Mystery of St. Luke

The Reverend Zan Holmes, revered pastor of St. Luke "Community" United Methodist Church, acknowledges that there is skepticism about the recent vandalism at his church.
Peter Calvin

Some experts on church desecration, both in and out of law enforcement, are skeptical about the recent vandalism of St. Luke "Community" United Methodist Church, a politically influential black church in East Dallas struck by vandals on May 3.

A longtime African-American civil rights activist, brought here from Atlanta, told me he had examined evidence of the desecration at the request of the FBI: "I told the FBI that white people did not do this," he said.

The activist, who was consulted because of his knowledge of anti-black church desecrations elsewhere, spoke to me on the condition that I not use his name until after the FBI has made a public announcement of its own findings.

Some people in law enforcement with experience in hate-crime arson and desecration also expressed skepticism to me about the attack on St. Luke, in which a swastika was painted and white paint daubed onto a wall of the church. Some of the people I talked to said their skepticism was heightened by the timing of the attack, on the night before a crucial debate on a hate-crimes bill in the Texas Senate.

The experts have a theory about why the desecration of St. Luke may not be what it seems, but, before going there, I need to put some cards on the table: Even discussing the possibility that the attack on St. Luke was a ruse--even bringing it up--is inflammatory, and I know that. No matter how the paint got there, it was the cause of deep pain and distress for the adults who belong to the church and especially for the children. The Reverend Zan Wesley Holmes, longtime pastor of St. Luke, a former state legislator and an influential leader in the city and state, told me he wants to know who attacked his church, no matter who it may have been.

Holmes, who told me he was aware of the skepticism before we spoke, said the act itself was a vicious blow to his church and its members, regardless of who did it.

"I received a call from somebody in Austin who was saying they didn't think this is in the pattern of white supremacists that they have seen elsewhere," Holmes said. "But the fact that the church was vandalized and painted, that is disturbing in itself."

The other thing that needs to be said right away is that the attack on St. Luke may be exactly what it looked like at first glance--the work of white bigots. One person I spoke to this week, a member of the church, said he had his own skepticism about people who think they can interpret swastikas and blobs of paint on a church wall. "I don't think you can draw logical inferences from an illogical act," he said.

The fact remains, though, that there are people in the world who do have long experience in this area, and they do make observations, and they do draw inferences from the evidence. The man who consulted for the FBI gave me a list of reasons why the attack on St. Luke did not match up with any of his earlier experience with church desecrations:

1. Swastikas, he said, are almost never used in attacks on black churches.

2. There were no KKK or white supremacist markings on the wall at St. Luke.

3. No anti-black racial epithets were painted on the wall. The expert told me he couldn't think of a single attack on a black church in his memory where vandals failed to use the N-word.

4. The paint itself was atypical, he said. The FBI informed him it was a high-quality water-based latex paint, applied from a can with a brush, easy to wash off if someone gets to it before it dries and hardens. Vandals typically use spray-paint, because it's cheaper, faster to apply and harder to get off.

5. The location and choice of the church was atypical. Even though members of St. Luke and many local reporters leaped to the conclusion that St. Luke may have been chosen because of its political prominence, the man who called me said church vandals typically attack small, isolated, poorly lit buildings where there is little chance of getting caught. St. Luke, on the 5700 block of East R.L. Thornton Freeway, is brightly lit and is exposed to the freeway on the side that was painted.

He said that, in his experience, "No churches are desecrated in a lighted area on a busy street. The people who do this stuff like to sneak around in some little neck of the woods where they can't get caught."

He was not alone in his feeling that certain aspects of the St. Luke attack do not match the pattern of typical church attacks.  

Ken Lybrand, a private investigator who served 13 years as a Dallas police detective in the intelligence unit before retiring last year, agreed with my informant. "I don't disagree with him on the issue of swastikas," he said. "Typically you're going to find swastikas in the Jewish community. When African-Americans are targeted, you're going to have the N-word."

