ROCKINGHAM — A man facing a hate crime charge in a neighborhood brawl says he was defending his fiancée and children from someone who had threatened their lives.
Richmond County sheriff’s deputies charged 26-year-old Thomas Guinn with assault and battery and ethnic intimidation after a video posted on Facebook allegedly showed him beating Jonathan Lindsey Brown Jr., who is also 26, in the front yard of a School Street home on June 21.
Guinn is white and Brown is African-American, but the defendant says the fight stemmed from threats Brown is accused of making against fiancée Krystal Phifer and had nothing to do with race.
“It’s not racial by no means,” Guinn said. “People look at me like I’m a racist. I’m no racist.”
Brown’s family believes prejudice did provoke the fight, however, noting that Guinn used the N-word and other racial slurs while punching and kicking Brown. Relatives said the video, which has since been removed from Facebook, shows other men beating him.
“They were saying, ‘Let’s get that (N-word)’ and racist stuff,” said Brown’s aunt, Ebony Gomez. “They said, ‘Let’s tie him to a tree and beat him.’ It just went on and on.”
Brown’s family said other men who helped Guinn beat her son are not facing charges in the fight even though deputies know one of the suspects by name, and they’re calling on the sheriff’s office to investigate further.
The fight’s aftermath will play out in the criminal justice system, with court appearances for both Guinn and Brown scheduled this week. Both men have criminal records and have served time in prison.
FIGHT FOLLOWS THREATS
Phifer and Guinn said Brown was looking for trouble when he confronted the couple at a friend’s School Street home. Brown was charged with misdemeanor communicating threats on the day of the fight for statements he’s accused of making to Phifer four days earlier, according to court records.
“He had been harrassing us for a very long time,” Phifer said. “He came over to where we were, and he was ready to fight.”
Phifer took out an arrest warrant charging Brown with communicating threats. The warrant issued by Richmond County Magistrate Carrie B. Prelipp on June 21 states that Brown said “he would come in her home and kill her children while she watched, then kill her.”
Phifer said Brown had been harrassing her for several months.
“He stood in my face and told me to my face that he would shoot my children,” Phifer said. “He threatened me directly. Why would you threaten a female, especially someone who hasn’t had anything to do with you? I don’t know him, hadn’t talked to him, don’t know where this came from.”
Guinn and Phifer were visiting friends when Brown showed up at the house, Phifer said.
“We were here just trying to have a good time,” she said, “and this man came to us.”
Phifer said her fiancé fought Brown to protect his family.
“Tom-Tom wanted it to stop,” she recalled. “He said, ‘This is how it’s going to be. He’s here because of me. He’s saying all this about my kids. I’m going to handle this.’”
Guinn “started whaling on him,” Phifer said, and “whipped his (butt).”
Brown refused to leave the home after the fight with Guinn, Phifer said. Words were exchanged and Phifer said her cousin entered the fray and started fighting Brown. When others began joining in, she said, someone recorded the video that was later posted to Facebook.
“He fought him one-on-one,” Phifer said of her fiancé. “The video didn’t start when the fight started.”
Brown’s mother and aunt said they were appalled when they saw the fight video on Facebook. They said it showed a group of white men attacking Brown while taunting him with racial epithets including the N-word and telling him to stay out of the East Rockingham community.
“I think it was over race,” said Brown’s mother, Bridgette Nelson. “He was calling him (the N-word), he was calling him black.”
Nelson said a sheriff’s deputy who saw the fight video on Facebook told her that the recording constituted evidence of a hate crime.
Ethnic intimidation, a Class 1 misdemeanor, occurs when a person assaults someone, damages property or threatens someone because of race, color, religion, nationality or country of origin, according to North Carolina law. The slurs themselves aren’t illegal, but they can be used to suggest a motive rooted in race.
Brown’s family also said several people are heard in the video ordering Brown to stay away from East Rockingham.
“They said they run East Rockingham, basically,” said Gomez, Brown’s aunt. “But East Rockingham is not an all-white community. When you ride down there, there are still rebel flags, but I don’t necessarily associate the rebel flag with being racist.”
