The Charlotte Observer | July 11, 2001
JAELYNN SEALEY told police more than a year ago that someone painted a racial slur on her garage and set fire to her car.
On Tuesday, the Huntersville woman was charged in federal court with committing the crimes herself.
Sealey, 33, faces four counts of mail fraud, three counts of wire fraud, two counts of making false statements to federal authorities and one count of using fire to commit a felony, according to the indictment filed in Charlotte.
Authorities say she set the fire using gasoline at her home on Middlethorpe Lane to collect insurance money to pay off debts. The 1999 Chevy Cavalier was parked in the driveway. Sealey, who is black, also told police someone painted on the metal garage door, "Go Home N------."
Staged hate crimes are rare in the Carolinas, though authorities say such crimes have occurred in Mecklenburg in recent years. Some have made the allegations to break leases. Others have sought financial gain.
The incident on May 10, 2000, was initially investigated as a possible hate crime, prompting an outpouring of support from area residents. More than 400 people attended a rally in the Wynfield community days later.
If convicted, Sealey faces up to 55 years in prison and up to $2.25million in fines. No one else was charged. She had not been arrested late Tuesday.
Sealey's Charlotte attorney, Henderson Hill, declined comment. Sealey, who still lives in the home with her husband and three children, also declined comment. The house is for sale.
Residents don't regret their initial support of the Sealeys.
"Given what we knew at the time, we'd do it again," said Cindy Dorman, vice president of the Wynfield Homeowners Association.
But after hearing about the indictment, Dorman said feelings have changed.
"There's a tremendous sense of betrayal for the whole town," she said.
Janet Stoner, the finance officer for Huntersville, said the town maintained an account for donations and wrote checks to the Sealeys totaling $2,255.
Despite the charges, Mayor Randy Quillen said something positive came out of an incident that could have torn the community apart.
"We began to talk more openly about diversity," Quillen said. "It was a wake-up call for all of us."
All motives explored
The investigation into the alleged hate crime began in the early morning hours following the fire. Huntersville police and county fire investigators collected physical evidence, including paint samples and materials used to start the blaze.
"We looked at it from every angle, exploring all possible motives," said Huntersville Police Chief Wayne Sumpter.
Police followed several leads in the days after the incident, looking for a white person Sealey said she exchanged words with the day of the fire. Sealey told police she screamed at the driver to slow down as he sped in a truck on Middlethorpe Lane. Police never found the person.
Huntersville police also investigated reports that area high school students were involved. Within two weeks, those students were interviewed and cleared, police said.
With few leads, sources close to the investigation say the focus shifted to the alleged victim. Investigators asked Jaelynn and her husband, Steven Sealey, to take lie-detector tests. Police said they refused.
Authorities sent paint samples from the basketball goal in the Sealeys' driveway to the State Bureau of Investigation to determine whether it was the same paint used to leave the racist graffiti.
According to the indictment, the paint on the goal was similar to the paint used to write the slur. A can of the same type of paint was found inside the garage. There was no forced entry.
Sources said the Sealeys told investigators someone could have stolen the paint during a yard sale four days before the incident.
In December, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms conducted a court-ordered handwriting examination, sources said. During the test, an agent watched as Jaelynn Sealey painted the racist slur. ATF officials would not comment.
Profile of vandalism
According to FBI statistics, about 40 percent of hate crimes nationwide involve intimidation. Vandalism or destruction of property accounts for about 38 percent. Blacks are the most common targets.
Most acts of vandalism are committed to prevent someone from moving into a neighborhood, or to intimidate them into leaving soon after their arrival, authorities say.
The alleged hate crime occurred more than a year after the Sealeys moved into the Wynfield subdivision, a quiet postcard of tree-lined streets in Huntersville. Police said it was the only one investigated in recent years in the north Mecklenburg town of 25,000 people. They hoped the allegations against Sealey would not discourage others from reporting hate crimes.
An interracial couple live in the house next to the Sealeys. Neighbors say there are four or five black families in the immediate area. Police said no one has reported racial harassment.
FBI officials say the number of hate crimes is difficult to track because many agencies don't report incidents that may reflect poorly on the community. Some only report suspected hate crimes after thoroughly investigating them.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, for example, investigated more than 30 suspected hate crimes last year, but reported nine to the FBI.
Sealey, originally from California, held a yard sale May6, neighbors said. She placed a classified advertisement in The Observer that ran May 11-14. It offered an "executive home," the couple's four-bedroom house, for rent.
On May10, about four hours before the fire, Sealey bought a minivan, sources said. It was parked inside the two-car garage as the Cavalier burned in the driveway.
United Services Automobile Association, which insured the Cavalier, has not paid the claim on the $9,000 vehicle. According to the indictment, Sealey called the insurance company hours before the fire to make sure the car was still insured.
"We have not denied the claim," said Karen Gulbranson, a company spokeswoman. "We are postponing a decision, pending the outcome of the current legal action."
Sealey filed a separate claim for smoke damage to the house, according to the indictment.
The alleged hate crime was not the first time she called police.
Sealey reported a notebook computer, worth about $2,700, stolen from her home in November 1999, according to police records. She also listed as stolen an $800 tennis bracelet and $300 computer modem card.
Huntersville police have closed the larceny case, noting in the report that all leads had been exhausted. A source said an insurance company paid that claim.
© 2001 by the Charlotte Observer
(Posted to FrontPageMagazine.com on July 18, 2001)