Update: Late Tuesday afternoon, authorities in Louisiana said Sharmeka Moffitt, a 20-year-old African-American woman, set herself on fire in a park in Winnsboro, La., Sunday night and faked what appeared to be a brutal, racially motivated hate crime. The alleged attack rattled the small city of 5,000 residents, dredging up memories of the state’s racially violent past. Moffitt had told police three men doused her with a flammable liquid and set her ablaze. “It’s been a very disturbing case for everyone involved,’’ the Franklin News quoted Winnsboro Police Chief Lester Thomas as saying at a news conference Tuesday. The authorities said that Moffitt’s fingerprints were on the cigarette lighter and the lighter fluid recovered near the crime scene, adding that a racial slur and the letters KKK that were written in toothpaste on Moffitt’s car were linked to female DNA. “I’m speechless,’’ Winnsboro City Council member Betty Johnson told Hatewatch after hearing the attack was a lie. “You know we will continue to pray for her. She needs a lot of help.’’
The small Louisiana city of Winnsboro was filled with shock, rumors and prayers Tuesday as residents anxiously waited for law enforcement officials to determine who set a 20-year-old African-American woman on fire in a local park Sunday night – and why.
“We’re hoping the police will handle this before it escalates any further,” Betty Johnson, a member of the Winnsboro City Council told Hatewatch Tuesday, adding that “some of the younger people in town” are saying “somebody is going to pay for this.”
“But we don’t know who did it,” Johnson said. “We don’t know for sure what happened.”
Sharmeka Moffitt was found Sunday around 8 p.m. in Civitan Park with burns over more than 50 percent of her body. Scrawled across her car parked nearby in white letters were KKK and the word “Nigger.”
Moffitt reportedly told police that she was attacked by three men wearing white “hoodies” as she jogged through the popular park. They doused her in a flammable liquid and set her ablaze. But she could not be sure what race her assailants were. There have been no arrests.
Badly burned, Moffitt still managed to call 911 and report the attack. She told officers that she put out the fire herself with water from a nearby spigot before they arrived. She was reportedly undergoing surgery Tuesday at a Shreveport hospital and was listed in critical condition.
“Basically all of Winnsboro is in shock,” Craig Gill, another member of the Winnsboro City Council told Hatewatch. “It’s a very nice park, utilized by young and old, black and white. It was a big shock that something like that happened there or anywhere in Winnsboro.”
A prayer vigil was scheduled for Tuesday night at the park.
“The best thing we can do right now is pray for the family and wait for the police,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of confusion and stories going around.”
The NAACP is following the investigation closely. On Tuesday, the civil rights organization urged authorities, including the FBI and the Louisiana State Police, to “fully investigate” the “gang attack” on Moffitt.
“Initial reports of racial animus in the incident are disturbing,” NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a written statement. “We will remain vigilant as we urge authorities to conduct a full investigation into this crime.”
Winnsboro, located about 40 miles from Monroe, La., has about 5,000 residents and is nearly 60 percent African American.
“Winnsboro is one of those very old, rural areas,” Carmen Watkins, the NAACP Louisiana regional director told Hatewatch. “It’s one of those funny little Louisiana towns. People have learned a way to survive in the area, but people hold fast to the old traditional ways of thinking, too.”
In January, in the town of Jonesboro, about 78 miles from Winnsboro, the NAACP held a rally to protest unfair lending practices and lack of jobs. The Aryan Nations held a counter rally several blocks away, television station KNOE 8 reported. “Overall both rallies went off without incident,” the station said on its website, “despite a number of racial slurs from the Aryan Nation toward a nearby group of African American church members.’’
Jonesboro was also the birthplace of the 1960s-era group Deacons of Defense, a band of African-American military veterans who organized to protect civil rights workers and others across the region from the widespread and brutal violence of the Ku Klux Klan.
But City Council member Johnson, who is black, and her colleague, Gill, who is white, agreed that there has been little racial tension in Winnsboro in recent years. Johnson’s ex-husband, Jackie, became Winnsboro’s first black mayor about three years ago.
“I can’t ever remember the Klan being active around here,” Betty Johnson said. “We’ve all gotten along very well. That’s what shocks people so much. There hasn’t been anything that would even remotely make me think something like this could happen. But it did happen.”