In July, a 19-year-old white woman in Texas named Breana Rachelle Harmon entered a church and told parishioners she had just been abducted and sexually assaulted in a wooded area by three black men wearing ski masks. Harmon later admitted she’d made up the story, going so far as to cut and bruise herself to dupe law enforcement, and now faces multiple felony charges for fabricating a false report. The case is part of America’s long history of racial hoaxes that have cost an unknowable number of innocent black folks their safety, freedom and lives.
“The majority of the hoaxes involve someone white falsely claiming they were harmed by someone black,” criminologist and law professor Katheryn Russell-Brown recently told NPR while discussing another recent case-in-point. Racial hoaxes can work the other way, with innocent whites targeted by blacks or other people of color, but the fact that they so rarely do speaks to America’s pervasive institutional racism. Spin a story involving black criminality and white innocence and it very well might go unchecked, thanks to America’s racist confirmation bias. Our entire criminal justice system is informed by white supremacist myths and assumptions that explain why black crime is over-reported in news media; why blacks are more likely than whites to go to jail for crimes they didn’t commit, serve longer sentences for the same crimes, receive the death penalty, or be placed in a pipeline that leads directly from school to prison.
It is impossible to include every case here. I’m leaving out the Massachusetts police officer’s wife who in October 2016 vandalized and burglarized her own home so she could blame it on Black Lives Matter activists. Also missing is Rickey Wagoner, a white bus driver from Dayton, Ohio, who lied about being shot by three black attackers. Leiha Ann-Sue Artman, a Michigan woman, made up a story in 2016 implicating four black men in a two-day kidnapping, rape and beating ordeal that never actually took place. We could go back to the nine black teenagers known as the Scottsboro boys who were falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931. We’ll never know how many black folks were lynched or electrocuted by more refined modern means because of these kinds of lies, and there’s no telling how many innocent black people will lose years of life in prison.
Here are 10 black people and other people of color falsely accused of crimes by white people.
1. Joshua Witt
Just last month, Witt fabricated a story about having to fight off a knife-wielding black man who attacked him for his fashy neo-Nazi haircut. “Soooooooo apparently I look like a neo-Nazi and got stabbed for it,” he wrote in Facebook post composed of lies. “Luckily I put my hands up to stop it so he only stabbed my hand...please keep in mind there was no conversation between me and this dude I was literally just getting out of my car.”
Police realized Witt was lying because surveillance footage hadn’t captured his fleeing assailant, but did document Witt buying a knife in a nearby store. When confronted with the inconsistencies in his story, Witt admitted he had lied. "He was opening up the knife package in the car and he cut himself,” Sheridan, Colorado police chief Mark Campbell told the Guardian. “I don’t believe he showed any remorse. Our take is he kind of made this up and it kind of got out of control when it went on Facebook.”
The Guardian reports that Witt “could face a fine of $2,650 and up to a year in jail if convicted of false reporting.”
2. Michael Huskey
Studies show that white children show racial biases as early as age 3. (Those studies also show kids of color internalize the same anti-black and anti-people of color attitudes around the same age.) Michael Huskey’s story exemplifies how early on, white children understand their relative racial privilege and how racism and white supremacy benefit them.
Huskey, age 10, along with his 7-year-old male cousin, left for school one morning in April 2016, only to return shortly after claiming a black man with a knife had tried to abduct them. The two reportedly gave police a description of the man including his clothes (“gray hooded sweatshirt and dark pants”). Fort Mill, South Carolina, police announced a little over a week later that the boys had made up the story because they wanted to blow off school for the day. Not even out of grade school, and they realized that blaming a black person offered the best chance to get away with their lie.
3. Sherry Hall
Police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge in the summer of 2016 were erroneously blamed on Black Lives Matter and protesters against police violence. Georgia officer Sherry Hall saw an opportunity in the upheaval. On the night of September 13, Hall radioed in that she had nearly been killed by a bullet that had failed to pierce her chest because of her body armor. In multiple interviews with police working her case, Hall reported that the suspect was “a 6-foot, 230-pound black man” wearing a “green shirt and black jogging pants.” In an interview with a local TV news outlet, she restated all her lies, laying it on thick.
“He might’ve seen a threat, but he didn’t see a mother of three children that was just trying to do her job,” Hall told a reporter. “And it makes me very angry that someone tried to take that from me, when I wasn’t doing anything but trying to help this person.”
