Tuesday, April 10, 2007 • Cross burning confessions lead to federal charges for two Westwood men — man with ties to white supremist group claims incident was ‘a joke’

Publisher’s note: This story originally appeared in the Tuesday, April 4, 2007 edition of the Lassen County Times.

Two Westwood men were arraigned in United States District Court, Eastern District of California, in Sacramento on Wednesday, April 4 on federal charges of conspiracy against civil rights, interference with housing rights because of a person’s race and use of fire to commit a felony.

Two Westwood men allegedly burned this cross in the carport of the rectory of the Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church on Friday, March 23.

Lassen County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Nicholas Craig, 18, and Kevin Ridenour, 21, Saturday, March 24 after a cross was burned early Friday morning near the rectory at the Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church in Westwood. A motion-sensing security light also was painted black to foil its operation

The rectory’s resident is the Rev. Beranardin Mugabowakigeri, a black priest from Rwanda.

Both men allegedly confessed their involvement in the incident to Lassen County Sheriff’s deputies, according to a seven-page criminal complaint filed in district court.

On Monday, April 2, U.S. Magistrate Judge Dale A. Drozd signed an order requiring Lassen County authorities to relinquish custody of the men.

According to a press release from Lassen County District Attorney Robert Burns, the two men were handed over to FBI agents at the Lassen County Adult Detention Facility on April 3 for transportation to Sacramento to face the federal charges.

Burns had charged the men with cross burning, vandalism to a church, conspiracy and involvement with a hate crime.

According to a statement from Burns, “Lassen County charges remain outstanding until the conclusion of federal proceedings, at least.”

But the Sacramento Bee reported it’s possible the state charges will be dismissed in order to get a single action against the men in federal court.

According to Rosemary Shaul, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento, federal authorities sought to prosecute the two men because the federal penalties are more severe than the state penalties for this type of crime.

Benjamin Wagner, assistant U.S. attorney and chief of the special prosecution unit in Sacramento responsible for the case, said the federal government takes crimes such as cross burning very seriously. Historically, cross burnings have been associated with the Ku Klux Klan and its sympathizers.

“Unfortunately, these crimes continue to occur,” said Wagner, who will prosecute Craig and Ridenour. “We’ve seen crimes like this before, and I’m sure this won’t be the last. We hope the prosecution of these types of crimes will send a message to people who are inclined to commit them that they will face severe penalties.”

Wagner said while most people think of cross burnings as events in old movies or things that happened in the deep south years ago, such crimes do occur in California.

“It’s happened before,” Wagner said. “We had a case from Anderson a couple of years ago that was very similar involving a cross burning and a black family.”

Both men voluntarily provided law enforcement officers with details regarding the cross burning.

After his arrest and being read his Miranda rights, Craig discussed the incident with the deputies, according to the criminal complaint.

Craig allegedly said he helped Ridenour build the cross at their Delwood residence. He said he helped drag the cross about half a block to the church about 3:30 a.m. on Friday, March 31.

The pair used gasoline from a motorcycle to soak the cross. Craig said he poured gasoline on the cross and Ridenour lit it on fire.

Craig allegedly admitted spray-painting the security light at the church the day before the cross burning, but he said the two incidents were unrelated.

A deputy then advised Ridenour of his Miranda rights and told him Craig had made a statement.

Ridenour allegedly told the officers he didn’t want to say anything, but he motioned for a deputy to come to the car so he could talk to him.

In the subsequent conversation, Ridenour allegedly told the officers he helped build the cross and move it to the rectory.

“Ridenour advised that his actions were targeted at the black man living in the rectory and that it was a ‘joke,’” according to the complaint.

While in custody in the county jail on Monday, March 26, Craig provided more information to the deputies investigating the incident during a 39-minute interview.

Craig allegedly told the officers Ridenour did not like black people and made racial slurs about a black family living in Westwood.

He told the deputies the men got the idea for the cross burning from old movies that depicted the KKK burning crosses to intimidate black people. He allegedly told the officers he knew they were burning the cross at a church and he knew the priest was black.

He allegedly told the deputies they were burning the cross to scare the black priest.

The same day deputies also interviewed Ridenour again.

Ridenour allegedly told the deputies he burned the cross in front of Mugabowakigeri’s residence because the priest was black and he wanted to reenact the KKK. He again told officers the incident was a joke.

He admitted it was his idea to build and burn the cross. He also claimed to have ties to the Peckerwood Gang in Chico. He said he once had Peckerwood tattoos, but those had been covered up with larger tattoos.

An investigation by the FBI revealed “the Peckerwoods are known as a white supremacist gang whose membership includes white youths with loose ties to white power gangs in and out of prison, in addition to skinhead gangs. Peckerwood gangs are largely located throughout the state of California,” according to the criminal complaint.

Federal criminal complaint
According to a criminal complaint filed in district court against Craig and Ridenour, the FBI joined the sheriff’s department’s investigation of the cross burning incident.

The burned cross was discovered at the Our Lady of the Snows Church, 425 Cedar St., on the morning of Friday, March 23. Apparently the cross had been set on fire the night before in the carport driveway of the rectory of the church.

An employee from a nearby school told deputies he’d seen Craig and another man building a wooden cross in the alley near the church on Thursday evening.  The burned cross was discovered by a teacher Friday morning.

Mugabowakigeri told the FBI he had been assigned to the Westwood church in October 2006. He told the agents the motion sensing light had been damaged a few days before the incident, but the light had been repaired.

“ … on March 22, 2007, Mugabowakigeri noticed that the light and motion detector had been spray-painted black,” according to the criminal complaint. “This vandalism caused Mugabowakigeri a degree of concern because he was afraid someone was planning to commit some type of crime or mischief. Mugabowakigeri stated that the cross was burned exactly where the light would have illuminated had the light not been blacked out.”

Following the tip from the school employee, Lassen County Sheriff’s deputies located Craig’s residence at 408 Delwood St. in Westwood. At the residence, they discovered wood similar to that in the charred cross and a can of used black spray paint.

Ridenour was in the yard when the deputies arrived, and he told them he also lived at the residence. He denied any involvement with the cross burning incident and told deputies Craig was out of town. But once the officers arrested him, Ridenour said, “He’s in the house. That’s all I’m going to say,” according to the complaint.

Deputies yelled for Craig to come out of the house, but he did not respond. Phone calls to the residence were not answered. After about 30 minutes, Craig came out of the house and was arrested.

After their arrest, both men were booked into the Lassen County Jail.

According to Wagner, a preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for April 18.