Man Guilty in Cross-Burning at Blacks’ Home

Times Staff Writer

After deliberating only 15 minutes, a U.S. District Court jury in Santa Ana found 24-year-old Gary Skillman guilty Wednesday of burning a cross at the home of a black family in Westminster, an act described by the prosecutor as “racial terrorism.”

Skillman was convicted on counts of conspiracy, using fire to intimidate and violation of the civil rights of others. He faces up to 21 years in prison and a $600,000 fine. The charge of using fire to intimidate carries a minimum penalty of one year in prison.

“It was justice being served,” said Alvin Heisser, whose home in the Indian Village neighborhood of Westminster was the scene of the incident July 28. “I am satisfied that justice has prevailed.”

While none of his family were physically injured when the 4-foot wooden cross was burned, Heisser said they still feel the pain and fear the incident caused.


“The whole family is still hurting,” Heisser said. “My wife is having a tough time every day.”

Assistant U.S. Atty. Thomas Umberg said the verdict shows the federal government “will not tolerate” such racist demonstrations. Umberg said the investigation into the Heisser cross-burning is continuing and another arrest is possible.

Assistant Public Defender Dean Steward argued that Skillman was innocent and was simply a bystander who watched while the cross was being made and burned.

But Skillman twice told Westminster police that he was present when the cross was made in his garage from materials he owned, and he said he helped take the cross to the Heisser home--although he denied participating in the actual burning.

At the trial before U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts, the stepfather of a woman Skillman once dated testified that the defendant had told him he intended to burn a cross and later boasted about having done so. Several witnesses testified that Skillman was openly racist, and frequently used racial epithets, urged extermination of minorities, mouthed white power slogans, quoted Adolph Hitler and drew swastikas.

A U.S. Justice Department spokesman said about 12 cross-burning prosecutions take place nationwide each year, but federal officials said they could remember no other in the Los Angeles area.