small black pouch and slides the contents onto the table, she seems to shrink into herself a little, humiliation and fear resurfacing with each artifact.
Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with her adult daughter at the downtown branch of the Cincinnati Library, Mahone sifts through photos of the Boone County split-level house she so loved; the magnificent tree that initially attracted her to the property; the car her husband took to work every day.
But in the foreground of the photos are more painful memories: a crudely constructed cross, wrapped in fabric, and burned, lying askew on the ground. The police in her front yard, interviewing her husband. The car windows shattered by bricks.
Mahone slept through the night on July 2, 2004. She didn’t see the white t-shirts pulled into makeshift hoods. She didn’t hear the racial epithets shouted at her quiet house. But thanks to court cases and news coverage, she knows exactly what happened.
“This is what I remember, every Fourth of July,” she said. “This haunts me. I try to get past it, to move on. But here we are, and it still bothers me.”
Mahone’s life hasn’t been defined by that night, but the memories are never truly gone. Particularly when she hears about similar events across the country, which are happening more and more these days.
Nationally, the number of hate crime incidents reported to the FBI is at a five-year high. In Kentucky, the number of reported hate crimes increased from 155 to 206 between 2011 and 2016.
And then, last summer, a 20-year-old rallying with white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, allegedly drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and wounding at least 19. James Alex Fields was born and raised in northern Kentucky, just a few miles from the street the Mahones once called home.
July 2, 2004, was not the last time a hateful act was committed in Kentucky. It wasn’t even the last cross burning. But it remains the last time anyone went to federal prison for a racially-motivated hate crime in Kentucky.
More than 13 years later, the repercussions of that one night continue to reverberate in the lives of everyone involved.
Northern Kentucky in the summer of 2004 was unusually cool and rainy, which matched Matthew Scudder’s dreary mood well. He was 18, a high school dropout in between fast-food jobs. He lived with his mom. He’d recently lost his Social Security disability benefits because he stopped taking the Lithium and Ritalin he’d been prescribed for ADHD.
Scudder, with his baggy clothes, slight frame and stooped shoulders spent most of the summer hanging around the mall, in the shadow of a cheery, candy-striped water tower that proudly declared “Florence, Y’all.”
That’s where he connected with a group of other misfits and dropouts, led by 17-year-old David Corriveau.
Court documents demonstrate how Corriveau and Scudder ended up committing a hate crime.
Corriveau lived on Rosetta Drive in Burlington with his mother, though, Scudder said she usually stayed with her boyfriend in the apartment upstairs. The group gravitated toward the house with the least adult supervision.
There was a dark bent to the group’s interests. They watched American History X and The Believer, movies about neo-Nazis and skinheads, on repeat. Corriveau shaved his and Scudder’s heads in that style.
Then, in late June, Corriveau started talking about the black family that had moved in down the street.
In a September interview with KyCIR at the house where he was living in Hebron, Scudder reflected back on that time in his life. He mostly remembers feeling lost and alone.
“I was a young, dumb kid,” he said. “It was like a prank. We wanted to laugh at others’ misfortune.”
Scudder’s parents divorced when he was two. His mother, who was disabled, moved him around a lot, “running from her problems,” he said. He attended six different schools in two different states. He repeated ninth grade. Then, he dropped out.
As a child, he was diagnosed with ADHD and what he calls “high impulses.” In a 2005 deposition, he said, “I myself really don’t know what it means. Just that I do things without thinking.”
Even years later, he still described himself as the kind of person who would do anything for his friends.
“I’ll tell you you’re wrong while you’re doing it, but I won’t let you go alone. Because I know what it’s like to be alone,” he said.
Which is the closest thing to a reason Scudder has for why, on the night of July 2, 2004, days before the neighborhood would come alive with barbecues and fireworks celebrating freedom and liberty, he helped build a cross. It was about three feet tall, made from scrap wood and wrapped in white fabric.
In the middle of the night, the two young men walked down the block and hammered the wood into the ground.
They lit the cross on fire and watched it burn on the lawn of one of the few black families in town.
A burning cross is not a simple act of vandalism. It’s considered one of “the most potent hate symbols in the United States,” according to the Anti-Defamation League. What began as a Ku Klux Klan calling card in the early 1900s has morphed into a near-universal sign of intimidation, hate and the threat of impending violence in this country.
