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N.E. firefighter 'no longer a member' after probe into social media posts

NORTH EAST — A North East Volunteer Fire Company firefighter who purportedly posted numerous messages containing racial slurs – predominantly directed at black people – on his personal social media account “is no longer a member” of the company, according to an updated statement released by the fire department’s board of directors.

The brief statement, which was issued to the Cecil Whig early Tuesday morning, reads, “As previously indicated, the North East Fire Company, Inc. has undertaken an investigation related to certain social media postings. The Fire Company has concluded its investigation, and as a result of its findings the individual in question is no longer a member of the North East Fire Company, Inc. The Fire Company looks forward to resuming its long-standing tradition of rendering aid and emergency services to all members of our community in their times of need.”

It is not clear from the statement if the firefighter – NEVFC officials still have not identified him – quit the company of his own volition or if the NEVFC removed him after conducting a due-process administrative hearing.

Elkton-based lawyer Cameron A. Brown, serving as the company’s attorney regarding this matter, could not be reached for additional information regarding the firefighter’s departure.

Late Friday night, the NEVFC board of directors posted a message on the company’s Facebook page informing the public that they had launched an investigation after learning about the firefighter’s purported social media posts. In that public statement, the NEVFC board of directors strongly denounced the content of those social media posts.

“As the investigation is on-going in nature, the Fire Company is unable to provide details of the matter at this time. That said, the social media postings that have come to light contain vile and repugnant commentary that in no way reflects the values of the North East Fire Company Inc. The Fire Company remains committed to its mission to provide aid and emergency services to any and all members of our community,” reads a portion of the statement made public on Friday night.

Over the weekend, Brown told the Cecil Whig that he was not at liberty to comment beyond the information contained in the statement, which, likewise with the one released on Tuesday morning, did not identify the firefighter who purportedly posted the messages that spurred the investigation.

Neither written statement released by the NEVFC board of directors provides background regarding the now-former firefighter’s length of affiliation with the company, his level of involvement with the company and his volunteer position with the company.

The social media posts came to light on Thursday, when Resist Programming, an anonymous Twitter account with a stated mission to expose racists, identified NEVFC volunteer firefighter Jerry Crutchfield as the author on social media. It also reposted several messages that had been gleaned from his social media account.

Attempts by the Cecil Whig to reach Crutchfield by phone for comment were unsuccessful. Online information indicates that Crutchfield’s Twitter page no longer exists.

In addition to using the N-word and other derogatory terms to identify black people, Crutchfield’s unearthed social media posts are marked by messages that include “’Black Lives Don’t Matter,” “I (heart icon) Being White,” and “The south will rise again.”

In one of his social media messages, Crutchfield opines, “The black lives matter movement is the poorest excuse for a group ever.”

Other posts found on Crutchfield’s social media account are more flagrant, including one in which he opines on the recent controversy involving Bubba Wallace, the only African-American, top-tier NASCAR driver.

Last month, a noose was found hanging in the Talladega Superspeedway garage assigned to Wallace for a Cup Series race, triggering an FBI investigation.

That federal investigation revealed that the looped rope resembling a noose actually was a pull-down rope for the garage door, that it had been there for several months and that the garages assigned to other NASCAR drivers also had pull-down ropes. FBI investigators concluded that the rope did not reflect a racist act.

“That [racial slur] race car driver bubba wallace is such a baby back [expletive] he should be hung out to dry by a noose,” reads the post that Resist Programming found on Crutchfield’s social media account and reposted, along with several others attributed to him.

The reposting of Crutchfield’s social media messages by the Resist Programming account sparked an online public outcry for his removal from the NEVFC.

In the initial statement released by the NEVFC board of directors, officials denounced the content of the posts.

“There is no place in our Company for the ugly and hateful rhetoric displayed. The Fire Company intends to undertake its investigation thoroughly and expeditiously, and will take appropriate action as the findings and conclusions of the investigation,” reads one section of that NEVFC statement.

That statement opened with, “The North East Fire Company Inc. (the “Fire Company”) is aware of the social media postings. The Fire Company is investigating the matter in accordance with the Company Bylaws, which govern the actions and internal processes of the Fire Company, including personnel matters such as this.”

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EPD, apartment residents enjoy a cool reprieve on a hot day

ELKTON — Elkton Police Department officers and residents of The Meadows at ElkCreek Apartments got a nice reprieve from the heat and an opportunity to talk and share stories last Wednesday as the complex hosted an event complete with frosty snacks from Kona Ice.

