Several representatives of organizations that promote social justice and diversity have voiced concern with the Cayuga County Sheriff's Office following an incident in the town of Owasco. 

The incident occurred on Sunday, Nov. 5, when sheriff's deputies said an Owasco man harassed a family over a "landlord-tenant dispute" on North Road

According to a press release, at around 10:50 p.m., deputies responded to the home of Jeffrey Richardson and Lisa Bachman after two males parked a tractor in their driveway and posted a large sign in their front yard. The sign — a cut-out of a black bear — said "Get Out." 

After pounding the sign into the ground, deputies said an adult male fired a shotgun in the air before leaving in a vehicle. Then, after a short pursuit, the vehicle crashed in a ditch on Town Hall Road. 

Eric Simmons, 50, of Baptist Corners Road, was arrested and ultimately charged with seven counts of third-degree criminal possession of a weapon, a class D felony, for illegally possessing several handguns. He was also charged with second-degree menacing with a weapon, second-degree obstructing governmental administration and endangering the welfare of a child, all class A misdemeanors. 

The sheriff's office said Simmons is a friend of the landlord who had the dispute with the North Road tenants. The second male was a 14-year-old boy who has been identified as Simmons' son.

After the incident, Richardson posted about it on Facebook. "All because I'm black living in a white neighborhood is what it comes down to," he wrote.

Richardson, who is black, later told The Citizen he viewed it as a hate crime. 

The sheriff's office said there was no indication that race was a factor in the case. But now, several local organizations are asking the sheriff's office to reconsider that determination.

In a letter sent to The Citizen last week, representatives from the Harriet Tubman Center for Justice and Peace, Harriet Tubman Boosters and Celebrate! Diverse Auburn asked the sheriff's office to investigate the possibility that a hate crime had been committed. 

"We are deeply concerned about how this incident and the way it is handled by our law enforcement and justice departments reflect on our community," the letter said. "It is our hope that the law enforcement and judicial systems understand the severity of this matter and prosecute it to the fullest extent of the law." 

In response, Sheriff David Gould said that is just what his office has done. 

Under New York State Penal Law, a person commits a hate crime when he or she commits a specified offense and either intentionally selects the victim or intentionally commits a crime "in whole or substantial part" based on race, color or other bias. 

Gould and Sgt. Frederick Cornelius said the sheriff's office investigated the incident as a possible hate crime, but could not prove that the motivation behind the offense was largely based on race. 

"There is nothing to determine that this is a bias-related crime or a hate crime according to New York State Penal Law," Gould said in a phone interview Friday. "If we determined that was something fitting the state statutes, we certainly would have charged it, but at this time we have no evidence that it is a hate crime related incident." 

"If we were able to prove that the crime was committed in whole or substantial part, not just some random thought ... then we would be able to charge the menacing as a hate crime," Cornelius added, noting that menacing as a hate crime would have raised the charge from a class A misdemeanor to a class E felony. 

At this time, the sheriff's office said the incident resulted over a rent payment, as Simmons is a friend of Richardson's landlord. However, Gould stressed that his office would continue to investigate the incident if new information became available. 

"I am in constant communication with the NAACP and (Auburn) Human Rights Commission and we will certainly listen to anything they have to say," Gould said. "We have a great relationship with the minority community and we expect to continue that." 

The diversity groups also encouraged officials to consult with the New York State Police Hate Crimes Unit as well as colleagues in Ithaca and Oswego where recent incidents warranted hate crime investigations. 

Gould said he would reach out to the state police unit for assistance if his office determined it was a hate crime. 

"If we needed their expertise and this rose to a hate crime we would certainly reach out to them for help," he said. 

The Citizen reached out to Richardson and NAACP President Eli Hernandez Friday, but neither could be reached for comment. 

Staff writer Megan Blarr can be reached at (315) 282-2282 or megan.blarr@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @CitizenBlarr. 

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Crime and Courts Reporter