ABINGDON, Va. (WJHL) – In his first appearance in federal court, the man arrested in connection with a cross-burning incident last week will see his case move forward after a two-hour hearing on Tuesday.
James Brown, 40, entered the courtroom escorted by US Marshals as Magistrate Judge Pamela Sargent carried forward a probable cause hearing and a detention hearing to determine whether the case should move to a Grand Jury and whether Brown should remain jailed.
He left the courtroom with a $25,000 unsecured bond, but Sargent stressed that his release is dependent on a host of convictions she outlined during the hearing.
“This charge is a serious charge,” she said. “There’s no other way, in this day and time, to say that.”
Brown faces two charges: Lying to federal agents and criminal interference with fair housing based upon the victim’s race.
The case is rooted in a flaming cross that Marion resident Bridgette Thomas, a black woman, told investigators she saw in her yard after a trip to the store. Thomas’ son, Travon Brown, organized a Black Lives Matter protest the day before.
Chad Potter, the Federal Bureau of Invesigation Special Agent investigating the case, testified as part of Brown’s probable cause hearing. Probable cause hearings are proceedings held to determine whether there is a valid basis for a person’s arrest.
Potter testified what he submitted in the affidavit, combing through details relayed to him by several witnesses in the neighborhood.
Potter said he learned about the contentious relationship between Brown and Thomas, recounting witness testimony that Brown had previously pulled a gun on Thomas and threw trash in her yard.
Potter also said that witnesses told him that Brown used racial slurs against Thomas.
He continued that the ongoing fued began over one of Thomas’ friends.
Several witnesses told Potter that Brown admitted to burning the cross in Thomas’ yard, while he said other witnesses saw a “skinny white man” leaving the scene of the cross and entering Brown’s home.
Brown continued shaking his head back and forth and putting his head in his hands as Potter continued to recount his investigation.
Potter said that the FBI didn’t take any fingerprints from the cross and didn’t take any photos of the scene. He testified that the Marion Police Department has possession of the cross.
After executing a search warrant, Potter said agents took several items from Brown’s home including shirts that he said were similar to the fabric found on the cross, tiki fuel, a staple gun, and screws similar to the screw that nailed the cross together.
Brown’s counsel noted that the items FBI took from Brown’s house are “common household items.”
Potter cited a video captured by a surveillance camera at a neighbor’s house showing the cross igniting, but said a technical issue prevented authorities from seizing a copy of the footage.
The case for release
The second half of Brown’s proceedings began with testimony from his longtime girlfriend, Biani Ayala.
Ayala said the pair have two children and moved to Marion from Long Island, New York about two years ago. Brown has been unemployed for about a year due to a respiratory illness he contracted from working for a local contractor.
Ayala testified that she was asleep when the incident occured, but that Brown was in the room with her when she fell asleep at about 10:30 the night before. She testified that she hasn’t talked to Brown about the incident since it happened because he has been in custody.
Prosecutors argued that the severity of the charges called for Brown’s continued detention. Attorneys also argued that Brown’s roots in New York made him a flight risk if he was released.
Sargent disagreed that Brown was a flight risk, and ruled to offer him a $25,000 unsecured bond on the premise that he wouldn’t be a danger to the community. She also said that Brown’s lack of criminal history factored into the decision.
She gave a list of conditions of Brown’s release, stressing that breaking any of them would land him back in jail.
Among other things, Brown may not travel outside the Western District of Virginia without permission. He is also forbidden from contacting Thomas, any of the residents in her home or any of the witnesses referenced in Potter’s testimony. No one but Brown, Ayala and their children are allowed in their home, and Brown is banned from Thomas’ property.
Sargent said Brown’s case will be considered by a Grand Jury for indictment in the next 30 days.