Black Family Still Tormented by Cross-Burning

Dear Mrs. Hezzier, Hello, my name is Marisa Salina (Charlotte's and Mike's daughter) . I'm really glad to hear you're all right. When I saw the burnt cross I was really mad. I knew it was related to the Ku Klux Klan, but Skin Heads? Whoever, they are cruel. They aren't pure white themselves, nobody is. I don't know if I'll ever be back to normal. God created all colors, white, black, yellow, brown, red. Love Marisa, 11.

WESTMINSTER--Sifting through old letters and newspaper clips stacked in a cardboard gift box, Lillie Heisser starts to cry when she thinks about the love and hate the box contains.

It's been more than two years since she was awakened early one morning by the urgent calls of her teen-age daughter Kristie. Startled, she and her husband, Ted, followed their daughter outside and watched in horror as a cross about 3 feet high and 3 feet wide burned on their lawn.

"That night, when (Kristie, then 19) said it was a cross, I couldn't believe it," recalls Lillie Heisser. "I called 911 several times and kept calling and finally they had to tell me they got the message."

Heisser says the scene was chaotic as police cars, fire trucks and neighbors converged on their house.

"What made it so terrible and so terrifying was the confusion," she says. "Before I saw the cross, I thought my neighbors' house was on fire."

For the Heisser family, the morning of July 28, 1988, left an indelible scar on their lives. At the time, Peter, now 20, and Kristie were the only two of the Heissers' eight children living in the house on Shawnee Road.

All four say they remember the date and time--4:35 a.m.--as if it was only yesterday. The date is especially memorable, Lillie says, because it was on the same night that Nelson Mandela's South African home was burned down by a suspected arsonist.

Even though Gary Skillman, 26, an avowed white supremacist and former neighbor of the Heissers, is behind bars, serving a 37-month sentence for the crime, the family is not at peace.

The ordeal has brought nothing but pain and anger, the family says, especially for Lillie Heisser.

Lillie, who grew up in the South, says she had faced racism before, but nothing as violent and senseless as the cross-burning. Months after the incident, Lillie would erupt into a volcano of emotion just thinking about that night, and today the strength of her anger and sense of loss has not lessened.

"I never in a million years thought it could happen here," she says before bursting into tears. "I was so mad, and I'm still mad. I just get absolutely furious thinking about it."

Now the event is part of history, the Heissers say, a real-life tragedy of racism that will be passed on to their grandchildren. Every article, letter of condolence and even tapes of television newscasts have been neatly stored away.

Ted Heisser, who owns his own commercial maintenance company, says the family is not the same. Whenever there is any noise, such as a banging of a trash can or the screeching of car tires in the middle of the night, the Heissers become uneasy.

Ted says he regularly awakens at 3 or 4 in the morning and gets up to make sure no one is lurking around the house. There was a time when the family felt safe in their modest, middle-class neighborhood, he says, but Skillman destroyed all that.

Now, when Ted and Lillie Heisser pull into the driveway, they do so slowly and carefully while surveying the carport. Doors in the house are no longer casually left unlocked and the house is well lit at night.

"We were more relaxed before it happened," he says. "We don't feel that way anymore. We are always on the defensive."

Kristie Heisser, who first heard the crackling of fire and thought it was a neighbor's dog scratching a fence, says she will never forget that night either. The soft-spoken 21-year-old says she is not very emotional, but admits the event changed her life.

"I don't walk anymore in my neighborhood," she says. "Even on a beautiful day, I don't walk alone. I don't feel safe because of what happened."

"I just wonder what he's going to do when he gets out," she says of the imprisoned racist.

Lillie Heisser says she fears for her son Peter. He's young and reckless, she says, and since the cross-burning he has not backed down from several confrontations involving skinheads.

Peter often tells his mother not to worry; he can take care of himself, he says. Both he and his sister have taken that traumatic night in stride for the most part, thinking about it occasionally.

However, the family says reports of hate-related crimes often bring back memories of that night. Now, with the rash of anti-Arab attacks resulting from the Gulf War, the cross-burning comes to mind more often, they say.

Neighbors have been supportive since the incident, the Heissers say, but the house in which they have lived for 12 years has been pelted with eggs and spray-painted with negative phrases several times in the past few months.

The family still has no immediate plans to move, but Ted Heisser says they may leave the area when he retires in a couple of years. Even when they do move, family members say, the memories of July 28, 1988, will move with them.

"You never get over it," Lillie Heisser says. "It's like being raped. When you've been raped, you never, ever forget."

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