The FBI is helping to investigate a fire at the home of a gay Carroll County man to determine if the suspected arson is a hate crime.

If federal prosecutors decide the alleged attack on Christopher 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.

FBI aids investigation of arson attack on Carroll County gay man

Staples’ home was the target of possible arson over the weekend. Staples, 43, reported a rock with a note containing anti-gay slurs attached was thrown through a window of his home on Saturday night. Several hours later early Sunday morning, he awoke to flames in his bedroom. Staples barely escaped the blaze but was uninjured. 

Here is how Staples described the incident on his Facebook page: “Somebody threw rock n window at 8 with note sayin faggots need 2 all die god wants me to burn in hell — so at 5 this a.m. I stuck my head outta my covers and I was in a inferno my comforter was already meltin to bed when I stood up almost passed out heat and smoke was all th way to fllor God pulled me out b4 roof strted drippin flames.”

“We do know that the fire was intentionally set, and we have taken evidence to the crime lab for testing,” Carrollton Fire Department Chief Jimmy Bearden told the Times-Georgian. “We are meeting with all the agencies involved to update the status of where we are in the investigation and what steps we take next as we work to determine who is responsible for starting this fire.”

According to the Times-Georgian, Staples’ home was a pool house by his parents’ home, and he is staying with friends in an undisclosed location for fear of his safety. 

Possible hate crime

Georgia is one of only a handful of states without any state-level hate crime law. The federal hate crimes act was signed into law by President Obama in October 2009. It is named for Matthew Shepard, the slain gay Wyoming college student, and James Byrd Jr., an African-American man who was dragged to death in Texas.

“I’m not aware of any cases in Georgia going forward under this new hate crime law,” Emmett said. “Savannah had a case but that was not picked up.”

Last year, the FBI worked with Savannah authorities to determine if the beating of a gay man by two Marines fit the federal hate crime criteria. No hate crime charges were filed in the case.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta will make the final call on whether to pursue the Carroll County fire as a federal hate crime, Emmett said. 

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office determines which cases get prosecuted in the federal system and of course the FBI works very closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office at the earliest stages possible,” he said.

Local authorities can ask for the FBI’s assistance in investigating a possible hate crime, or the FBI can reach out to local investigators to join a case, Emmett said. He was uncertain of the process in the Carroll County case.

Capt. Shane Taylor of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department said in an interview today there are currently no suspects in the case.

“We have nothing new to report,” he said.

“We are processing evidence and some evidence is being sent to the FBI,” he added, but declined to say what that evidence was.

Georgia Equality, the state’s largest LGBT political group, has lobbied for a state hate crimes law in the past. The group is currently trying to reach out to Staples, according to Executive Director Jeff Graham.

“We certainly want to check in with him to see what support he is looking for,” Graham said. “Very specifically, we want to check in within on what the presence has been from local and federal officials and if he needs any special assistance in reaching out to any federal officials at the Department of Justice to see that this is followed up and investigated appropriately.”

Georgia Equality is preparing for a Lobby Day training on Feb. 12, but Graham said the group is not actively pushing for a state hate crimes bill to be passed in the current legislative session after such bills have repeatedly failed to move over the last few years.

Georgia Equality has spoken with the Anti-Defamation League, a lead supporter of hate crimes legislation, about how to draft legislation and what lawmaker would be an appropriate sponsor, but any bill is unlikely to move without support from Republican leadership, Graham noted.

“That is why we are taking a step back and trying to reevaluate so that we don’t just introduce it to say it was done,” he said. “We are looking at what are the steps we can take at the state level and in local municipalities to increase awareness of hate crimes and make sure they are thoroughly investigated and properly litigated.”

The Carroll County case prompted debate over the need for hate crime laws in comments on the Times-Georgian’s articles. 

No disrespect to the man in this article but I am so tired of the term “hate crime”. Any act committed by one human against another, regardless of race, orientation, belief… is a “a hate crime.” We need to evolve beyond this. It was arson, not a hate crime. Just because someone is not mainstream should not add to the sentence. That’s just dumb.

I don’t think you get what a “hate crime” is. By definition, a hate crime is motivated by hatred for a class of people, and not just the victim. The victim is only the outlet for the hatred. So if this crime was motivated because he was gay, it is, in its intention, also an attack on all gay people. Here’s another, perhaps more intuitive or inflammatory (sorry if so), way to look at it. Would you agree that 9/11 was an attack on America? Or “only” an attack on the 3000 people that were killed? If a symbolic attack on America, bingo — you agree that hate crimes are something in addition to a “normal” crime. And they should be prosecuted likewise.

Friends and family have taken to Staples’ Facebook profile to offer support:

Thinking about you love and glad you are well! Hold you head up and look beyond the sick of the world, for what doesn’t kill us makes us spool much stronger. So in the end things are blessing in dequise. Love ya brother!

Hey Chris, I was really disgusted to see what had happened to you!!! Ignorant, Mean people REALLY SUCK!!!!! I am here if there is anything you need or if there is anything I can do. I am really sorry, that was just so wrong in so many ways!! Take care of yourself and keep your head up!!!

— Dyana Bagby & Ryan Watkins contributed.