Man pleads guilty in cross burning

Published August 17, 2006

A North Florida man pleaded guilty Wednesday to a racially motivated civil rights crime involving a cross burning, the Justice Department announced.

Neal Chapman Coombs, 50, of Hastings in St. Johns County, was charged Aug. 10 with intimidating and interfering with an African-American family that was negotiating for the purchase of a house in his neighborhood Jan. 15.

Coombs entered his plea before U.S. Magistrate Judge Howard T. Snyder in Jacksonville. His offense is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, three years of supervised release and a special assessment of $100.

According to the plea agreement, a black family of four, accompanied by a real estate agent, was looking at a house for sale when Coombs, who is white, stood in his yard next door, made loud remarks about a "house warming," referred derogatorily to their race, then set afire a 6-foot wooden cross he had in his yard.

Coombs also said to the black couple's 15-year-old son, "I don't want to see you around here again, boy."