“For him to have such a disregard to human life really angers me and upsets me. Because if he’ll do this to an officer, how much more will he do to a citizen on the streets?”’
Hall was fired after authorities discovered she had made up her story after accidentally shooting herself. A local news outlet reports she faces “four counts of making a false statement, four counts of violation of oath by a public officer, two counts of interference with government property and one count of tampering with evidence.”
4. Bethany Storro
Storro claimed she was outside of a Vancouver, Washington, coffee shop when a black woman threw acid in her face, shouting, “Hey pretty girl, do you want to drink this?"
“I’m a nice girl and I don’t know why this happened,” Storro told local news outlet the Columbian in 2010. She told the Telegraph that her nonexistent attacker “had this weirdness about her. Like jealousy, rage." Sympathy and donations poured in for Storro after her completely made-up story became national news. Washington state police told the New York Daily News she received about $28,000 from strangers, “some of which she spent on clothes, train tickets and dinners for her parents.”
Storro later admitted she had rubbed drain cleaner all over her own face due to an undiagnosed mental illness. She ultimately returned most of the donations, and a court ordered her to serve 240 hours of community service, pay $4,000 in restitution and a $500 fine, and undergo mental health treatment. Storro may have offset those fees with profits from the book she self-published in 2013.
5. Ashley Todd
Just weeks before the 2008 election, John McCain campaign volunteer Ashley Todd told Pittsburgh police a 100 percent bullshit story involving a black mugger, political junkie and body modification enthusiast. The 20-year-old student claimed that while she was using an ATM, a "six-foot-four African American of medium build, dressed in dark clothes wearing shiny shoes" put a knife to her neck and demanded money. The figment of Todd’s racist imagination might have been happy with the $60 she gave him had he not then noticed her McCain bumper sticker. Todd told authorities he became enraged and began punching and kicking her, all while yelling "you are going to be a Barack supporter.” Before he left, Todd said he carved a the letter “B”—for Barack, natch—into her cheek at an angle that made zero sense in the context of the story. Todd later admitted she made up the story and underwent court-ordered psychiatric counseling.
6. Walker Daugherty and Michael Bryant
Walker Daugherty and Michael Bryant, Texas hunting guides, were leading a party in the southern part of the state near the Mexico border. The two claimed that on the night of January 6, they were attacked by undocumented immigrants illegally crossing the border who attempted to steal their RV. The resulting gunfight in this fantastical version of events left Daugherty and another member of the group, Edwin Roberts, wounded by gunfire. It was exactly two weeks before Trump’s inauguration, a perfect moment for xenophobes and right-wing opportunists to exploit the fake crime for their anti-immigrant agenda.
On Facebook, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller shared information about the story along with a message stating, “this is why we need the wall and to secure our borders. There are violent criminals and members of drug cartels coming in and it must put a stop to it before we have many more Walker Daughertys.”
But a border wall wouldn’t have kept Daugherty or Roberts from getting shot, because the trigger-happy, border-crossing immigrants from their story weren’t real. Authorities believe Daugherty somehow imagined that undocumented immigrants had entered Roberts’ RV, leading to a shootout and injuries caused by friendly fire. In February, Bryant and Daugherty each were indicted on one count of using deadly conduct by discharging firearms in the direction of others. By then, a GoFundMe to cover their medical costs had already raised more than $26,000.
7. Susan Smith
A 23-year-old South Carolina mother of two young boys—3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex—Smith reported in October 1994 that she had been carjacked by a black man who drove off with her sons. For eight days after the incident, which immediately became national news, Smith made numerous television appearances in which she sobbed on camera and pleaded with the fictional abductor to return her “babies.” The search for the missing children (and clues as to the location of the phantom African-American kidnapper), involved “hundreds of volunteers [who] scoured this corner of the state,” according to a New York Times article from the era.
Nine days after her sons disappeared, Smith was arrested on two counts of murder. By then she had already confessed to strapping her sons into their car seats and letting the vehicle roll slowly into John D. Long Lake. Theories of a motive abounded, including that Smith wanted to run off with a wealthy lover, but none were firmly established. Smith was sentenced to life in prison.