The Meadows Property Manager Kimberly Potter said that the idea for the event came about due to the current national discussion about police following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn. She said her complex wanted the officers at the facility as part of an overall positive experience.

“It was awesome,” she said of the event.

Potter said several officers participated in the event and around 30 residents of the facility. She noted that the majority of residents who got the opportunity to interact with the police officers were children. She noted that during the event several residents thanked the officers for coming out and participating in the event.

EPD Capt. Joseph Zurolo said his department was originally contacted by Potter to participate in the event, which he noted was something officers with the department do on a pretty regular basis.

“This is typical for us,” he said. “This is part of our community policing philosophy. In fact we encourage people to contact us for things like this.”

Zurolo said the feedback he received from officers was positive.

“They had a wonderful experience,” he said. “It was a great interaction with the citizens. It was definitely about engaging in a positive and productive way.”

Zurolo noted as part of the department’s community policing department, officers seek to engage with people in neighborhoods throughout the community to build relationships.

“We want to try to be helpful anyway we can,” he said.

Residents who offered their comments to the Whig described the event as very positive and a very welcome thing to see at their apartment complex.

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Tome School deals with reading list complaints

NORTH EAST — A recent dispute over a summer reading list at the historic Tome School has been resolved as the school’s Board of Trustees released a letter over the weekend voicing its support for the head of the school and the rationale behind the reading list.

The issue began last week when at least one parent called on Tome Head of School Christine Szymanski to resign based on a summer reading list entitled: “Standing up for Diversity, Equity, Social Justice and Change.”

The list includes book suggestions for students at the school in grades K-12 as well as a list of suggested books for parents to read relating to issues such as racism, anti-racism, white supremacy, diversity and social justice issues.

One of the parents who led the call on Facebook for the resignation of Szymanski, Vincent Sammons, said in response to a request for comment from the Cecil Whig, in an open letter he also placed on his personal Facebook page, “My dispute with the Tome School was from ongoing political indoctrination by the head of school not race related issues. The first blatant incident was a while back with Tome did a “school walkout” to protest guns due to the mass shooting from a problem individual which was political at the time. I spoke with the head of school and asked if the school was teaching academics or political agendas through the school. While she continued to agree with my logic to my arguments about what a school should and should not be doing she ultimately agreed to disagree on why to continue with it or not.”

In his letter Sammons further stated, “This last incident was no different. I had a problem with the reading list as it was politically one sided on their “diversity” claims. Again the school followed suit with highly political Black Lives Matter theme that is foster by political money. If the school indeed wanted to be inclusive they would have included many other races like American Indian or Alaska Native, Hispanic or Latino, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. But also note they go even further to push their political agenda to parents too. Many of these books to the parents implied they may racist.”

The books on the parent’s reading list included: “How to Be an Antiracist” and “Stamped from the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi; “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo and Michael Eric Dyson and “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla Saad.

In his letter Sammons said the situation at the school has effected his son, “Since then it was reported by my son that the school was very politicize internally and everyone basically had to pick a side to ‘fit in.’ As you can imagine this creates a poor learning environment when everything inside is polarized with politics. I have overheard teachers complain about this but will not say a word and refuse to come forward in fear of losing their jobs for not walking the political agenda line.”

The entirety of Sammons letter can be read on page A4 of today’s Cecil Whig.

After seeing posts on Facebook, several alumni of Tome School circulated a petition in support of Szymanski. The petition, originally started by Annelise Coulter, was meant to not only support Szymanski, but bring attention and support for the list of suggested reading material as a way to better educate students to a wider point of view.

Coulter’s sister Amanda Diaz, a 2010 graduate of the school, who spoke to the Cecil Whig via a Zoom conference call from Los Angeles, said she first became aware of the issue relating to the list when her sister made her aware of what was going on at the school. That was when she got involved in contacting former Tome students as part of the petition effort.

Diaz’ friend Emma McCamant, herself a 2010 graduate of the school, who now lives in New York, also said she got involved with the petition drive thanks to Coulter, who she has known since they were in grade school.

“When I found out I went to look at the Facebook posts and some parents were really upset,” she said.

McCamant said she got upset at some of the responses from parents regarding the list and based upon a previous conversation with Diaz about how they could become more involved in their communities decided to get involved in the issue and petition drive.

Diaz said that as a former Tome graduate, one of the things the school instills in you the ability to think critically, to scrutinize information and to engage in intelligent discourse on a variety of issues. In that respect she said the original reading list represents the types of conversations about serious issues that need to be had at Tome and other schools.

