Hate crime? NAACP, sheriff turn to FBI in Stone High noose probe

A sheriff’s cruiser is stationed outside Stone High School on Tuesday.
A sheriff’s cruiser is stationed outside Stone High School on Tuesday. jvicory@sunherald.com

Both the president of the state NAACP and the Stone County sheriff said they’ve contacted the FBI in the search for answers to a possible hate crime involving white students, a rope and a black student at Stone High School.

A group of white students at the high school, including a member of the football team, are accused of putting a rope around a black player’s neck. At least one pulled on the rope, but several others were involved, an NAACP official said Monday.

The story quickly went viral after the NAACP’s press conference Monday, with major news outlets covering the story Tuesday.

Derrick Johnson, the state NAACP director, said witnesses characterized the pulling of the rope as like the tightening of a noose. It follows several instances in which white students displayed Confederate flags on their vehicles at school or in a recent school parade.

Johnson’s organization is meeting Wednesday morning with the FBI.

Stone County Sheriff Mike Farmer said his department has also contacted the FBI.

He said one of his chief investigators, Ray Boggs, contacted the agency after he learned the incident had been described as a possible hate crime.

Farmer said he was surprised to hear it described that way.

“We all were surprised to hear that,” he said. “We’ve never had to deal with a hate crime here.”

The Sheriff’s Department has interviewed some students at the school, but plans to talk to more.

Farmer said his department is the primary investigating agency. He said the FBI has offered its assistance.

“We’re doing the investigation,” Farmer said. “We’re involved with that right now. They (FBI) said they’d assist us if we needed it.”

Johnson said the mother of the black student contacted the NAACP out of frustration.

“She came to us only when she first went to the school district and the Sheriff’s Department,” he said. “She didn’t feel like they were taking her seriously.”

Farmer confirmed the department took a report from the student’s mother, but couldn’t say what day that happened.

As the police report includes information involving juveniles, Farmer said he couldn’t release it to reporters.

Inita Owen, the superintendent of the school district, released a statement Monday morning that said the school would not address the matter publicly. She could not be reached all day Tuesday, either by phone or in person.

Mayor Joel T. Miles disputed some of Johnson’s comments to the media about the town of Wiggins.

“Wiggins has always been a trouble spot,” Johnson told reporters Monday. “It’s a small-knit community of African Americans.”

Miles said, “I’m not sure what that comment is supposed to imply. I’m unaware of racial tensions. What I can say is that the Sheriff’s Department, the Police Department and leaders of some of our black churches have come together on several occasions.

“We’ve been doing everything we can to unite the community.”

Wiggins can best be described as a sleepy Southern town with a church on nearly every corner. The population was a little less than 4,500, the 2010 U.S. Census reported.

The Whistle Stop Cafe is a popular diner known for its fried green tomato sandwiches and hearty dinners. It quickly fills up every lunch and dinner.

Just down the street, the Frosty Mug, another Wiggins staple, serves burgers, hot dogs and shakes and malts.

Customers say they’re aware of the news, but aren’t interested in being quoted.

“I think the jury’s still out,” one customer said at the Frosty Mug. “We shouldn’t make any judgment until we have all the facts.”

“I heard about it this morning on ‘Good Morning America,’ ” another said. “I couldn’t believe they were talking about here. Of all the places.”

Justin Vicory: 228-896-2326, @justinvicory