A white man who tried to hire a hit man from a South Carolina branch of the Ku Klux Klan to kill a black neighbor was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison on Thursday.
“It’s one thing to think these thoughts, but it’s a crime to undertake to do harm to another,” intoned U.S. Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks before passing sentence on Brandon Lecroy, 26, of Greenwood County.
Lecroy’s arrest last year by an undercover FBI agent who posed as a KKK hit man named “Mark” made headlines far beyond South Carolina, coming as it did amid reports of rising incidents of racially-inspired crimes against minorities around the country. The agent, from Lexington County, was working with a domestic terrorism task force made up of FBI, state and local law enforcement officers.
Before sentencing the defendant, Hendricks ruled that Lecroy’s offense qualified as a federal “hate crime,” but noted that the incident was so serious she would have given him 10 years in prison even if race had not been a factor. Ten years is the maximum sentence for the offense.
Hendricks made her hate-crime ruling after hearing a spirited argument by Lecroy’s attorney Erica Soderdahl, who said race didn’t play a role in the crime. Lecroy was only trying to get rid of an extremely troublesome neighbor who happened to be African American, she said.
The neighbor, identified only by the initials “FJ,” kept coming onto Lecroy’s property, trying to start fights, and asking for food and to use the phone. Lecroy had repeatedly tried to get local police to keep the neighbor from trespassing, to no avail, Soderdahl said.
“But FJ kept coming back,” said Soderdahl, a federal public defender. “It’s not about an overriding feeling toward a race — it’s about one individual.”
Finally, in desperation after police wouldn’t act, Lecroy went on the internet and found an 864 (western South Carolina) area code for a local Ku Klux Klan chapter, she said.
“Brandon called the KKK because who else was he going to call?” Soderdahl said. “It had nothing to do with the color of his skin.”
But federal prosecutor William Watkins told the judge that race had everything to do with the attempted murder.
“Your honor, the fact that he reached out to the KKK — this is not a low-functioning individual,” said Watkins, an assistant U.S. Attorney. “It’s telling that to get a black person eliminated, he turned to the KKK.”
Secretly-recorded tapes by law enforcement are full of not only racist language used by Lecroy but references to historically violent KKK symbols, Watkins said. Lecroy suggested the undercover agent could use a flaming cross, Watkins said.
“He doesn’t call a biker gang,” Watkins told the judge. “It all boils down to this: he sought to eliminate his neighbor based on his race.”
In the secretly-taped recordings by the undercover agent, Lecroy referred to FJ as “vermin that you are exterminating.”
Lecroy had pleaded guilty last fall in federal court to being part of a murder-for-hire plot. What made it a federal crime was, in part, Lecroy’s use of a cell phone talking to the undercover agent. Lecroy’s hearing Thursday at the federal courthouse in Greenville was to determine his sentence.
Soderdahl said Lecroy, who was dressed in a oversized orange jail jump suit, was “shaking like a leaf” and too nervous to speak, but he wanted the judge and everyone to know he is embarrassed, regrets his actions and apologizes.
She also told the judge that Lecroy had been bullied and beaten by his father from the age of 6 to 20, and the trauma had left him with the psyche of a six-year-old child. Lecroy can’t hold a job, receives disability checks and loves to talk about childish things — becoming a fireman and a tow-truck driver, Soderdahl said of her client. She also said Lecroy learned the racist language as a child from his father and uncle.
The Ku Klux Klan is not believed to be very active in South Carolina. But the white supremacist group has a long history in South Carolina, dating back to the late 1860s, right after the Civil War, when whites — angered at rights given to newly-freed slaves — launched a campaign of terror, murder and intimidation, writes University of South Carolina history professor emeritus Walter Edgar in his “South Carolina: A History.”
As recently as the early 1950s, thousands of white-robed Klansmen roamed parts of South Carolina. A crusading newspaper editor, Horace Carter, won the 1953 Pulitizer Prize for Public Service for exposing Klan activities along the N.C.-S.C. border in the Myrtle Beach to Florence Pee Dee area. Carter’s writings led to the convictions of more than 100 Klansmen, according to the Pulitzer Prize’s website.
Following the hearing, Watkins said in an interview that the judge had approved his motion to keep secret a document he had filed quoting from the government’s secretly recorded tapes of Lecroy talking about killing FJ. The language is so racially explosive that it should not be made public, he said.
And if violent African-American prison gangs such as “the Bloods and the Crypts” ever learned what Lecroy was saying, “He would be a marked man,” Watkins said.