I also spoke with detective Truly Holmes (no relation to Zan Holmes), who is in the Dallas Police intelligence unit and is working on the St. Luke case. Because he is involved in the case, Holmes declined to comment at all on St. Luke and even declined to hear questions about it. He did tell me he was involved in the investigation of a church desecration in Sand Flat, Texas, recently, where four teen-agers were arrested in a spray-paint attack on historic Mt. Moriah Baptist Church.

"I was down there," he said. "That was consistent with anti-black graffiti and the kind of KKK stuff you usually see. I think that was in the news."

Detective Holmes would not comment on any detail of the St. Luke attack, but he agreed in general terms, without reference to St. Luke, that the use of latex paint, applied by brush from a bucket, would be "unusual."

In television reports immediately after the vandalism was discovered, the Reverend Zan Holmes speculated that the attack on his church may have been inspired by distant events. Two days before the attack, an Alabama court sentenced Klansman Thomas E. Blanton Jr. to four life terms for the 1963 bombing murder of four black girls. On the day before the vandalism of St. Luke, a long-debated hate-crimes bill appeared to stall in the Texas Senate.

"In the same week that you had the Birmingham trial and the day after the delay on the hate-crimes bill in the Legislature, all of this coming up at the same time does not surprise me," Holmes told reporters.

But it is the same timing that has helped fuel some of the skepticism about the attack. The paint was discovered and a Dallas police car dispatched just before 1 a.m. on Thursday, May 3. That same day the incident was reported dramatically on the floor of the Senate in Austin during debate on the hate-crimes bill.

The bill, debated in Texas since 1993, was passed by the Senate. It had already passed the House and has now been signed into law by Governor Rick Perry. Virtually all news accounts and analyses of the passage of the bill by the Senate gave credit to the emotional impact of news about the attack on one of the state's most prominent black churches.

Even the most remote possibility that the St. Luke incident could have been cynically engineered to achieve a political outcome hits the city of Dallas at an almost indescribably awkward moment. The attack is being investigated by a joint task force under the leadership of the FBI. Danny Defenbaugh, special agent in charge of the FBI in Dallas, has been accused by black critics of unfairly targeting African-American leaders in Dallas for criminal investigation.

Terrell Bolton, the city's first black police chief, recently traveled to Washington to lobby Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, chairwoman of the Black Caucus, to get Defenbaugh removed from Dallas or brought under control, according to Johnson.

Black leaders recently picketed the home of a white Dallas city council member who had asked for information about an FBI corruption probe that may have included an investigation of Chief Bolton. Picketers carried signs calling the council member a "bitch" and a "whore" and accusing Defenbaugh and a reporter for The Dallas Morning News of being homosexuals. The council member later said she was concerned that Dallas police on the scene felt constrained from aggressively enforcing the law because of ties between the picketers and the police chief.

Robert Webster, head of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Dallas, explained to me that the federal offense that covers church desecration would be the same whether the attack on St. Luke was carried out by Klansmen or by people posing as white bigots.

"The offense under the Civil Rights Act, as of 1996, is defacing, damaging or destroying a church," he said. As long as the vandals targeted the church because it's a church, he said, they violated federal law.

There is every possibility the FBI will pop up tomorrow with a bunch of white guys in white sheets who have signed confessions to the assault on St. Luke. But if that is not the case, and if there is merit in the skepticism, then this is about to become a very difficult pinch for the city of Dallas and the state of Texas.  

The attack on St. Luke is now woven into the history of the Texas hate-crimes law. A cloud of nasty racial politics looms over local law enforcement in Dallas. If the attack on St. Luke was a ruse, then it was an expression of unbelievable cynicism and utter moral bankruptcy. This is the mayor's church. This church sits at the seam of race relations in the city.

Maybe more than any other single incident in the recent history of the city, this one needs to be disinfected by the bright light of truth. But who holds that light? The danger is that no one will even try, because everyone in leadership is so compromised.

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