Guinn and Phifer said the fight was over threats Brown had made to Phifer and had nothing to do with race.
“We have all these people looking at us everywhere we go,” Phifer said. “It’s making him feel some kind of way. What if someone decides to come after him because they think he’s against African-Americans?”
Phifer admits that Guinn used the N-word during the fight, but said he did so out of anger.
“Even if he (Brown) had been a white man, he still would have gotten beat up,” Phifer said. “You don’t talk that way about a man’s family and his children. You don’t do that.”
Phifer said Guinn has an uncle, cousins and a nephew who are black and she has a biracial child.
“Color doesn’t matter to us,” she said. “There’s no hate crime involved.”
Brown’s mother said Guinn was the only man charged with beating her son even though deputies watched a Facebook video showing several men taking part in the fight. She said justice won’t be done until the others are held accountable.
“I’m not going to let go of what happened,” Nelson said. “That boy does not belong to those deputies. He’s my child. I’m protecting my child.”
Richmond County deputies know at least one of the men by name, Brown said, because he was arrested last week in connection with an unrelated fight. She said the man is much bigger than her son and blames him for inflicting injuries that resulted in an emergency room visit.
The Daily Journal is not naming the man because he currently is not charged in the June 21 fight.
“I want to know why they didn’t charge (the other man) the same as Thomas Guinn,” Nelson said. “(He) beat my son. Why wasn’t he locked up?”
Investigators are still reviewing evidence and the case is pending, Chief Deputy Mark Gulledge said Monday.
“It’s a pending case,” Gulledge said. “They will have their day in court.”
Nelson said she watched the fight video before it was removed from Facebook. She believes it was posted to humiliate Brown and said it sparked futher racial tension.
“They tried to embarrass my son,” she said. “They tried to show everyone what they did to him.”
Brown went to the FirstHealth Richmond Memorial Hospital emergency room after the fight. Medical records his mother provided to the Daily Journal show that he was diagnosed with a fractured finger, a wrist injury and neck pain resulting from an unarmed assault.
A doctor ordered neck and hand X-rays and had a splint applied to Brown’s wrist, the diagnosis and patient discharge instructions state.
“You found one of the weakest persons you could possibly jump on,” Nelson said.
“Jonathan is about 150 pounds soaking wet with sweatclothes on and maybe some Timbs,” added Gomez.
Nelson acknowledges that her son’s been in trouble with the law. Days after the fight, he was arrested on a charge of selling prescription pills to a sheriff’s office informant.
Brown is accused of selling suboxone, a medication prescribed to treat dependence on opioid painkillers, to the confidential informant between March 18 and June 23. Deputies arrested him on a felony count of selling or delivering a Schedule III controlled substance, and he remained in jail Monday.
Brown faces two other pending charges in Richmond County: The communicating threats allegation brought by Phifer and a misdemeanor domestic violence protective order violation.
Both Brown and Guinn have served prison time, according to state records. Brown is on active probation following June 2 convictions of assault on a female and possession of a Schedule II controlled substance in Richmond County.
In August 2010, Brown was released from prison after serving a 45-day sentence on marijuana possession, maintaining a place for a controlled substance and driving while impaired convictions.
Guinn served probation on January 2012 convictions of assault with a deadly weapon and assault inflicting serious injury in Scotland County, according to the N.C. Division of Adult Correction.
He was released from prison in February 2008 after serving a 1-year, 3-month prison sentence on a 2007 conviction of assault inflicting serious bodily injury in Richmond County. Three months before his August 2007 guilty verdict, Guinn was convicted on a separate count of the same assault charge and served three months in prison.
Records show Guinn also served prison time on two Richmond County assault convictions from 2005 after he violated his probation and a judge activated his suspended sentence.
“For the past couple years now, I’ve been trying to keep him out of trouble, and he has stayed out of trouble,” said Phifer, who has been with Guinn for six years. “Me and Tom-Tom have been together. We have three children. We’re not trying to be involved in all this.”
Reach Editor Corey Friedman at 910-997-3111, ext. 13.