Chris Staples says he is still trying to wrap his head around the idea that someone would try to kill him.

The gay Carrollton man had his home vandalized and then burned down; he was asleep at home when the fire began and barely escaped.

“I feel like I’m sort of in a cave, still in shock,” Staples told the GA Voice. “I haven’t shed a tear, haven’t gotten mad.”

Staples, 43, was inside his small home in Carroll County on Sunday, Jan. 23, when he said a rock with an anti-gay note attached was thrown through his window. Hours later, Staples said he woke up to find his home engulfed in flames. Carroll County is some 50 miles west of Atlanta.

Arson of gay Carrollton man’s home may be hate crime

Staples said the note on the rock thrown into his home had algebra homework on one side, although no name was signed on it. On the other side of the rock was an anti-gay rant against Staples.

“On the other side in pencil it called me an ‘AIDS infested faggot’ and ‘God hates gays’ and ‘God will make sure all gays burn in hell,’” he said.

The FBI continues to assist the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department in the suspected arson case and there is discussion the alleged crime may be classified as a hate crime.

If federal prosecutors decide the alleged attack on Staples fits the criteria, it would likely be the first case in Georgia charged under the new Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, according to Atlanta FBI spokesperson Stephen Emmett.

“The FBI is in a supportive role in this investigation, but the investigation itself remains with Carroll County authorities,” Emmett told the GA Voice.

Asked what specifically the FBI is doing in the case, “I won’t elaborate other than initial crime scene assessment and any additional lab submittals that Carroll County deems necessary — those types of matters,” Emmett said.

Capt. Shane Taylor of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department said the FBI offered assistance in this case and the department readily agreed to have the FBI’s help. However, Carroll County remains in charge of the investigation, he added.

As far as the crime being classified as a hate crime — that is not being ruled out, Taylor said. But the first priority is to arrest the suspect or suspects.

“We’re investigating this as an arson. This is not some random act on a victim. Obviously who he is [Chris Staples] could have been a motive,” Taylor said. “It [classifying the arson as a hate crime] is on the radar.”

Wanda Morris, mother of Staples, told the GA Voice, “This is 100 percent a hate crime. And I don’t see how it could not be.”

‘I’m lucky to be alive’

After the rock was thrown through his window, Staples went to sleep with the covers over his head, like a cocoon. Loud noises woke him up.

“I heard popping, like popcorn popping,” he said, thinking at first it was his TV. “Then it kept getting louder and I thought someone was throwing rocks again.”

When Staples peeked out from under his covers, he said there was smoke all around him and his covers were already “cracked and crumbly” from the heat and fire.

“I stood up and gasped for air. I couldn’t see so I fell to my knees,” he said.

His head hit the nightstand and his cell phone fell to the floor. He said he grabbed it and began to crawl along the floor trying to find the door.

“There was no air whatsoever. I crawled to where I thought the door was — it was the heater. Right then I was ready to lay down and go to sleep,” he said.

Instead, Staples said he got a “little burst of adrenaline” and he found enough energy to keep crawling until he found the front door.

As he tried to unlock the deadbolt, he kept failing and then slumped to the ground. This proved fortunate because at the bottom of the door there was enough of a gap between it and the floor to let in fresh air.

“I say God did this. I got another rush of adrenaline and was able to open the door,” he said.

As he crawled out the door he looked back and saw his leather couch melting and his ceiling caving in. Still disorientated, he didn’t know what phone number to dial so he said he simply hit “send,” which called his mother across the street.

“I told my mom to call 911. She ran across the street while I was lying in the grass and I heard her yell, ‘They killed him!’ And I was trying to get her to hear me, that I’m OK,” Staples said.

Also still in shock, Staples’ mother described the note attached to the rock thrown through the window of her son’s home as the “most vile, hateful, meanest thing I’ve ever read.”

Morris described her son as a man “who doesn’t have hate in his heart.”

“He’s disabled, quiet, a loner. Everyone who knows him loves him. He’s a hoot,” she said. “Everyone calls him, ‘Brother.’”

Morris said she and her family, although faithful Christians, have never felt anything but love for Staples.

“Chris came out years ago. It wasn’t a problem at all,” she said. “He’s just ‘Brother.’”

She said the “straight community” is not stepping forward to help as much as the gay community — gay people from all over the world are offering help and well-wishes.

“People here don’t like gays,” she said. “We’re still very much in the Bible belt.”

While she is a devout Christian, she has never believed that being gay meant a person was not a child of God.

“Because I don’t look at that word [gay]. I look at that person’s heart and soul,” Morris said.

The outpouring of support from the gay community is overwhelming, she added.

“I never knew you all existed. The love and camaraderie that is so strong — I’d like to have that in the straight community,” she said.

“I see that you all care,” she said as her voice broke with emotion. “When one of you hurt, you all hurt.”

While the suspected arsonists condemned Staples for being gay, he said he believes it was God who helped him escape the fire.

“God woke me and held my hand,” he said. “Whoever did this doesn’t know God as well as they think they do.”

Staples is currently staying with his parents and sleeping on an air mattress. His mother’s church has volunteered to rebuild his home.

He acknowledged he is not sure if the person or people who burned down his home were picking on him, Chris Staples, and just used him being gay against him, or if they truly have a hatred of all gay people. And he admits he is not sure if this was a hate crime.

“I hate answering that question because I don’t know the person’s intentions,” he said.

“But if someone doesn’t like me because I’m gay and did this, then yes, I think it is a hate crime,” he said. “I don’t want to hear anybody say it’s not a hate crime.”

Being gay in rural Georgia

Staples was raised on a dairy farm and says his good friends have always been “rednecks.”

“I hunt and fish — not really the gay lifestyle scene,” he said.

He said he was never bullied in school and his sophomore year of high school he was voted “Class Favorite.”

His parents always accepted him and loved him, he said, but he didn’t find the courage to come out until he was in his late 20s and early 30s.

“I had two lifestyles — the straight Chris and the gay Chris,” he said.

Living with the secret led him to get ulcers, consider suicide and to use drugs, he added.

“I knew I was born gay,” he said. “But I finally started coming out to certain people later in life.”

For the most part, his friends and family in Carrollton accepted him when he came out and never stopped loving him, he said. He did lose a few friends, Staples said, “but they’re the ones who changed, not me.”

“My mom told me to find a man and start a family,” he added.

The support from the LGBT community has surprised him as well, Staples said.

“I knew gay people called each other ‘family’ but I never knew what that truly meant,” he said.

“It’s good to know the gay community is as supportive as it is and it’s got my back — that’s a good feeling,” he said.

The Georgia Arson Control Program in the state’s Insurance Commissioner’s Office is offering a $10,000 award for information that leads to an arrest of the person who set fire to Staples’ home. Call 1-888-282-5804 or Carroll County Sheriff’s Department Investigator Tony Reeves at 770-830-5880 with information.

— Laura Douglas-Brown contributed

Top photo left to right: Chris Staples says he’s still shocked someone tried to kill him by burning down his Carrollton home. (Photo courtesy WSB-TV) The FBI is assisting Carroll County investigators in the arson of Staples’ home. (Photo by Ricky Stilley/The Times-Georgian)