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The FBI is probing possible hate-crime charges in the Mount Laurel racial harassment case, residents say

“Everybody was disgusted by that video,” said Mount Laurel Mayor Stephen Steglik said. “You’re screaming racial slurs and you’re spitting in somebody’s face — that would seem like a hate crime to me.”

FILE - Police escort Edward C. Mathews through a crowd of people who had gathered outside his Mount Laurel, N.J., home, Monday, July 5, 2021.
FILE - Police escort Edward C. Mathews through a crowd of people who had gathered outside his Mount Laurel, N.J., home, Monday, July 5, 2021.Read moreTOM GRALISH / AP

Federal authorities are looking into possible hate-crime charges against a white man who allegedly harassed his Black neighbors in a Mount Laurel development, residents say.

Mayor Stephen Steglik called for a federal hate-crime investigation against Edward Cagney Mathews, whose racist rant captured on video earlier this month went viral. Federal prosecutors and agents have declined to say if they are considering such a step.

But FBI Special Agent Vernon Addison attended a raucous Mount Laurel Council meeting last week where residents and activists peppered Steglik and council members with questions about Mathews’ alleged threats against Black residents in the Essex Place condo community. And Addison huddled with several alleged victims in a hallway outside the meeting, scribbling notes on a legal pad.

» READ MORE: How a racist rant in Mount Laurel sparked neighbors to fight back and a community to press for change

Resident Jazmyn Suszynski, 26, who accused Mathews of harassing her when he lived above her condo in an adjacent neighborhood several years ago, said Addison told her Monday that the FBI was investigating a possible hate crime and violation of housing discrimination laws.

The FBI agent also spoke with Denise Brown and her husband, LeRon, president of the Essex Place homeowners association, and board member Verlyn H. Gibbons at the council meeting. Authorities said Mathews frequently targeted the trio because he had a long-standing dispute with the association. Addison also spoke with Etchu Brandon Tambe, a man whose efforts to defend his neighbors against Mathews’ tirade were captured on the video that went viral.

Addison and an FBI spokesperson declined to comment on the Mount Laurel case. Matthew O’Reilly, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark, also declined to comment.

Addison played a key role in the recent hate-crime assault case against former Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank Nucera, who was convicted of lying to the FBI about striking a handcuffed Black teenage suspect. Addison secretly recorded Nucera during an interview in which Nucera said he was unaware of any problems during the arrest. A jury found Nucera guilty of making false statements; he was sentenced in May to 28 months in prison.

» READ MORE: Ex-Bordentown Township police chief gets 28 months in prison for lying to the FBI in a hate-crime case

Mathews already faces 14 state charges, including criminal mischief, bias intimidation, harassment, trespassing, stalking, and drug and weapons possession. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison.

The Public Defender’s Office, which represents him, did not respond to a message Tuesday.

In the video that made national headlines, Mathews, a 45-year-old union laborer was seen taunting a Black neighbor and using racial slurs. He provided his address and urged people to “come see me.” Dozens showed up at his house a few days later for a noisy protest that lasted for hours.

Mathews was eventually taken into custody in handcuffs. The crowd pelted him and the police with plastic water bottles. Initially charged with bias intimidation, harassment, and trespassing, Mathews was given a summons and released but arrested later on more charges.

Superior Court Judge Terrence Cook last week sided with prosecutors and ordered Mathews held in the Burlington County Jail pending trial, saying he was a danger to the community.

Steglik and Mount Laurel Police Chief Steve Riedener, whose department has been heavily criticized for how it handled multiple complaints from residents about Mathews’ conduct over the years, said they would welcome federal assistance in the case.

“Everybody was disgusted by that video,” Steglik said. “You’re screaming racial slurs and you’re spitting in somebody’s face — that would seem like a hate crime to me.”

Patrolman Kyle Gardner, a spokesperson for the chief, said the department was unaware of any FBI involvement. The FBI analyzed a note left on the car of a Black association member in January that read “one down, only a few to go” and confirmed it was in Mathews’ handwriting, prosecutors said.

“Any kind of additional law enforcement involvement that would allow the victims to get justice is appreciated and welcomed,” Gardner said Tuesday.

The charges against Mathews allege a pattern of vandalism, harassment, and racial threats and include slinging rocks and ball bearings through homes and car windows of condo association members. Mathews, who moved into Essex Place in 2019, apologized for his viral rant, saying he was drunk.

Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina is reviewing how Mount Laurel police handled the July 2 incident. He is also conducting a review of previous complaints against Mathews.

Civil rights attorney Glenn Zeitz, of Moorestown, said the possible FBI involvement was “very significant.”

“I think that’s an ominous development in this case if they’re taking a close look,” Zeitz said.

Frank Pezzella, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City who has done research on hate crimes, said such cases prosecuted by the Justice Department typically involve assault or death. Federal prosecutors get involved in less than 10% of hate crime cases, he said.

“I don’t see a federal bias intimidation case,” he said.