Jury finds Chicago fireman guilty of racial intimidation

In February, a federal jury found a Chicago firefighter guilty of intimidating threeAfrican-Americans in an attempt to prevent one of them from buying a house in southwesternChicago. The jury awarded the plaintiffs, two Chicago police officers and a real estateagent, $40,000 in damages. The award does not include attorneys' fees, which arerecoverable under the Fair Housing Act.

White firefighter convicted of misdemeanorassault against African-American police officer

James Roccasalva, the firefighter convicted of the civil rights violations, lived onthe same block as the home in question. Roccasalva received a misdemeanor assaultconviction which stemmed from the incident. Authorities charged Roccasalva under a felonyhate crime statute, but he was able to plea down to a misdemeanor conviction.

The complaints of racial intimidation arose from an incident in April 1995. LolitaFenner, a Chicago police officer, attempted to buy a home in southwestern Chicago nearRoccasalva's home. Fenner viewed the home in early April and liked the house.

Fenner went to look at the house for a second time on April 11, 1995, prepared to makea full price bid on the house. Benjamin Jones, a police officer and friend of Fenner, andAnnice Richard, Fenner's real estate agent, accompanied Fenner to the house.

White man screams racial epithets and threats as African-American woman attempts tolook at house

As Fenner, Jones, and Richard walked to the front door of the house, Roccasalva walkedonto the front porch at his house at began yelling loudly. "You motherf---ing blackniggers! You're in the wrong neighborhood! If you buy that house, there will betrouble!" he screamed. Shocked and concerned for their safety, Fenner, Jones, andRichard walked into the house.

Thirty minutes after the first incident, Fenner, Jones, and Richard attempted to leavethe house. A group of white neighbors greeted them. Again, Roccasalva stood in his doorwayand shouted racial epithets. According to testimony, Roccasalva screamed, "Come uphere so I can kick your ass!"

While other neighbors watched, a white man from across the street shouted, "What'sthe problem? Aren't there any houses on the east side?" The man leered at Fenner fromhis front porch.

According to the seller's agent, Roccasalva had approached him a week before theincident occurred. He testified that Roccasalva told him that the neighbors did not wanthim to sell the house to African-Americans. Roccasalva accused the agent of "sellingout the neighborhood" by showing the house to African-American home seekers. Theseller's agent said Roccasalva made it very clear that he did not want the house to besold to an African-American buyer.

Plaintiffs left the scene in fear and never went back

After the confrontation with Roccasalva and the other neighbors, Fenner and the otherplaintiffs left the scene quickly. They asserted that they felt they were in a dangerousand volatile situation. They took down Roccasalva's license plate number and address andfiled a complaint with the Chicago Police Department.

Because of the confrontation with Roccasalva, neighborhood resistance, and the threatsof violence, Fenner refused to buy the house. She has since bought a home in another partof Chicago.

Jury dismissed testimony from neighbors who claimed no racial incidents took place

At trial, Roccasalva and several of his neighbors denied that the incident ever tookplace. The jury rejected their testimony, however, and found that Roccasalva intentionallyintimidated and harassed Fenner, Jones, and Richard because of their race. This attempt toprevent Fenner from buying the house violated her rights under the Fair Housing Act.

HOPE Fair Housing Center in Wheaton, Illinois obtained legal counsel for Fenner and theother plaintiffs. They were represented by Jesse Wing and Jeffrey Taren, attorneys fromthe firm of Kinoy, Taren, Geraghty, and Potter in Chicago.