Cross burned in family's yard

A crackling sound outside her living room window startled Sol Whyte as she watched television Monday night, but the source of the sound &

the letters "KKK" and a cross etched in flame across the lawn of her west Medford home &

shocked her even more.

"It was so scary," she said.

She called to her husband, Jonathan Whyte, who is originally from Jamaica, and they rushed outside, while she called police.

"It was just blazing," said Jonathan Whyte, who worried that the leaping flames could spread to the house where the couple's two daughters, Sashagayle, 4, and Jasmatea, 2, were sleeping.

Neighbors helped stomp out the flames and douse them with water from a garden hose, while others chased three young men who had been seen in the street and the Whytes' yard.

Police got the call at 11:11 p.m. Monday and rushed to the house in the 500 block of Benson Street. They found that the three suspects, described as thin, white men in their late teens or early 20s, wearing jeans and hooded sweatshirts, already had given pursuers the slip near the intersection of Union Avenue and 11th Street, said Medford police Lt. Tim Doney.

Officers collecting evidence from the yard found an explosive device made from a bottle and altered fireworks and an Oregon State Police bomb squad was called in to dispose of it.

"We take this kind of case very seriously," Doney said, noting that racial intimidation that qualifies as a hate crime is relatively rare in Medford.

The last such case was a reported attack by two brothers on two black teenagers walking along Riverside Avenue in downtown Medford in June. Police said that assault was the fourth hate crime case in 2007. The most recent Federal Bureau of Investigation hate-crime statistics from 2006 list three such crimes in Medford and one in Jackson County.

"I don't know why this happened. I don't know how this happened," said Jonathan Whyte, who came here from Jamaica in 2000.

Sol Whyte was born in California and lived in Mexico for a time before coming to Jackson County in 1989. She said she knew there were racial tensions and racist people in the community, but she never expected to be bothered.

When she first heard the crackle and saw a flickering glow, she feared that a new window air conditioner had malfunctioned. Realizing the flames were outside, she worried that a passerby had flicked a cigarette butt into several small piles of cut grass that Jonathan Whyte had raked up Sunday in the little yard where he washes his car and watches the girls ride bikes on the sidewalk.

Jasmatea has allergies, asthma and a congenital disease that leaves her with a low white blood cell count and makes her susceptible to infections, so the family doesn't go out much, Sol Whyte said. She worked at La Clinica del Valle until she had to take time off to care for her ailing daughter and her husband works at Independent Retirement Living in Ashland.

He didn't go to work Tuesday because Sol Whyte was afraid to stay at the house alone with their girls and a friend's child she was watching.

"I couldn't sleep," she said. "I didn't want to stay here alone."

She said she loves the little house on a corner not far from Union Park where the family has lived since January, but now is considering a move. They won't leave the area, though.

"I have too much family around to leave," she said.

Investigators are analyzing evidence collected at the yard and hope to hear from neighbors who might know about the incident. Those with information are asked to call Medford police at 770-4784.

They are also looking for possible links to a case in which altered fireworks were tossed onto a porch in the 300 block of Hamilton Street around 10:30 p.m. Monday. That small explosion didn't cause any damage and didn't appear to target residents for a reason, police said.

The incident at the Whytes appeared to target them, based on race, in a clear intent to frighten, police said.

"It would strike fear in most people," Doney said. "We will follow the facts and let them speak for themselves."

Debra Lee, a member of Medford's Multicultural Commission and executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Legal Services, hears a troubling message in the facts so far.

"This is someone who lives here," she said. "This is egregious."

The commission is working to engage young people and this will motivate its members, she said.

Louise Dix, neighborhood resource coordinator with the city, also plans to organize educational events to promote understanding and tolerance. She and police praised neighbors who stepped in late Monday to put out the flames and look for the perpetrators.

"That's a good way to stop this from happening," she said.

Kerrie Davis, who has lived nearby on Prune Street since 1985 and raised a biracial black son, said she was shocked to hear about the incident, even though she and her son have seen conflict and tension across the community firsthand.

"I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me. Can't we move forward?' " she said. "Whether this is an organized group or just a prank, it's a shame that we are still dealing with it today."

Medford has to come together to banish intolerance based on ignorance, taking a stand against it just as it would against drugs, gangs or other community scourges, Davis said.

"The whole community needs to address this," she said. "We need to put 100 percent into helping one another and not tearing one another down."

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