“In no way should anyone be upset at an opportunity to become more educated,” she said.

McCamant pointed out that the list was part of the normal course of business at Tome school and that the idea of reading books on the list would be in the hopes of creating thoughtful conversation.

“No one is forcing anyone to think anything,” McCamant said again noting that the point was to create a dialogue, a dialogue that she believes needs to be had at the school.

Diaz said she was proud of her sister for starting the position and speaking up on the issue.

“She did not like the comments (on Facebook),” Diaz said noting that at some point comments became personal with respect to her sister.

Diaz noted that when she went to Tome there were only one or two persons of color including herself that she can recall and she thinks it is important that students at the school be exposed to a diversity of points of view.

McCamant said she felt she was exposed to other viewpoints at the school and that this is a goal the school has always espoused.

“The list wasn’t mandatory,” she noted. “It also included a list of movies to watch with your kids. The books for parents were not mandatory, they were simply a place where if you wanted to have a talk with your kids about these issues this is where you start.”

Diaz and McCamant said that due to these reasons they actively helped to get signatures for the petition and ended up being extremely surprised with the results.

“I thought we might get 500 signatures,” Diaz said, noting that as of Monday afternoon they had over 3,600 signatures, most of which had been received in a short span of time. By press time the petition had almost 3,800 signature.

Diaz noted that while many Tome graduates signed the petition it also included signatures from friends and supporters all around the U.S.

“I think this (the support for the petition) shows this is not a political issue it is a civil rights issue,” Diaz said.

She also noted the number of signatures is over five times the entire student body of the school.

On July 12, the Tome School Board of Trustees through President Thomas Kemp sent a letter to the school’s students, parents, faculty, alumni and friends stating the board’s position on the issue.

In the letter, Kemp said that during the end of the spring semester himself, Szymanski and board Vice President Edward Hostetter met in an informal meeting regarding having been contacted by some in the Tome community about the school issuing a statement regarding the “racial unrest across the country as a result of George Floyd’s death.”

The letter said Hostetter requested the school do more to address the issue by “developing a program that exposes students to issues of racial prejudice and social injustice through a structured educational environment that fosters understanding and learning.”

The letter goes on to state that Szymanski asked the head of the school’s literature department in the upper school to begin the task. The end result was the initial list that included works by Black authors centering on identity and diversity, equity and social justice.

The letter further states that there is no political goal or agenda and the school’s primary goal is the education of students so that they will be good citizens.

An effort was made to contact board officials, specifically board president Kemp to see if the board had any additional follow-up. Kemp responded by email “The Board of Trustees stands by its letter of July 12, 2020 and declines further comment.”

Recently, a second reading list was offered that included additional works that students could read from several different authors and genres. The Whig could not get an additional comment from the school on whether this additional list was in response to complaints made as a result of the initial list.

Andy Mussaw checks on the progress of a tray of wheat grass he is growing. He and his wife Theresa operate FreshSource Farm, which grows microgreens for commercial and retail customers.

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Man gets 12 years in random stabbing near North East

ELKTON — An 18-year-old man who randomly stabbed a stranger on the street of neighborhood near North East last summer — nearly killing the victim — received a 12-year prison term on Monday.

Cecil County Circuit Court Judge William W. Davis Jr. imposed a 20-year sentence on the defendant, Marquis Benson, who was 17 at the time of the August 2019 stabbing, and then suspended eight years of it. The sentence imposed by Davis fell at the top of state sentencing guidelines, which set a penalty range of five to 12 years of active incarceration for Benson. State sentencing guidelines are based on a defendant’s criminal record and other factors.

Davis’ sentence matched a recommendation made by Assistant State’s Attorney Nathaniel Bowen during the courtroom sentencing.

In February, Benson had entered an Alford plea to first-degree assault as part of a plea deal in which prosecutors, in exchange, dismissed attempted first-degree murder, attempted second-degree and several other related charges.

(A defendant who enters an Alford plea maintains his innocence while acknowledging that the state possesses enough evidence to convict him or her at trial.)

Also part of the sentence, Davis ordered Benson to serve five years of supervised probation after completing his 12-year term in a Maryland Department of Corrections prison.

In addition, the judge ordered Benson to pay $22,100 in restitution to the victim to cover his medical expenses. The victim, whom investigators identified only as a 24-year-old man who lives near North East, received extensive treatment at Christiana Hospital in Delaware after suffering a deep stab wound to his back.

