'Summoning the devil's army': Couple arrested after burning cross found outside neighbor's home

As police in South Carolina investigate the suspected hate crime of a flaming cross recently found in front of a Black family's home, city leaders are calling for justice.

At the same time, the NAACP said it plans to launch an investigation into what the victims are calling a prejudice-motivated attack.

South Carolina is only one of two states in the nation that do not have local laws criminalizing hate crimes. Over the past three years, a hate crimes bill has made it through the House and to the Senate floor in The Palmetto State, but has never been signed into law.

According to the Horry County Police Department, Worden Butler, 28, and Alexis Harnett, 27, who are white, were each arrested on a second-degree harassment charge after a cross was erected and set on fire outside their neighbors' home in the city of Conway, about 15 miles northwest of Myrtle Beach.

The victims in the case, police reported, are Black.

"Such hate and harassment will not be tolerated," Horry County police Chief Joseph Hill released in a statement Thursday, calling the couple's actions "appalling and unacceptable."

"The individuals responsible will be held accountable for their actions and the hurt they have caused the victims and the greater Horry County community," the chief wrote. "We will continue to support the victims and stand with them against such indecency."

A burning cross in a field in Oak Grove, Michigan, June 24, 1995. Police in South Carolina are investigating a suspected hate crime after they say someone set a cross on fire in front of a Black family's Conway home after using racial slurs against them on voluminous occasions. (AP Photo/Jeff Kowalsky)

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Erected 'in full view of the victims' home'

According to an arrest report obtained by USA TODAY, a preliminary investigation revealed Butler allegedly erected the cross "in full view of the victims' home" and set it ablaze.

Harnett, police wrote in her arrest warrant, "in a pattern of conduct" over a period of time used racial slurs against the victims, threatened bodily harm against them and told the she "killed a Black woman in the past."

According to the Horry County Police Department, Worden Butler, 28, and Alexis Harnett, 27, were each arrested on a second-degree harassment charge after a burning cross was found outside their neighbor's home on Nov, 24, 2023.

According to an incident report, on Nov. 23 officers responded to the victims' home after they reported being "stalked and harassed" by their neighbors. The victims told police they felt "the suspects are a danger to their safety" and reported the incidents were "getting more frequent and threatening."

Butler and Harnett had "uttered derogatory comments" against them "based on their race," an officer wrote in the report, and said the victims told police they were concerned the couple "may escalate their behavior beyond cross burning."

In addition, the officer wrote, Butler had recently "dug a moat around his property" and at the scene, Hartnett yelled racial slurs at the victims while police spoke to them. The slurs, police said, were captured on police body cameras.

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'Eight feet from our fence'

The couple could not immediately be reached by USA TODAY, but told WMBF-TV they found the burning cross facing their home about eight feet from their fence.

"We were speechless because we’ve never experienced something like that,” Monica Williams, who lives in the home with her husband, Shawn Williams, told the outlet.

Their neighbors, the outlet reported she said, "have made the last two years a living nightmare" for them.

When officers responded to the home for "a burning cross on the front lawn" they said they found the fire out upon arrival.

'Summoning the devil's army'

According to the report, prior to the crime Butler also allegedly posted the couple's address on Facebook, saying he was "summoning the devil's army and I don't care if they and I both go down in the same boat. I'm about to make them pay.'

The posts, police said, were added to Butler's original post that explained, "They come on holidays to start a fight with me,"referring to the victims visiting because it is a second home for them."

'As a city we are appalled'

Conway Mayor Barbara Jo Blaine Bellamy, who was swore in as the city's first Black mayor in 2016, could not immediately be reached by USA TODAY Friday.

"As a city we are appalled and disturbed by the details that have been reported," city of Conway spokesperson June Wood told USA TODAY Friday. "The safety of our community remains a priority and hate towards anyone will not be tolerated in Conway. We stand in support of the victims in this incident and our partners at Horry County Police Department as they pursue justice."

Meanwhile the NAACP told WMBF-TV the organization planned to launch an investigation into the reported hate crime.

“This here renews our efforts,” NAACP task force member Cedric Blain-Spain told the outlet. “Certainly, this has opened old wounds for those who have lived through the Jim Crow era.”

The cross burning proves a hate crime bill "is needed in South Carolina," Marvin Neal, 3rd vice president with the South Carolina State Conference NAACP, also told the outlet.

“In these days and times, we don’t expect things like that to happen; it’s really appalling," he said. “We thought we were on the road in that direction when that happened, but here we are again.”

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