West Point is a seemingly idyllic community nestled not far from the banks of the Tombigbee River. But as the town prepares for its annual Howlin’ Wolf Blues Festival and the Prairie Arts Festival, both longtime attractions of Labor Day Weekend in Clay County, a dark cloud looms over the town of slightly more than 11,000 people. During a week when the usual talk in a normal Labor Day Weekend would be about the West Point Green Wave’s Friday night matchup against South Panola High School, no one is talking about football.
Instead, everyone’s attention is seemingly directed towards what happened during the early morning hours of Saturday, August 23, when two white males were assaulted by a group of African-Americans outside a 24-hour diner in West Point.
According to the Associated Press and numerous other media agencies, Ralph Weems IV, 32, and David Knighten were at the Waffle House restaurant in West Point around 1 a.m. on Saturday, August 23, and they were told to leave because the restaurant “was not safe for white people” because of the ongoing racial turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., over the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American who was shot and killed by police.
Weems allegedly had an altercation with some of the patrons of the Waffle House before being asked to leave.
[An anonymous African-American male called The Packet office Wednesday afternoon claiming Weems had a misdemeanor criminal record “a mile long.” The caller claimed Weems had been arrested on a variety of charges in Clay County around 2008 from disturbing the peace to being drunk in public. The caller, who would not give his name, said he would fax the charges to The Packet, but this never happened. The alleged charges against Weems could not be verified at press time. Ed.]
Knighten told the AP the two men left the Waffle House and headed to the Huddle House at 230 U.S. 45 Alt, where they were followed by several patrons from the Waffle House.
According to the AP, “Knighten said that as he and Weems headed from the Waffle House to Weems’ house, they went into a Huddle House restaurant with a nearly vacant parking lot. However, he said, they apparently had been followed by more than 20 alleged African-Americans. Knighten said he came out of the restroom to find Weems surrounded. When he and Weems left, Knighten said, some in the group kept him behind Weems, and when he emerged Weems was being kicked. Knighten said he himself suffered broken facial bones, a cut above one eye and a blood clot in the other.”
Weems is hospitalized at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo where he was placed in a medically-induced coma. According to the AP, he was in stable condition Tuesday. A source close to the Weems family said on Wednesday that Weems was still in the coma and he was being pulled out of it by the medical staff from time to time.
On Tuesday, West Point Police Chief Tim Brinkley issued the following press release:
Detectives with the West Point Police Department are reviewing video footage of the incident that left one man critically injured after an assault early Saturday morning. Though the identity of the man has been released by someone close to the family, police are not officially releasing the identity of the victim.
According to reports filed by the responding officers, they were dispatched to the Waffle House restaurant at about 1 a.m. in reference to a disturbance. Once there, a restaurant employee stated that a man was creating a disturbance and upsetting the other patrons. Store employees told police they wanted the man to leave.
According to the report, after the man was asked to leave, store employees also requested that the other patrons leave as well. Then at 2 a.m., E911 dispatched officers to the Huddle House in reference to a fight in progress. Upon arrival, officers discovered an unconscious man in the parking lot.
“Our investigation has revealed that most, if not all, of the assailants are from adjourning (sic) Monroe County,” Police Chief Tim Brinkley said. “A list of suspects has been developed and detectives have arrested one man in connection with this crime.”
Arrested on Tuesday was 22-year-old Courtez McMillian of 30469 Old Hwy 41, Okolona. He is being held in the Clay County Detention Center, pending charges of aggravated assault. Other arrests are pending. Brinkley also commented that a hate crime is an enhancement penalty.
“It’s up to the Grand Jury to make this determination. All we do is process the evidence and turn the case over to the District Attorney who in turn presents it to the Grand Jury. It’s within their discretion to add the hate crime enhancement,” Brinkley said.
The next Clay County Grand Jury meets Oct. 6.
The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (MBI) has been briefed on the particulars of this case as well as the District Attorney’s Office. This case is still under investigation and anyone with information is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 800-530-7151 or the West Point Police Department at 662-494-1244.
Technically, there are no “hate crime” laws in Mississippi. The term “hate crime” is applied during the sentencing phase. “Enhanced Penalties for Offenses Committed for Discriminatory Reasons” falls under Miss. Code. Ann § 99-19-301.
Brinkley did not return phone calls for comment on Tuesday.