By Ananda Shorey
WASHINGTON – A Bowie man has been sentenced to 10 years without parole for his part in a 1997 cross burning at Bowie High School, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.
Brian Swetnam, 22, pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes conspiracy charges in February at the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt and was sentenced Monday to the mandatory minimum sentence for the charge.
He was one of four men convicted in the cross burning and the first to be sentenced.
A federal prosecutor said the sentence was based on the fact that Swetnam had a state record of racial and ethnically motivated crimes, that the cross burning was premeditated and on the fact that it involved fire — which increases penalties when it is used in the course of another felony.
“It (cross burning) is simply not acceptable, especially at one of our schools,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach. “It is a serious crime and we take it seriously.”
Derek Schleicher of Bowie, Patrick Trainer of New York and Robert Trainer of Montana have also pleaded guilty in the case. The Trainer brothers are scheduled to be sentenced Monday and Schleicher’s sentencing is scheduled April 24. Dettelbach would not comment on what sentences prosecutors will seek against the remaining three.
Authorities said the four men planned the cross burning in retaliation for a fight between a white girl and several black students at Bowie High School. They discussed various ways that they could direct violence and threats at blacks at the school, including the option of hiring someone to kill African- American students.
Ultimately, they stole wood from a local construction site in June 1997 and erected three crosses near the school’s football field, two of which were doused with gasoline and set ablaze.
“These are very serious crimes and the federal law does not allow any flexibility for crimes of this manner,” said Prince George’s County Schools Superintendent Iris Metts. “We’re hoping that our young people will use this as an example of why they need to work out their differences as opposed to resorting to violence and hatred.”
Black students made up 46 percent of the 2,634-student body at Bowie High School this school year, while whites make up 47 percent and Asians, Hispanics and American Indians make up the rest, according to county school officials.
U.S. Attorney for Maryland Lynne Battaglia said in a prepared statement that Swetnam’s sentence “sends out a clear message. There is no place for hate crimes in the 21st century.”