FBI investigating two potential LGBTQ hate crimes in same Sioux Falls neighborhood
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Imagine picking up from your driveway a Ziploc bag with a rock and letter in it implying you are going to Hell and finding out it came from a neighbor.
Imagine, then, not feeling safe in your own house.
That is way two gay couples that live a block away from each other in a quiet and pleasant suburban-style southwestern Sioux Falls neighborhood experienced last Thursday in pitch darkness.
An FBI investigation is in the works as Mitchell Olson and his partner Mark Schmidt — and neighbors Bailey Baker and Nathan Swenson — unpack the anger and fear the hate mail inflicted on them and also bask in the “tremendous” warmth they’ve felt from other neighbors since.
“It keeps you up at night,” Olson said. “We’ve been up at night checking the locks and checking the doors and making sure we’re safe. I don’t think that you really feel what it feels like to have those human rights infringed upon until it has happens.”
The letter “had some Bible verses in there and it just implied that we should repent for our sins for being homosexual, and that anyone who supports us is giving into our addiction,” Baker said. “At first I was angry and then I got a little fearful, not knowing possibly what would happen next.”
Parts of the letter included the statement that all humans are born heterosexual, and that being homosexual is a choice, for which there will be punishment.
The nature of the letter, both couples said, felt more like a threat than an offer of information about Christianity or to lend a helping hand.
“My husband and I, we grew up in Christian homes,” Olson said. “We are Christians ourselves. We read The Bible regularly. So, it was a little bit unnerving to have this kind of rhetoric thrown in our yards. It certainly did not have the tone of ‘hey, we want you to look into more about Jesus Christ and coming to our church.’”
The Jesus Christ Olson knows and has learned from, he said, recognizes that all humans are sinners and all sinners are forgiven.
Olson and Schmidt had never experienced this kind of rhetoric in person or otherwise in his 18 years living in the neighborhood, which has a Facebook page of about 1,400 residents devoted to keeping each other safe.
Olson wrote a post about the incident shortly after he read the letter, and came to discover on the Facebook page that Baker and Swenson — who Olson and Schmidt had never met — received the exact same items on their property at about the same time.
By Friday morning, Olson reported this to the Sioux Falls Police Department, which submitted the incident to the state attorney’s office. Because South Dakota is one of 16 states that does not protect sexual orientation in its hate crime laws, the state attorney’s office contacted the U.S. Attorney’s office in Sioux Falls to explore the letter to determine if a hate crime could be developing, as defined under federal law.
By Friday afternoon, Olson had a 90-minute meeting with representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He told them he received the same type letter in the mail 6 months ago.
”It had my parents’ address on it and my mom’s name on it,” Olson said, “and the FBI don’t know if that was his way of trying to start some sort of internal squabble with my family, or if he was trying to make sure I’d open it because it had my mom’s name on it.”
Upon receiving that first letter in January, Olson called his mother before opening the envelope, already suspicious it was not from her because the writing on the envelope did not appear to be in her handwriting.
The FBI told Olson they have heavily considered the letters to be from the same suspect, and that the suspect’s pattern of behavior could be escalating to a hate crime.
The incident was caught on camera, and Olson has no doubt the suspect is a nearby neighbor who he’s known for years, and finds the timing of the letter particularly strange.
The Civil Rights Act of 1968 stated that persons violating its hate crime law face a fine or imprisonment of up to one year, or both. That federal law did not protect a person’s “actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability” until President Barak Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.
Olson does not want to press chargers or for “anything bad to happen” to the suspect. He anticipates investigators presenting the suspect with the letter and warning the suspect that another such act could warrant an arrest the penalty of a federal hate crime.
“What needs to happen is they be talked to by the FBI and the investigators about this,” Olson said, “and maybe be told why it comes across as an intimidating act to do that to somebody, especially in the cover of darkness without announcing who did it. It’s not like he left a note there telling people to contact somebody about learning more about Jesus Christ.”
Baker also doesn’t want to press charges.
“I just want them to know that what they did was wrong,” Baker said, “and just for them to maybe step into our shoes for a little bit.
“Don’t tell anybody how to live their lives. ‘Live and let live’ is what I believe. As long as you’re not hurting yourself or anybody in the process, who cares how you live your life?”
There have been two silver linings in this dark real-life saga:
One is that these two couples finally met each other for the first time and have become instant friends.
The other is that in a span of just four days, an “outpouring of support” has come from neighbors both in person and especially on Facebook for both couples, said Olson. His next door neighbor almost immediately hoisted a Pride flag, and a few other neighbors have said they have ordered and planned on raising their own to show solidarity and make the two couples feel safer.
”All the other neighbors, they’ve been so supportive,” Baker said, “which I’m very very grateful, and I’m happy to hear that once we got the authorities involved, they’ve been very helpful, too, which makes me feel a lot better about this entire situation. My fear level has definitely gone down since then.”
Olson said he’s heard and read about support from not just the LGBTQ community of Sioux Falls, but people all over the city. He had a conversation with Mayor Paul TenHaken about the incident. The fact that the SFPD and both state and federal authorities acted so swiftly and seriously, to him, means progress is being made in the protection of people like him.
He also wonders about the timing of the incident — on the heels of the overturning of Roe vs. Wade allowing states like South Dakota to ban abortions, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in his statement on the matter, implying that other rights protected federally could be overturned and left to the states. Most notably, the protection of gay marriage.
Is that what led the alleged suspect to come out of the woodwork and throw or place a rock and “hateful” letter in Olson’s yard? Perhaps, Olson said.
The Vermillion native lived and enjoyed the diversity and inclusion of New York City for 13 years, which included a stint on the national TV reality show “Survivor” in 2002. He moved to Sioux Falls 18 years ago and has lived with Schmidt ever since.
“Coming back to South Dakota was the best thing I ever did,” Olson said. “My husband and I, I talk about our relationship openly on the radio and on TV, and we don’t seem to get any backlash until now. So, I think this is an isolated incident. I think it’s a huge step backwards, unfortunately, for the gay community.”
The situation, Olson admitted, initially rekindled the couple’s occasional consideration of moving back to a more inclusive state, or even perhaps far more socially progressive Canada.
But it didn’t take long for the city-wide support to embolden Olson to consider starting a movement that will pave the way for South Dakota to join the 34 current states that protect sexual orientation and gender identity in their hate crime laws.
“What I worry about are the people who have that kind of support (I’ve had) and may not have that sort of outpouring,” Olson safaid. “This would be a very dark experience if (Mark and I) didn’t have any kind of support on this. That’s the reason why I decided to come forward and say something.
“It would feel really dark. It would feel really isolating. It would feel threatening and it would have an intimidation spin to it if I didn’t have any kind of support. For those who may have this happen to them, I want to make sure that I say something and that maybe some of the laws here in South Dakota can be changed.”
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