Old Town couple allegedly targeted in vandalism, hate crime seek ‘peace’

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Seal Beach Police to submit investigation to District Attorney in coming weeks

Editor’s note: This story is about an alleged hate crime and references a racial slur. The term was referenced for the sake of accuracy and precision. Three sources interviewed for the story reported that the slur was used.

It’s been one year since Jimmie and Emily Covington moved from Irvine to Seal Beach.

Dr. Covington, who is African American, holds a Doctor of Theology degree and dreams of starting a ministry for interracial couples in town. His wife, who is white, is a nurse working in the intensive care unit amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their house sits on the corner of a busy intersection in Old Town. “Fishbowl, U.S.A” is how he described it noting the home’s numerous windows. Colorful flowers bloom around the exterior. A large cross is attached to the front door.

What allegedly happened at that front door is now part of a hate crime investigation.

Dr. Covington reported that a juvenile called him a racial slur on July 20. He said it happened after he confronted a group of kids after they banged loudly on his door and ran away. This variation on ding-dong ditching had become a frequent disturbance at the home since last year, he said. Later, on July 20, a firework was set off at the Covington’s front door, damaging the door but causing no physical injuries.

In separate interviews, Dr. Covington and a neighbor who witnessed part of the confrontation said they heard a juvenile say the N-word that night. A parent of one of the juveniles also said in an interview that their child heard someone in the group use the racial slur.

The couple said it is pressing charges to hopefully force a change.

“We want this to stop,” Dr. Covington said during an interview on Saturday.

“What we want at the end of the day is peace,” he said, explaining that he and his wife just want to be able to live their lives and coexist in the community. The couple said they have encountered racism in town before including people saying racial epithets as they drive past the house.

Just 2.2% of Seal Beach’s population is Black, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey from 2018, which amounts to 525 people (with a reported margin for error of plus or minus 0.7%). Reported hate crimes are rare, according to the Seal Beach Police Department.

SBPD is investigating the July 20 incident as a hate crime and misdemeanor vandalism. The misdemeanor of attempting to dissuade a witness is also part of the investigation after some parents of the juveniles reportedly went to the Covington’s home in the days after the incident.

In a July 31 email, SBPD confirmed it has interviewed all witnesses as well as all of the parents of the juveniles accused in the case. All but one of the juveniles has been interviewed by police. The parents declined to let police speak to their child. Some of the juveniles do not live in Seal Beach, according to SBPD.

SBPD expects to submit its investigation to the Orange County District Attorney’s office in the next week or so, according to Chief Phil Gonshak.

“It is our hope this investigation leads to a victim who feels safe and secure to live in this wonderful community,” Chief Gonshak wrote. “With that, it is our desire for any and all suspects to be held accountable for their despicable and hateful actions.”

Dr. Covington praised the Seal Beach Police Department’s handling of the case so far, saying he appreciated Chief Gonshak calling him personally.

The DA is in charge of deciding what charges to file and the courts have the power over punishment.

‘The outpouring of love has been overwhelming’

News of the incident has rattled and rallied the small Seal Beach community, inspiring many residents to show support for the Covingtons and to speak out against racism.

“No way in my imagination did I think we’d get such an outpouring of support,” Mrs. Covington said in an interview.

Many residents learned of the incident after she posted about it on neighborhood site NextDoor. (The post has since been taken down by NextDoor for unknown reasons.)

In addition to hundreds of comments of support on the post, dozens of cards, flowers, and gift certificates to local businesses arrived at the Covington’s home over the past two weeks.

Residents also showed up to keep watch over the home in the days after the incident. Others offered to meet up to pray.

Main Street merchant MacFusion donated three security cameras to the couple, according to Dr. Covington. During our interview, a gift bag with a Ring doorbell inside was delivered.

“How do you not feel good about this community?” Dr. Covington said. “The outpouring of love has been overwhelming.”

The vocal anti-racism in Seal Beach comes amid a national reckoning on equality and growing racial justice protests which were spurred in part by the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police officers in May.

‘Do you understand they’re targeting a Black man?’

Mrs. Covington’s original post on NextDoor detailed what her husband experienced the night of July 20 and asked “… Is this where we are at now?!? We are being held hostage by unparenting (sic) teenagers?!?! What’s next for my husband? Will he be shot by some racist?”

“I was just so worried about him and what was going to happen next,” she said in an interview.

The couple said a group of middle and high-school aged kids has been disturbing them on a regular basis since last Halloween, most notably by banging loudly on their and door and running off.

“Here’s the problem,” Dr. Covington explained. “It’s just this house that’s being targeted.”

Dr. Covington, 63, said ding-dong ditching was unheard of during his childhood in Pittsburgh where he was raised by his father who was also a Pastor.

“It’s hard for me to understand the ideology because we just didn’t do stuff like that,” he said, his wife nodding in agreement.

In late July, the common prank turned into something else, according to the Covingtons and neighbors in the area of 12th Street and Landing Avenue interviewed for this story.