All of which Tangela Mahone felt acutely when she went out to walk her dog on the morning of July 3, 2004.
Inside, Tangela’s husband, Frederick, and her two high-school-aged children, DeAngela and Aaron Mann, slept. They’d only moved into the neighborhood about six months before, but it already felt like home. Tangela remembered standing in the driveway with a friend, praying, before deciding on the house. It was the American dream that Frederick, a factory worker, and Tangela, a phlebotomist, had been working towards for years.
Despite sitting on Cincinnati’s periphery, Boone County was less than three percent black when the Mahones moved in. The kids were very aware of their “otherness” in a predominately white high school. One day, DeAngela remembers, a group of students shouted a racial slur at her brother in the hallway.
Their mother encouraged them to focus on what really mattered and brush the rest of it aside, as she did.
“I was there to work. I went to church and I went home,” said Tangela. “I don’t care about you not welcoming me, because I don’t live for you.”
Her steely outlook was shattered, though, by what she saw in the yard that morning.
“I felt terrible inside that somebody would do that to me,” she said. “You don’t know my family, you don’t know nothing about us and you’d target us, because we were the only black family on the street.”
The family’s humiliation grew as the police got involved, drawing attention from the whole neighborhood.
And the terror grew, too. In an apparent act of retaliation for calling the police, Scudder and Corriveau, along with 19-year-old James Foster, returned the next night to throw rocks through the windows of the Mahones’ car.
The kids took to staying up all night watching over the house. Frederick had nightmares where he dreamed there was someone staring through the bedroom window. At work, Tangela saw her family’s pain recycled over and over again on the news.
They couldn’t take it anymore. Six months after the Mahones poured their savings into the house on Rosetta Drive, they scraped together the money to move a few towns over to Erlanger, Kentucky.
For Tangela, it was self-preservation — getting out before something worse happened.
For Frederick, it felt like giving in to the criminals who haunted his family.
For DeAngela, though, it was the only thing that could make the summer before 12th grade worse. She convinced her mom to drive her back to Conner High School every day of senior year so she wouldn’t have to start over somewhere new. She’d worked too hard to backtrack now.
She graduated that spring, the only black woman in her class.
Hate Crime Conviction Rare
While DeAngela enrolled at Cincinnati State — she’d eventually graduate from Northern Kentucky University — Scudder was sitting in prison, or what he called his “criminal college.”
At first, it seemed the young men might get away with the cross burning and rock throwing. Despite the media coverage and FBI involvement, neither Scudder nor Corriveau heard from anyone for weeks. But then, one or both of them started to talk around town about what happened that night on Rosetta Drive. It didn’t take long from there.
They were charged with conspiring to take away the Mahones’ civil rights, or what is more commonly known as a “hate crime.”
Hate crimes are different from other types of crime, because the impact is much larger than the action itself, according to Jack Levin, co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University.
Swastikas spray-painted on a Jewish synagogue are not merely evidence of a property crime. Ripping off a Muslim woman’s hijab is not just a simple assault.
Levin says that hate crimes can sow fear across an entire group or community. But it’s rare that someone goes to prison for one.
Levin says hate-crime prosecutions — like hate crimes themselves — are symbolic in nature.
“The perpetrator wants to send a message that he’s cleaning the streets of filth,” said Levin. “So we have to send a message back: we won’t tolerate intolerance, and to the victim, you’re welcome in our community.”
There’s been one other federal hate crime conviction in Kentucky since Scudder’s: a case of sexual orientation bias. Two women pleaded guilty to assisting in the 2011 kidnapping of a gay Harlan County man based on his sexual orientation and were sentenced to eight years in prison each. The two men who led the attack were convicted of kidnapping, but acquitted of the hate crime charges.
Hate crimes require prosecutors to get inside a perpetrator’s head and prove that bias motivated the crime, according to Levin. He says if a prosecutor can get a stiff sentence without wading into the mushier legal territory of determining motive, they often will.
But court documents show how Scudder and Corriveau offered up the motive prosecutors needed for the hate crime charges. They shouted racial slurs. They returned to the scene of the crime the next night to harass the Mahones further. Throughout the trial, and even once he was in prison, Corriveau sent letters to the family and their lawyer that expressed exactly what motivated his actions — hatred towards black people.
