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Bitter strife tears at a town

After Charlie Tyson became South Harrison Township's first black mayor in January 2007, he received about a dozen threatening calls. One man said Tyson should not "rule over white people."

South Harrison Mayor Charles Tyson, right, and Deputy Mayor Bob Campbell. (Michael Perez / Staff Photographer)
South Harrison Mayor Charles Tyson, right, and Deputy Mayor Bob Campbell. (Michael Perez / Staff Photographer)Read more

After Charlie Tyson became South Harrison Township's first black mayor in January 2007, he received about a dozen threatening calls. One man said Tyson should not "rule over white people."

His tires were slashed, and "KKK" was painted over a campaign sign on his lawn.

Tyson, 66, said it was the first time he had encountered racism in the mostly rural Gloucester County community where he has lived all his life.

"They just didn't want a black guy running the town," said Tyson, a grandfather and owner of a business installing golf greens.

Two years later, Tyson is struggling to control a community of 2,700 torn apart by racial tension and ugly political fights.

The county prosecutor, state police and, in some cases, the FBI have been called in this year to investigate more than five cases of harassment and other allegations. Accusations were lodged against a rookie police officer, a planning board member, two committeemen-elect - one from each party - and others.

Perhaps the most serious case splitting the town involves Committeeman-elect Bob Gaines, one of Tyson's Democratic allies. Gaines is accused of making threatening remarks toward rookie Officer Nick Barbetta and stating he wanted the officer fired.

Sides have formed, with the police backing Barbetta and Tyson backing Gaines. American flags are being flown in front of some homes as a show of support for the police. Gaines' grandmother is black, and some people, including the deputy mayor, say they think there may be racial overtones to the dispute.

At a town meeting last month, Tyson said, he was ignored when he banged his gavel and tried to get police officers to stop accusing Gaines.

"It was like a kangaroo court," Tyson said.

Some police officers and GOP Committeeman Neil McIntyre want Gaines to relinquish his seat before he is sworn in next month. They also question Tyson's leadership and loyalties to the police, saying the mayor should ask Gaines to step down.

But Tyson said he wanted to wait for the county prosecutor to investigate before making a decision.

A few weeks ago, the prosecutor determined that there were no grounds to indict. Barbetta, however, has charged Gaines with harassment, and the case now heads to Municipal Court.

Barbetta and another officer contend that they overheard Gaines make the comments during a heated argument with Committeeman-elect Bob Diaz, a Republican, on Election Day in Town Hall. Gaines said Diaz became angry when he told him to leave Tyson alone. Tyson has said that Diaz harangued him that day, too, and would not stop until Tyson slammed his office door. Diaz denies that.

Gaines says he also mentioned at the time that he wanted to "correct the problem in the Police Department" but did not say he would fire anyone.

Gaines said Barbetta has a vendetta against him because Gaines complained to the chief when Barbetta investigated an alleged underage-drinking incident over the summer at his 183-acre property.

"He shined a flashlight in my wife's face at 3 a.m. and asked if she knew there were 19-year-old kids drinking alcohol outside," Gaines said.

Barbetta filed charges involving underage drinking against Gaines' wife and son. He said he overheard Gaines mention that he would have beaten him and used the officer's pistol had he not been sleeping when Barbetta was at his home. Gaines called this a lie and the charges false.

In an unrelated tangle, Tyson has charged Barbetta with shoving him for voting against the officer's promotion a few months ago.

Accusations such as these are becoming common in this suburb 25 miles south of Philadelphia. South Harrison has orchards and farms interrupted by clustered luxury homes. Four percent of the population is black.

The town's divide was evident at a town meeting this month, when charges and countercharges were aired. The meeting, attended by nearly 100 people, dragged on past midnight.

Deputy Mayor Bob Campbell, a Democrat and Tyson ally, ignited the crowd when he said he was disturbed that police were pursuing the harassment allegations against Gaines. It's time to let the town heal, he told the meeting. He said he suspected Gaines was still being hounded because of his mixed-race background.

Tyson did not attend.

Campbell also said he was alarmed that two committee members were still investigating a planning board member accused of hacking into the town computer. Campbell said that person, whose wife is African American, was cleared by the prosecutor, FBI and state police.

"What we are witnessing in this town over the last two years is a demonstration of hatred that goes beyond anything I have ever experienced," he said.

It seemed suspicious, Campbell told the crowd, that several townspeople who were under fire were either minorities or married to someone of color. His voice quavered.

At this, a resident jumped up from her seat and stormed past Campbell, shouting: "This is bull-."

There were several catcalls as Campbell kept talking. Joe Marino, a prominent farmer and the son of the town's longtime former mayor, Russell Marino, grunted with disgust.

"Bob," he finally yelled, "I think you need to stop."

At this, a police sergeant warned the crowd, "We need to let him speak."

Campbell said a loosely organized "hate club" was trying to undermine the mayor. He also said the police were reluctant to become involved to act when Tyson was confronted or falsely accused.

Chief Warren Mabey said at the meeting that he resented any insinuation that the police department was involved in racial activity. "It wouldn't be tolerated. The comments are reprehensible and untrue," he said. He said he wanted an apology from Campbell.

The six-member police department has five white officers and one Hispanic officer.

At the podium, Barbara Visalli sobbed, saying Campbell's remarks were embarrassing to the town.

"We grew up with Charlie Tyson. He was one of us," said Visalli, a resident for more than 40 years, describing the mayor as well-liked and accepted in the town.

Visalli said she did not know whether everything that happened lately to Tyson had been racial. She hoped it was not, she said, but "if it is, let them settle it in the courts."

Several residents lined up to berate Campbell. Among them was Jeanine Campbell, no relation.

Jeanine Campbell, who had stormed out of the meeting and later apologized, said the mayor and committee should support the police. She has distributed small flags for the police union, saying these should be flown by residents "to show support for our police." About 300 flags have been handed out.

At his home, Tyson points to the 10-foot-tall flagpole on his property. "I've flown my flag for years," he said. "I don't need a special reason to fly it."

Tyson said he believed "some groups" were spreading hate and stirring up unrest. Some problems, he said, are rooted in politics, others in race.

The FBI warned him that the threats he had received were "very real" and that he should take them seriously. "They threatened to kill me," Tyson said.

Still, he said, he won't quit. He wants to have the town's first traffic light installed and "do things to help people in the town."

Authorities never made an arrest in the 2007 threats. Prosecutors said the callers had used untraceable, disposable phones.

But this month, a Virginia man was indicted on charges that he made threatening late-night calls to Tyson's home this year.

William A. White of the American National Socialist Workers Party, a neo-Nazi group, is in custody on charges he solicited a murder in Illinois.

Authorities said White learned of Tyson's death threats from the Internet. Acting U.S. Attorney Julia C. Dudley said White told Tyson he "got exactly what he deserved from his constituents." Tyson said the caller told him he should not have dared to become mayor.