Josh Haynie has lived in town for 26 years. He can see the Covington’s front door from his garage.

He said in the days before the firework incident, he recalled seeing ding-dong ditchers. At first, he thought the door was just an easy target as it sits very close to the street.

But then Haynie began to notice the kids “just [ding-dong ditching] that neighbor” and said it “seemed kind of weird.”

Shaun Shuck also lives across the street from the Covingtons and recalled hearing banging on his neighbor’s door and giggling kids running away a few nights before the firecracker incident.

Shuck said he felt like it did amount to targeting his neighbor. “Nobody was banging on our door by any means,” he said.

On Sunday, July 19, Haynie reported seeing a large group of kids, girls and boys, congregating in the street near their home. He and his wife said when they asked the kids what was going on, the kids responded by cursing at them.

“It was frustrating,” Haynie said. “They were super defiant.”

On July 20, Dr. Covington heard loud banging on his door. He ran outside to see kids running away and chased after them. They stopped in the street nearby and he said they started yelling at him.

A neighbor who did not want to use his/her name because of safety concerns said they exited their house after hearing the shouting and described a stand-off between the juveniles and Dr. Covington. The neighbor heard a kid say, “Go back to your home.” That’s also when the neighbor heard the N-word.

The neighbor tried to intervene but said the kids started hurling insults at them so they went inside.

Dr. Covington said the kids were still yelling when he walked back to his home where he called 911.

That’s when Haynie said he felt compelled to start recording a video of the activity with his phone.

Dr. Covington said the dispatcher put him on hold and he hung up when he heard activity at his front door. “I heard my screen door open,” he recalled. “I heard ‘boom’!”

He called 911 again. “This thing is escalating,” Covington remembered saying to the dispatcher. “It’s an M-80 inside my door.”

Shuck also heard what he said sounded “like a big bomb going off.” He immediately jumped up and saw kids biking off. He and other neighbors rushed outside.

Haynie also called the police. When officers showed up he said he told them, “Do you understand they’re targeting a Black man?”

In a July 22 press release, SBPD reported officers had detained a group of juveniles that night, releasing them to their parents pending further investigation.

“It was teenagers being stupid”

A parent of one of the accused juveniles said a group had been ding-dong-ditching the Covington’s house, among other houses, but that Dr. Covington’s race had nothing to do with it. (We are not identifying the parent to adhere to The Sun’s policy of not identifying juveniles accused of crimes.) The parent said it was because the children were getting a reaction from him.

“In their dumb 14-year-old brains they thought it would be funny,” the parent said of the ding-dong-ditching and added later, “It was teenagers being stupid.”

“The firework went too far,” the parent admitted but said, “However, with every fiber of my being I know that this was not an orchestrated hate crime.”

The parent said that they wanted their child to go to the Covington’s house to apologize. But police advised parents to stay away from the couple as “doing so only threatens the sanctity of the investigation.”

Dr. Covington said a few parents came by the house. One father offered to bring his son to apologize, but Dr. Covington said he did not feel comfortable speaking with the parents.

The juveniles and their parents have been condemned on social media.

“I’m disgusted by these kids,” read part of one post on NextDoor. “Too bad we can’t run them out of town,” read another. “I hope these terrors are put in their place,” read part of a comment on the SBPD Facebook page in response to a press release.

“They’re kids and they’re still growing and learning,” the parent of the accused juvenile said.

“It’s our job as a community to educate them. It takes a village, right? … This village has burned down,” the parent said reacting to the online comments.

Chief Gonshak said he understands the community’s need to discuss this issue, but encouraged residents to refrain from theorizing online saying it does little to help the victims or the suspects.

“The best thing we can do right now is learn and listen to what’s happening nationally and more important locally. It is certainly my hope we in Seal Beach can come together and be more patient through listening, rather than participate with conjectures online,” he wrote in an email.

‘I would like to see this be the example of how to deal with racial tensions’

“I’m at a place of forgiveness,” Dr. Covington said on Saturday and added he doesn’t have time for anger. “Emily and I are ready to move on.”

But he’s not ready to give up on fighting racism. He suggested getting kids from the Seal Beach community together with children from other communities to start a dialogue about inequity.

He’s also considering joining the SBPD as a chaplain.

The parent of one of the accused juveniles thinks Dr. Covington could help make this a profound learning experience.

“That would be life changing to have Dr. Covington talk to them,” the parent said.

“The most important thing to come out of this is for the kids to know why Mr. Covington felt like this,” the parent said and added that the kids don’t understand what it means to be “racially attacked.”

“We can make the kids suffer for the rest of their lives or we educate them and we change the community,” the parent said.

“I would like to see this city be the example of how to deal with racial tensions,” Dr. Covington said. He said the responsive police department and community can make that happen, noting the community’s reaction has shown him that Seal Beach will not tolerate racism.

“From what I see, this is a very good place and they’re just not going to have it.”

For more about the investigation, visit:

 

Q&A: SBPD Juvenile Vandalism/Hate Crime Investigation