Benson randomly attacked the man on Aug. 23, after spotting him walking in the area of Champlain Road and Champlain Court in the Lakeside Mobile Home Park while Benson and three other people, including Benson’s 17-year-old brother, were joy-riding in a Ford Escape that had been stolen by one of his companions — Joshua Ryan Warren, an Elkton-area resident who was 15 at the time of the incident, according to prosecutors.

After stepping out of the front passenger’s side door, Benson, who lived in Townsend, Del., at the time of the incident, approached the man and stabbed him in the back with a knife as the victim started to flee from him, prosecutors reported.

Benson and his three companions sped away in the stolen vehicle, leaving the wounded man, prosecutors said. The victim was taken to Christiana Hospital in Delaware after he called family members for help, prosecutors added.

Maryland State Police troopers arrested Benson and his three companions at approximately 11:15 p.m. on Aug. 23, shortly after the stabbing, after chasing the Ford Escape in response to a stolen vehicle complaint, court records show.

The foursome ran away after the Ford Escape driven by Warren crashed on Route 7 near North East during that pursuit, and troopers captured them in that area a short time later, according to court records.

Troopers then learned that doctors at Christiana Hospital were treating a man who had been stabbed near North East in an incident involving a stolen white Ford Escape, which prompted an MSP investigator to interview the victim at that medical center, police reported.

Meanwhile, MSP investigators interviewed Benson and his brother separately at the North East Barrack. (Benson’s brother, who, according to court records, turned 18 one week after the incident, reportedly was charged as a juvenile. Benson turned 18 in February, six months after the incident, court records show.)

“(He) implicated his brother (Benson) as the passenger who stabbed the man . . . He also stated the four (occupants of the stolen Ford Escape) knew they were going to Lakeside to look for someone to fight,” according to court records, which indicate that Benson’s brother also told investigators that all of the occupants were aware there was a knife in that vehicle.

During his interview, however, Benson admitted only to a lesser involvement in the random attack — punching the man.

“Benson advised he likes to fight people and he knew that everyone in the vehicle agreed to ‘jump’ the first person they saw while driving through the Lakeside trailer park. Benson stated he was implicated in the assault by punching (the man) in the face as hard as he could,” according to charging documents made public shortly after the incident.

Benson also told investigators that Warren made all of his passengers aware that the Ford Escape had been stolen, court records show. Police reported that the Ford Escape, which was valued at $20,762, had been stolen from an Elkton resident, who later identified the vehicle as his.

The man who suffered the stab wound told an MSP investigator that “a passenger exited the vehicle and approached him,” seconds before knifing him, court records show.

During a November courtroom hearing in which Davis denied a defense motion to transfer Benson’s criminal case to juvenile court, the judge commented from the bench, “The most terrifying thing about this case is they were looking to randomly target someone. They didn’t know the person. The scariest thing . . . it could have been anyone in this room if you were unfortunate enough to be in the location where the victim was.”

The victim suffered puncture wounds to his lungs and diaphragm, prosecutors reported.

“He damn near killed him,” Bowen told the judge during that proceeding, after gesturing toward the victim seated in the gallery and commenting, “The only thing worse would be if he weren’t here.”

In March, Warren, who had turned 16 one month earlier, received a one-year jail term after pleading guilty unlawful taking of a motor vehicle and conspiracy to commit second-degree assault, as part of a binding plea agreement.

During that March 13 hearing, Cecil County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Keith A. Baynes imposed two five-year sentences on Warren, making them concurrent, and then suspended four years of each penalty, in accordance with the binding plea agreement.

The judge, who ordered Warren to serve three years of supervised probation after completing his one-year term, also imposed a concurrent one-year sentence on Warren for fleeing and eluding a law enforcement officer in an official police vehicle, to which Warren had pleaded guilty, as well.

Another one of Benson’s co-defendants, Jordan K. Fields, 19, of Elkton, is awaiting his July 27 sentencing, after he entered an Alford plea to conspiracy to commit second-degree assault during a January hearing The offense carries a maximum 10-year sentence. Fields occupied a rear seat, beside Benson’s older brother, in the stolen Ford Escape on the day of the incident, police reported. Fields’ sentencing originally had been scheduled for April 3, but it was postponed due to coronavirus-related restrictions at the courthouse.

The case against Benson’s older brother reportedly was handled in juvenile court.

This computerized system plays hymns and marks the time at 12 p.m. and 5 p.m. from Janes United Methodist Church in Rising Sun. It has 12,000 hymns available.

A pie chart shows Cecil County Public School parents’ preferences on return to school in the fall.