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The Journal Gazette

  • Jason Gardner, in white shirt, stands with family and neighbors at Cedarwood Trails mobile home park in New Haven. The 15-year-old was attacked at a nearby creek this month. (Jamie Duffy | The Journal Gazette)

Friday, June 16, 2017 1:00 am

New Haven family believes race behind attack on teen

JAMIE DUFFY | The Journal Gazette

Stop the Hate Rally 

When: 1-4 p.m. Saturday

Where: New Haven Municipal Hall, 918 Lincoln Highway, New Haven

Speakers: Include Mayor Terry McDonald, Police Chief Henry McKinnon; also, a two-minute open-mic opportunity will be offered

NEW HAVEN – Jason Gardner was found about 11 p.m. June 6 lying near the creek that runs behind Cedarwood Trails mobile home park.

The 15-year-old was barely breathing, his shirt ripped and his shorts muddy. Unable to speak, his eyes were rolling back into his head, according to neighbors who found him.

His mother, La'Kysha Gardner, and neighbors at the mobile home park say the assault is a hate crime that followed weeks of intimidation and threats in person and online.

New Haven police have turned the case over to the Allen County prosecutor's office, but detectives are still investigating, New Haven Police Chief Henry McKinnon said. 

New Haven Mayor Terry McDonald on Thursday issued a statement saying that when the investigation is complete, it will “hold those responsible accountable” and provide “justice to the victim and to his family.”

The mayor said he is “hurt that the reputation of our community has been tarnished” and New Haven will not tolerate racism or discrimination.

Jason said he was lured to the creek by a white teen who lives at Cedarwood who told him his girlfriend was about to hurt herself. Jason said he was attacked when he got to the creek and remembers little after being slugged in the head.

“Get the (expletive) out, (N word) or your mama next,” is what he recalled one of the attackers saying before he went unconscious.

That night, La'Kysha Gardner, who suffers from epileptic seizures and could not climb down the incline, watched from the creek entrance as neighbors frantically tried to revive Jason while others called the police.

In the panic and confusion, Gardner sent her 17-year-old son, Amari, and one of the search party, Chad Stahl, to see if police were coming. The next thing Gardner knew, Amari was handcuffed and sitting in the back of the squad car while Jason lay in the ravine. New Haven police said Amari was held as a suspect. 

Stahl, who is white and not detained, was perplexed.

“I told police, 'Why y'all got him? That's his brother, the one who just got jumped,' ” Stahl said.

Gardner said she became hysterical seeing Amari in the police car. Another neighbor, Heather Roberts, pulled her aside and told her to calm down.

“I told her, 'Your skin color is a big problem. Let me talk to him. I'll get him out of the car,' ” said Roberts, who is white.

Once Roberts convinced police Amari had nothing to do with his brother being beaten, he was let go, Gardner and Roberts said. 

McKinnon said the officer was responding to a confusing situation and saw Amari leaving the area. 

Meanwhile, Jason was shifted on to a board, lifted out of the ravine and taken to Parkview Randallia Hospital. Medical records indicate he was the victim of assault with multiple abrasions.

Neighbors say they know the attackers and are worried for the safety of Gardner, her wife, Isolina Ball, and their four boys. The other two are 10 and 6. 

Gardner, Ball and the neighbors also say New Haven police are not taking these threats seriously and have lied or filed incomplete reports. They offer or cite text and Facebook messages as proof. 

“Because I'm a white person,” Roberts said, “I'm ashamed.”

Police Chief McKinnon is defending his department.

On Tuesday, McKinnon said he had reviewed camera video from the police encounters. After an arrest, or when the case is closed, the release of videos will help vindicate the department, he said.

A 17-year-old white suspect was asked to come to the police department for a voice stress test. The teen skipped that appointment, he added. 

Robyn Niedzwiecki, Allen County prosecutor chief of staff, confirmed her office has a juvenile investigation into the assault. 

Gardner and Ball, who moved to Cedarwood Trails in February, say the problems started in April after a misunderstanding over a girl with the girl's family.  

There were words between her family and Gardner and Ball on April 24 that led to a scuffle, according to a police report.

Threats to the family have included lynching, shooting up their home, peeping in their windows and walking up their block in an intimidating manner, and racial slurs, Gardner said. During one “walk” up the block, one of the walkers carried a knife, she said.

The assault attracted the attention of the NAACP, whose Fort Wayne chapter president, Larry Gist, has promised to “take the lead in the investigation.” 

Since the attack, Jason has complained about neck pain that his mother is linking to a rope found at the creek.

“Now we know what the rope was we found down in the creek,” she posted on Facebook on Saturday, with photos of burn marks on Jason's neck.

McKinnon said the rope has been there for a while, used by neighborhood kids to swing over the water, but he would not rule anything out. The former detective said injuries are not always immediately visible.

What might have happened if Jason hadn't been found by the search party keeps Gardner up at night. Ball believes it could have been a lot worse.

They were just getting started, Ball said.

jduffy@jg.net