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Police investigating fire that burned gay-themed library books

Arson could be hate crime

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June 20, 2006 (Last Updated: 11:38:43 PM) - Chicago police now say the burning of almost 100 books at a Chicago library may have been a hate crime. The books were burned last week and were from the gay and lesbian section of the library.

Typically in a hate crime the motive is clear: to offend or scare people based on their ethnicity, belief or lifestyle. In this case, it is unclear whether this was a crime of opportunity or passion. The books that were damaged were in the gay and lesbian section, but it is also a section isolated from librarians and the common reading areas.

A North Side library in the midst of its summer reading program for kids is also known for having the largest collection of gay and lesbian literature of any Chicago branch library. Last Tuesday, someone set a fire in that collection at the Merlo library. Nearly 100 books were damaged.

"Last week, staff were informed by a library patron that they smelled smoke. Staff checked it out right away and were able to put out the fire immediately," said Maggie Killacky, Chicago Public Library.

The library won't speculate on why someone would set fire to books in that area, but others have their suspicions. Andy Thayer is co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network. He considers this a hate crime.

"It won't be tolerated, whether it's gay people, Muslims, Jews, whomever, that people will respond when there's a hate attack against any community. Because if one of us goes down, frankly, where does it stop?" said Andy Thayer, Gay Liberation Network.

Chicago police Tuesday said the fire is being investigated as arson and a possible hate crime. But so far a motive is unknown.

"What's puzzling about this crime is that we have no witnesses, no surveillance cameras, no motive and no offender," said Cmdr. Ed O'Donnell, Chicago Police Department.

When the fire was put out, evidence was compromised. Investigators weren't able to talk with all the patrons, including the patron who initially reported the fire. Police hope the public will help solve this crime.

Protestors united Tuesday night to send the message that hate will not be tolerated. As attacks go this was relatively minor. The only sign of the fire a week later is some open space on the book shelves. But to many at the Tuesday night rally the message was clear.

"This is troubling because this is a lesser extent of what happens around the country, around Illinois against gay people," said Deborah Mell, gay/lesbian activist.

Activists believe the timing of the fire during Gay Pride Month is more than suspicious. Some also believe police have been slow to look at the fire as a hate crime, something investigators deny.

"We've been working on it since last Tuesday as both a possible hate crime and an arson," said Cmdr. O'Donnell.

"The police department has been very aggressive about coming to a conclusion of this. They don't want to react too quickly," said Alderman Tom Tunney, 44th Ward.

Activists are taking in donated books to increase the gay and lesbian collection at another library in the area. They hope to more than make up for the burned books.

If you have information regarding this case, call Chicago police bomb and arson unit at (312) 746-7619.


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