WASHINGTON – Two brothers pleaded guilty to civil rights violations in federal court Wednesday for their part in a 1997 cross burning at Bowie High School, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Patrick Trainer, 21, and his brother Robert, 20, admitted in court documents that they organized the cross burning in an effort to threaten blacks at the school, after a fight between a white girl and several black students in the spring of 1997.
According to court documents, the Trainers said they discussed plans with more than five other white students at the racially mixed school. Options they discussed included contacting white supremacist groups for help, harassing blacks in their homes and even hiring someone to shoot black students at the school.
Derek Schleicher, 22, has already pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights conspiracy charge in the incident and a federal grand jury returned a three- count indictment in October against Brian Swetnam, 22. Both Swetnam and Schleicher are from Bowie.
Patrick Trainer, now of Troy, N.Y., and Robert, of Montana, admitted to dousing crosses with gas and lighting them on fire. Robert, who was a juvenile at the time of the incident, agreed to be sentenced as an adult as part of his plea, prosecutors said.
Neither Patrick’s nor Robert’s attorneys were available for comment Thursday on the case.
Bowie High School enrolled 2,634 students for the 1999-2000 school year. Blacks make up 46 percent of the population, whites comprise 47 percent and Asians, Hispanics and American Indians make up less than 5 percent, said Prince George’s County school officials.
“The incident was unfortunate and we will continue to work to make sure our students feel safe at school,” said Jocelyn Harris, a spokeswoman for county schools. “We’ll just make sure our students feel safe and … are tolerant of one another.”
The Trainers, who grew up near the high school, said their goal with the cross burning was to intimidate not just the students who were involved in the spring 1997 fight, but all black students at the school.
In June 1997, Robert organized a group that stole wood from local construction sites and built crosses near the football field in the back of the school. The brothers went to the school, poured gasoline on the crosses and set two ablaze, according to court documents.
After the incident, Robert encouraged the others involved in the burning to lie to investigators, court documents stated.
The case was federally prosecuted because it involved a threat of force and occurred at a public school. Students have a right under federal law to attend school regardless of their race, prosecutors said.
“Hate must be confronted head on, wherever it is discovered,” said U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said in a prepared statement. “Federal law and common decency dictate that our schools be safe for children of all backgrounds.”