NEWBERRY, S.C. – For the New Black Panther Party, it's simple: A black man being shot to death by a white man and dragged for miles behind a pickup truck is a racial hate crime.
For local authorities and residents in this city of 11,000 in central South Carolina, it's not so clear: The suspect and the victim were apparently friends, often eating lunch together at the turkey processing plant where they worked. Investigators say they spent several hours together before the gruesome slaying. And some speculate whether it started with an argument about a woman.
Federal authorities haven't yet decided whether to classify the killing of Anthony Hill, 30, as a hate crime. State authorities are still investigating and monitoring news conferences by the black activist group, which plans a rally Saturday on its insistence that Hill was killed for his color.
"Certain types of killings, like being dragged behind a pickup truck, are vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow-type punishments," said Malik Zulu Shabazz, president of the New Black Panther Party. "They're inherently hate crimes. That's our position — that any time a black person is dragged behind a pickup truck, automatically, there is a presumption that it is a hate crime."
The investigation began early in the morning June 2, when a passing motorist saw a body on the side of a main road through Newberry, a town known for its opera house and historic downtown. About 41 percent of its people are black, 53 percent white.
Officials say Hill, a former firefighter in the National Guard, was killed by a single gunshot to the head before he was dragged.
On the asphalt near his body, investigators noticed a dark, bloody stain, the end point of an 11-mile trail they traced back to the home of Gregory Collins. Noticing a piece of rope hanging from the back of a pickup truck, deputies knocked on the door of Collins' rented mobile home. Collins appeared and then retreated, barricading himself in his home for several hours, only surrendering after being forced out with tear gas.
Quickly arrested and charged with Hill's murder, the 19-year-old white man has been held in isolation in the local jail, and his bond has not been set. His public defender hasn't commented on the case.
State police and the FBI arrived to assist Newberry County sheriff's deputies with the investigation into whether the death was a hate crime, a determination that will be up to the U.S. Justice Department because South Carolina has no hate crime statute.
If there was racial tension or other animosity between the two men, it has not yet become known. Authorities said Hill and Collins had spent hours together in the day and night before the shooting, hanging out late into the evening. Hill's co-workers told police he and Collins frequently ate lunch together at work.
Shabazz, who says he has helped several families throughout the country affected by similar crimes, says he has all the evidence he needs to see that Hill's death should be a hate crime, despite evidence that the men were friends.
"The only option is for the Justice Department to intervene here and to charge Mr. Gregory Collins with a hate crime," Shabazz said. "Just because Anthony Hill was an acquaintance of Gregory Collins, to us it's not material."
Shabazz has made several trips to Newberry, holding meetings and news conferences intended to push authorities to accelerate their investigation. Maj. Todd Johnson, a spokesman for the sheriff's office, says the state murder investigation is on track and won't be sidelined while federal authorities mull the possibility of a hate crime charge.
Solicitor Jerry Peace, Newberry County's top prosecutor, says he hasn't determined if Collins could face the death penalty yet and will decide once he gets the complete case file from investigators. U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles says he'll discuss the case file with Peace and other officials.
Authorities haven't given a motive for the shooting, but Newberry residents have their own theories. Visiting with his dad in the family's hardware store in downtown Newberry, 23-year-old Andrew Shull says the local gossip is that Hill and Collins both had a relationship with the same woman, leading to an argument.
"It wasn't a hate crime," said Shull, who is white. "I think people misconstrue what happens."
Hill's mother has said she had a hard time believing her mild-mannered son would have such a violent disagreement with anyone. Shabazz said his group has been assisting Hill's estranged wife with legal services. Neither woman has talked about Hill's relationship with Collins.
"I just want justice for the kids," Aurea Hill said Friday, of the two young sons she shared with Hill. "All I'm asking for is answers."
In a barbershop he owns a few blocks away, 37-year-old Keith Suber says he knew Hill and feels that the black community in Newberry isn't outraged by the lack of a hate crime charge. He hopes the spotlight from the New Black Panthers' appearances in town may lead to community improvements for young people, like more public pools and recreation centers.
"My heart goes out to the young man and his family," says Suber, who is black and has a 16-year-old daughter. "I think the community here just wants some justice overall."
In the end, Shull's 61-year-old father says he wants justice for the Hill family but doesn't think it should come because of any intervention by a national group coming to town to rile tensions.
"Let the South handle their own problem," Bill Shull said. "There's not going to be any insurrection in Newberry."
New Black Panther Party: http://www.newblackpanther.com/