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Town's friendly face hid messengers of hate

Diverse Deltona seemed perfect for a black family's dream home. But after a series of hate crimes, they're moving away.

By TAMARA LUSH
Published April 18, 2004

DELTONA - La-Tara and William Walker had seven months of peace in their dream home before the trouble started.

Two years ago someone hung a black baby doll from a noose in their front yard. A few months later, they discovered their puppy's neck garnished with a coil of nails. Then in August 2002, vandals caused $100,000 worth of damage to the interior of their home, including racial epithets spray-painted on the walls of every room and swastikas on the carpet.

But the Walkers, who are black, wanted to stay in Deltona. They liked the city, their children had friends, they loved their house and they were overwhelmed by community support. They were determined to remain in their airy home with its view of a verdant palmetto thicket out back.

But two weeks ago, their determination melted.

On March 29, they woke to a flash of light in their driveway. Their Toyota Camry was ablaze, the letters "SS" painted on the hood and "Never Forget" on the driveway.

Two days later, the Walkers stuck a "For Sale" sign in their front yard.

"It really doesn't feel like our home anymore," said La-Tara Walker, 34. "I'm scared to death."

Deltona is baffled.

A seeming suburban paradise between Orlando and Daytona Beach, it doesn't sound like their town, they say.

It could be any town.

* * *

Deltona is like many Florida cities.

It has no town center, only clusters of strip malls. People live in sprawling subdivisions with names like Arbor Ridge and Twin Lakes. Most work in Orlando, 30 miles south on Interstate 4, and play in Daytona Beach, 30 miles north.

With 76,000 residents, it is the largest city in Volusia County.

Planned as a retirement community in the early 1960s, Deltona's affordable housing and easy commute drew families instead. The 1980s and 1990s were boom years.

It's a racially diverse town. The City Commission includes two blacks, a Hispanic and four whites.

"We don't have a black street or a Puerto Rican street or a white street," said Commissioner Doug Horn, who is white. "We just have everybody living together on the same street."

Horn's view is echoed at Rob's Barber Shop, a magnet for young men in the area.

"Deltona's a good place," said Robert Muniz, the 29-year-old barbershop owner. "No problems."

Muniz is Puerto Rican, originally from New York. He cuts hair for whites, blacks, Hispanics, everyone. They've all heard about the Walker family, Muniz said, and everyone is concerned. But none of his customers are shocked.

"It could happen in New York, it could happen anywhere," said Luke Koenig, 23, a landscaper sitting in Muniz's barber chair.

Torrie Griffin, a 27-year-old black financial aid counselor for Stetson University, shrugged it off: "Some people still hate."

* * *

Some wonder whether Deltona's diversity caused a backlash.

In 1992, a young black family found a cross burned on their lawn. In 1994, another cross was burned at an intersection. Several homes under construction were painted with racial slurs throughout the year.

In 1996, the Ku Klux Klan demonstrated in front of one of the city's two high schools in support of a teen who wanted to bring the Confederate flag on school property. The Klan also wanted to adopt a road in Deltona in 1997, but the state said no.

The past two years have seen myriad other reported hate crimes, including the harassment of elderly people in a nursing home, threatening phone calls to a 43-year-old Jewish woman and anti-gay graffiti spray painted on a man's garage door.

Still, community leaders and residents say that Deltona isn't any different, or any more prejudiced, than anywhere else in Florida.

"I wouldn't describe it as a hotbed of racism or intolerance," said Deltona real estate agent Mike Williams, vice president of the Volusia NAACP, who has met with the Walkers about the problems they have had.

* * *

La-Tara and William Walker saved all of 2001 to buy their dream home.

The company that built it describes Deltona as a place to "experience some of Florida's finest old southern charm."

It "seemed so friendly," said Mrs. Walker, who works as a secretary at a nearby hospital.

Just after Christmas 2001, the Walkers closed on their $133,000 house - four bedrooms, two bathrooms, high ceilings, screened porch.

Immediately after the closing, the family - La-Tara, William and three boys - drove to their new home.

"We went in and prayed and sang gospel," La-Tara recalled.

They ate pizza, made a pallet of blankets and pillows in the living room and fell asleep.

* * *

Six months later, someone hung a black baby doll from a noose in their front yard.

A 15-year-old neighbor confessed and apologized. He was the son of a Seminole County sheriff's deputy, and the Walkers decided not to press charges.

A couple of weeks later, the Walkers found their puppy, Queenie, with a necklace of nails. No one was arrested. Queenie ran away a few months later.

"At least, that's what we think happened to her," said La-Tara Walker.

The worst was still to come.

In late August 2002, La-Tara was out of town at a church gathering. Her husband, a long distance trucker, was home with their three boys.

They went to a movie at 8 p.m., and returned about midnight.

La-Tara got word to come home immediately. She found police tape surrounding her house and her husband crying.

"Don't go in," he told her. "It's ugly."

From the sheriff's report: "On the floor of the entry way to the bedroom the words "Die N-----" were found spray painted in red. Along with another Nazi swastika. And the bedroom entertainment center had been pushed over, spilling its contents to the floor. Numerous holes in this room were also found punched in ... on the dresser mirror, a circled swastika had also been painted on the glass in black spray paint."

It was like that in every room.

* * *

The Walkers cried and prayed. The vandalism totaled $100,000, the Walkers said, not including the Ford Explorer damaged in the garage.

The community helped them rebuild. Some donated furniture, others helped them clean. People came by the busload.

"With these people coming by, it tells me that the world is good," La-Tara Walker told the Orlando Sentinel at the time. "God heals. We can be strong."

Almost two years went by. No arrests were made.

Rumors swirled: Some said one of the Walker boys had upset a group of white kids. Others pointed to a Klan member who allegedly lives nearby.

"Without knowing the real cause, I would definitely be in fear if I were the Walkers," said next-door neighbor Beth White, 34. "I just can't see how anyone could be that hateful."

Still, life got back to normal.

In August 2003, Mrs. Walker gave birth to her fourth son, William Anthony. "Everything was quiet," she said. "We never thought about moving."

Until March 29.

William Walker saw a ball of fire in the driveway and screamed for his wife and kids: "Get up. The car's on fire."

La-Tara grabbed the baby and her other boys and ran to a neighbor's home to call 911.

No arrests have been made. Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson is offering a $5,000 reward. Although the previous vandalism was classified as a hate crime, which carries stiffer penalties, the recent arson has not been.

"We don't have enough information yet," Johnson said. "Is it a hate crime? Is it connected to the other vandalism? My gut feeling is, yes, it is."

Johnson said the case is his top priority and has assigned several investigators. He's just as puzzled as everyone else.

"It's against one family, but why?" Johnson asked.

The Walkers aren't waiting to find out.

They have found a new dream home in Sanford, a few miles down I-4.

- Tamara Lush can be reached at 727 893-8612 or at lush@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 18, 2004, 01:35:47]


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