BAILEY, COLORADO (NYTIMES) – For 3½ years, the murder of a Chinese American teenager who was set on fire and burned alive in her family’s Colorado home has confounded investigators.
But now, as the federal government focuses on a spate of attacks targeting Asians, that 2017 killing of 17-year-old Maggie Long is being investigated as a hate crime, the local sheriff and one of Long’s sisters said in interviews on Tuesday (May 18).
They said they had recently been informed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that the scope of its investigation had evolved to take into account that the killing of the high school student might have been racially motivated.
“They have reclassified it as a hate crime,” said Park County Sheriff Tom McGraw.
Mr McGraw referred further questions on the hate crime aspect of the investigation to the FBI, which confirmed in a statement on Wednesday that it was “investigating the murder of Maggie Long as a potential hate crime matter”.
Mr Michael Schneider, the special agent in charge of the agency’s Denver field office, said: “The FBI is committed to combating hate crimes and condemns violence directed toward any individual or group.”
He added: “We are grateful for the community’s support of Maggie’s family and their patience with the ongoing investigation.”
The agency said it was seeking information from the public, such as descriptions of people or vehicles that were seen near the Longs’ house around the time she was killed. A US$75,000 (S$99,786) reward is being offered for information that leads to an arrest and conviction in the case, the FBI said.
Long’s sister Connie said in an interview on Tuesday that she was told by an FBI investigator that the decision to treat the homicide as a hate crime was a tactical one that would provide law enforcement officers with more money and resources to try to solve the case. It was not prompted by a specific development in the case, she said.
“With the media attention on anti-Asian hate in the country, there has been another look at our case with that lens,” said Ms Long, 27.
“It is definitely a new angle that may bring new answers.”
The development came during a week in which the United States House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a measure that is intended to bolster protections for people of Asian descent, who have been increasingly targeted for attack since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Passed last month by the Senate, the anti-Asian hate crimes Bill is expected to be quickly signed by US President Joe Biden. It creates a position at the Justice Department to streamline the review of hate crimes and expand the channels to report them.
On the night of Dec 1, 2017, sheriff’s deputies responded to a fire at the Long family’s home in Bailey, a small town in the mountains about 45 miles (72km) south-west of Denver, authorities said. Emergency responders had reported receiving a 911 call that people had caused damage inside the home.
When firefighters put out the blaze, they discovered Long’s remains, according to the authorities, who said they found evidence of a physical struggle.
A Beretta handgun, an AK-47-style rifle, 2,000 rounds of ammunition and jade figurines had been stolen from the residence, according to the FBI’s Denver field office, which in November 2019 released composite sketches of three male suspects.
Long’s parents were born in a Chinese community in North Vietnam and fled to the US during the Vietnam War, her sister said. They owned two local Chinese restaurants and a liquor store.
On the night of her murder, Long had gone home to get refreshments and snacks for a high school concert, for which she had been in charge of a VIP lounge. She never showed up for the concert.
Ms Connie Long said she had not considered at the time that her sister’s murder could have been racially motivated, but said that her family had been keenly aware that few people in their small town looked like them.
“Me personally, I did not go there in my mind,” she said. “I did not think this was a hate crime or overt racism. We definitely did take our culture into consideration.”