Attorney general files hate crime lawsuit against pair for harassing Black neighbor with racist effigy

The lawsuit is first filed under state hate crime laws.

SHARE Attorney general files hate crime lawsuit against pair for harassing Black neighbor with racist effigy
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul speaks during a news conference at the Thompson Center on Sept. 8, 2021.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Attorney General Kwame Raoul on Wednesday announced his office had filed a hate crime complaint in civil court against a mother and son in the tiny town of Savanna, who harassed a Black neighbor by hanging a black-faced mannequin in their yard.

The filing in Carroll County Circuit Court marked the first time the attorney general had used provisions added to the state’s hate crime laws in 2018 that allow civil lawsuits to be filed against the perpetrators of hate crimes, Raoul’s office said. If successful, the lawsuit would heap fines onto the defendants and bar them from further acts of intimidation.

“Our complaint alleges the defendants intentionally used the shameful history of lynching and racism in America to terrorize and instill fear in their next-door neighbor simply because he is Black. No one should be subjected to this kind of hate,” Raoul said in a statement. “I am committed to continuing to partner with law enforcement agencies across Illinois to prosecute hate crimes and send a message that hate and bigotry of any kind are not welcome and will not be tolerated.” 

The suit stems from a series of incidents between neighbors that began in the summer of 2020. Gregory Johnson, a Chicago native, moved to spend his retirement in Savanna, a town of about 3,000 residents along the banks of the Mississippi River. In the rental house next door lived 67-year-old Cheryl Hampton and her 45-year-old son, Chad.

In October 2020, Johnson called police after he spotted a mannequin dangling from a noose tied to a tree that faced his house from Hamptons’ yard. The dummy had been painted black, was adorned with a curly black wig that had been misted with white paint and had chains wrapped around its wrists and waist. The clothes on the effigy resembled those Johnson often wore, and the wig resembled his salt-and-pepper hair, the lawsuit states.

When police arrived, Cheryl Hampton told them the dummy was a Halloween decoration. She refused to move it to the other side of the property or to paint it another color. When an officer returned the next day, he noticed a Confederate flag hanging in one of the Hamptons’ windows that faced Johnson’s house, with the N-word written on the pane in large black letters.

The lawsuit notes reasons to be skeptical of the claim that the effigy was just a holiday decoration. It appeared the day after Chad Hampton was arraigned on a misdemeanor charge for allegedly killing a strip of Johnson’s lawn with weedkiller. When charges first were filed against Chad Hampton in September, swastikas appeared in black paint on the Hamptons’ garage, facing Johnson’s windows.

The charges stemmed from a dispute that began in July over a fence Johnson put up between the houses. When police arrived to talk with Cheryl Hampton, she told an officer she didn’t want Black people living next door but referred to them using a racial slur. The officer watched Chad Hampton hoist a Confederate flag from a pole in front of the house, the lawsuit states. After police left, Johnson reported Chad Hampton spraying weedkiller on grass near the fence.

Charges against Chad Hampton for allegedly damaging Johnson’s lawn are pending, as is a felony count against Cheryl Hampton for witness intimidation after refusing to take down the dummy. Police removed it as evidence, prompting the Hamptons to file a complaint for damaging their property.

An attorney representing the Hamptons in several related criminal cases in Carroll County did not respond to a message from the Chicago Sun-Times. The lawsuit seeks to bar the Hamptons from contacting Johnson or engaging in similar behavior toward Johnson or anyone else, as well as assessing fines of up to $25,000 for each time they violated state hate crime statutes.

In a phone interview, Savanna Police Chief Jeff Doran said his department had reported the incident to the FBI, which declined to bring any charges, and returned the effigy in pieces. Doran said charges brought by local prosecutors did not seem to deter the Hamptons and he was pleased by the attorney general’s lawsuit.

Doran, who grew up in the area and was sheriff until taking a job as chief in 2019, noted the two houses are across an alley from the police station and he was able to watch cars driving past the effigy before it was taken down. The Hamptons have since moved, he said.

“We were there every time they did something to [Johnson], they would call us and [officers] would take pictures of it all, the swastikas, the Confederate flag. It just kept escalating,” Doran said. “I have never seen anything like it in almost 40 years in law enforcement.”

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