Corriveau was sentenced to 21 months in a juvenile facility. The charge has been wiped from his record. Through his mother, he declined to speak with KyCIR.
Scudder and Foster, the young man who helped throw bricks the next night, were adults, and tried as such. Foster was sentenced to three months in federal prison and three months of house arrest. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
Scudder pleaded guilty to civil rights charges and was sentenced to 21 months at the federal prison in Manchester, Kentucky, followed by two years of supervised release. At his plea hearing, he addressed the court.
“The damage I have caused is irreversible, though I wish I could take it all back … I destroyed what lives the Mahone family could have had. I am sorry … I deserve and accept the judgment of the court.”
Tangela Mahone and DeAngela Mann agree that their lives were forever changed by what Scudder and Corriveau did.
Some of the changes were tangible. Their lives were thrown into turmoil when they had to quickly move. They saw their personal trauma dissected and discussed in news coverage and by the local gossip mill. They lived through a criminal trial and then a civil trial, where they were awarded $610,000. Scudder and Corriveau never paid it.
Before that night, Mahone thought of herself as a people person. She thought overt racism was a thing of the past, a relic of her parents’ generation.
That unfettered optimism is something else she lost that night.
“It’s hard not to look at people sideways and wonder what they’re thinking about you,” Mahone said. “But you can’t live like that. You can’t let it consume you.”
Frederick Mahone died in 2016 at 49. Tangela lives near Canton, Ohio, still working as a phlebotomist. DeAngela and Aaron live in Cincinnati, working in IT and food service respectively.
With the benefit of time and distance and a whole lot of prayer, Tangela said the family has moved on from this event. Any act of hate, she said, tells you a lot more about the people responsible than the people it’s aimed at.
“The only time I think about it now, really, is if I hear different hate stuff, like with our current president,” she said. “It brings it back, but I don’t dwell on it. It’s not me, and it’s not my children.
“I think about it, and then I let it go.”
Perpetrators’ Path Still Troubled
Scudder said he has struggled to get a job with a federal hate crime on his record.
Looking for an easy escape from the bad memories of prison and what he did to end up there, Scudder said, he became addicted to heroin. He said he has buried his mother, who died from complications of her disability, and his two best friends, who died from heroin overdoses.
Public records show that both Scudder and Corriveau have been in trouble with the law in the years since the cross burning.
Both men have been in and out of the Boone County jail with public intoxication charges multiple times over the last few years.
Corriveau has faced charges of flagrant non-support for failure to pay child support.
In 2012, Scudder was found guilty of assault and drug possession.
Scudder’s first stint in prison didn’t set him straight, but it did give him a fear of going back, which is why he took the offer of drug court, rather than incarceration, when he was arrested three years ago.
In September 2017, Scudder sat in the northern Kentucky home he rented from his sister, not far from the mall where he used to hang out. Compared to his mugshots over the years, he looked healthy and happy. He said he’d been clean since drug court and had spent the last few years getting his life right.
Scudder said prison helped him diversify his worldview. Now, he said, he has friends of all different races and backgrounds.
“I’m not racist in the least,” he said. “That’s not me. I love everybody the same, as long as they’re doing that, too.”
While he talked, Scudder was joined by two little girls in nightgowns. His daughters, 4 and 6, are biracial. He points to them as evidence that he’s a different person.
He’s no longer with his children’s mother, who is Hispanic, but he said the breakup wasn’t connected to her race. Scudder said he had just kicked an old friend out of his house for using a racial slur.
Scudder said he’d tell his kids about the cross burning when they are older, and he hoped, by then, they’d know a different Scudder than the 18-year-old version.
Scudder’s motto, adopted from rehab, is “change your mind and your life will follow.”
Not long after that interview, however, the phone number he had provided was disconnected. He posted a series of Facebook statuses about struggling with his addiction and worrying about losing custody of his kids. According to court documents, he was evicted by his sister. He hasn’t responded to messages since.
In that September interview with KyCIR, Scudder said he grew up poor without much guidance or opportunity. His parents weren’t involved. He fell through the cracks of the education system.
Scudder considered whether any of that was made better by burning a cross in a black family’s yard. He looked back on the 18 years that led to the cross burning, the 13 years since.
He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “It just made everything worse.”
Eleanor Klibanoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (502) 814.6544.