8. Bonnie Anne Sweeten
Seven times in one day, Sweeten made frantic emergency calls in which she claimed two black men “had bumped her 2005 GMC Denali, carjacked her and stuffed her in the trunk of a dark Cadillac” along with her 9-year-old daughter. An Amber Alert was issued for the child’s recovery and a multistate, multiagency manhunt was undertaken to locate the two.
But Sweeten’s 911 calls were actually made “from her 2005 Yukon parked on a Philadelphia street,” according to Philadelphia authorities. In the days before she launched the elaborate hoax, Sweeten had withdrawn $12,000 from multiple accounts, “borrowed” a co-worker's drivers license and used it to buy a flight to Orlando, where she rented a hotel room for a week. Law enforcement agents ultimately traced her to Disney World, where she was apprehended by Florida police.
A subsequent investigation revealed that “Sweeten devised elaborate means to steal $640,000 from the one-lawyer firm [where she worked] and $283,000 from the retirement accounts of her first husband's elderly grandfather,” according to the Daily Mirror. A district court judge suggested Sweeten had committed “some 2,000 fraudulent acts in a five-year period,” and labeled her a “master conwoman” before sentencing her to eight years behind bars on fraud charges. Sweeten served roughly a year on misdemeanor charges of making false reports and identity theft related to her fake kidnapping.
9. Jesse Anderson
After grabbing a movie and dinner at TGI Friday’s with his wife, Anderson pretended the two had been attacked in the restaurant parking lot by two black assailants with knives. Anderson superficially stabbed himself three times in the chest to make his story more believable and stabbed his wife an astounding 21 times in the face and neck. Anderson even gave police a Los Angeles Clippers hat he claimed he’d somehow grabbed from one of his attackers.
Milwaukee police doubted Anderson’s story from the start and didn’t pursue other suspects. The New York Times noted that when the news broadcast an image of the baseball cap, a black student called police to report “a man who fit Mr. Anderson's description” had “approached him at a shopping center and paid him $20 for it” the same day as the murder. On Aug. 13, 1992, Anderson was sentenced to life in prison (where incidentally, he was killed by Christopher Scarver, who also murdered serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer).
10. Charles Stuart
In October 1989, Charles Stuart claimed he and his pregnant wife Carol were driving home from a birthing class at a hospital in a black Boston neighborhood when a gunman got into their car at a stoplight. Charles was shot in the stomach, Carol sustained a fatal gunshot wound to the head, and their prematurely delivered baby died 17 days later.
Law enforcement officials generally investigate and rule out spouses first in these kind of cases, but after a summer of fear-stoking (yet baseless) news reports about rising crime rates, not to mention the ever-present racial tensions in Boston, police took Stuart’s story and ran with it. The Boston Globe reports that “more than 100 additional officers were assigned to scour [the African-American neighborhoods of] Mission Hill, Roxbury, and Mattapan, searching for anyone who fit the vague description Stuart gave of his attacker. He was black. He had a raspy voice. He was wearing a black sweatsuit with red stripes.”
While hundreds of innocent black men were searched in the streets and dragged in for questioning, city leaders issued very public calls to resurrect the death penalty. (It is no coincidence that this all occurred just six months after Donald Trump took out a full-page ad in a New York City newspaper demanding five innocent black and Latino teenagers be summarily executed.)
With so much focus on a black murderer who didn’t exist, Boston officers failed to do the basic police work that would have exposed Stuart's guilt. There’s evidence that Charles wanted Carol to have an abortion and considered her pregnancy a “hindrance” to his entrepreneurial visions and a threat to their affluent lifestyle. He was romantically entangled with a coworker. He was the beneficiary of $300,000 in insurance money, some of which he’d already begun spending on pricey pieces of jewelry. A 1990 New York Times article notes that “several relatives or friends of Mr. Stuart...reported that well before the October shooting he had suggested killing his wife.”
Stuart might have gotten away with it had his brother Matthew not come forward when he realized that an innocent black man, William Bennett, was on the verge of being jailed for the crime. (The Times article notes that Stuart's “three brothers and sisters had known about his involvement in the killing before Matthew Stuart went to the police.”) Stuart committed suicide before he could be charged.
Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, who had contributed heavily to the racialized fear-mongering in the case, issued a statement suggesting that “everybody owes an apology to the Mission Hill neighborhood…to the black community, and they all owe an apology to the people of the city. We should all stand in line waiting for that apology.’’