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Two men charged with hate crime

They allegedly yelled racial epithets, threw beer bottles and threatened to kill the man, who is Lebanese, but recently became a U.S. citizen.

By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published September 22, 2006



TAMPA — Two Polk County men were jailed on hate crime charges after they threw beer bottles at an Ybor City club owner and threatened to kill him, police say.

Joseph Azzi, manager of Club Fuel on 7th Avenue, was in the rear parking lot of his club speaking Arabic early Friday when two white men got out of a light blue sport utility vehicle and began yelling across the lot.

“Towel head,” the men shouted, along with other offensive phrases for people of Arab descent.

According to Ahmed Bedier, the head of the Council for American-Islamic Relations in Tampa, Azzi didn’t know what was happening. Bedier spoke to Azzi by telephone on Friday after the incident.

Though Lebanese-born, Azzi recently became a U.S. citizen.

Bedier says he told the two strangers, “Listen, I’m American, just like you.”

But that didn’t stop the men.

Glass bottles smashed against the building around Azzi, missing him. Azzi was not seriously hurt, but when the men threatened to get a gun and kill him, he ran to a nearby restaurant for help, police said.

Off-duty Tampa police Officer Brian Felts quickly called for officers to be on the lookout for the light blue Ford Expedition.

Within minutes, the suspects were found at N 15th Street and E Palm Avenue.

Lee Walter Hill, 28, of Auburndale and James Edward Butts, 25, of Lakeland were arrested on charges of aggravated battery. Hills was being held in lieu of $7,500 bail. Butts was released on bail Friday evening.

Because investigators determined the crime was precipitated by hatred based on ethnicity, the penalty has been enhanced to the status of a hate crime.

“This is one of those crimes that truly shocks the public conscience,” Maj. Bob Guidara said Friday, emphasizing that law enforcement will not tolerate hate crimes.

There have been 10 reported hate crimes in Tampa to date this year, Guidara said. “But one hate crime is one hate crime too many,” he said.

FBI Special Agent Jody Norris, who investigates civil rights violations, said reported hate crimes are increasing in the Tampa Bay area.

But officers say getting people to report such incidents to police is not easy.

Bedier said that Azzi did not even think of what happened to him as a hate crime until police began investigating it as such. Azzi told Bedier he doesn’t believe he even looks Arab. It was the threat on his life that made him run and contact the police.

“He just doesn’t understand that someone would hate him because of the way he looks of the language he speaks,” Bedier said. “He was shocked.”

Azzi could not be reached by the St. Petersburg Times for comment.

Nationally, a record 1,972 anti-Muslim civil rights violations were reported to CAIR in 2005 — up from 1,522 in 2004 and 1,019 in 2003. Statewide, CAIR counted 112 incidents, and in Central Florida, a record 54.

“Unfortunately, five years after 9/11, the stereotypes against Muslims continue,” Bedier said.

Hill and Butts each have extensive criminal histories in Florida, according to public records. Though it appears Friday’s charges were their first hate crime arrests, investigators said.

Butts was released in January from Taylor Correctional Institute, where he was imprisoned on aggravated assault charges. He’s been arrested 11 times since 1998, on charges that include assault, drug possession and domestic violence.

Hill, too, was recently incarcerated at Taylor Correctional, where he was sentenced to two years for drug trafficking. He was released in January of 2005. His other arrests over the last 10 years have included grand theft, vehicle theft, armed robbery, hit and run, drug possession, aggravated assault and burglary.

Tampa police Capt. Paul Driscoll said investigators are looking into whether the two are involved in any hate organizations.

Police also arrested a third person, Shannon Diane Olson, 23, of Lakeland, on charges she was driving under the influence. Olson was operating the Expedition when police pulled it over at a traffic stop. This was her first arrest in Florida, according to the Department of Law Enforcement.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Staff writer Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

[Last modified September 22, 2006, 22:36:02]


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