Cops Mum On Probe of Conn. Shooter's Racism Claim

Friday, 06 Aug 2010 05:28 PM

 

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The man who fatally shot eight co-workers at a Connecticut beer distributor told a 911 operator before he killed himself that he was avenging racism.

Omar Thornton's employer, his union and the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities all say there has never been a formal racism complaint against the Manchester company — from Thornton or anyone else.

State and Manchester police will not say whether Thornton's racism claims are figuring into their investigation of the shootings, which occurred early Tuesday when Thornton was confronted with video evidence he had stolen beer and was forced to resign.

Manchester police say they plan to have experts examine his cell phone, which was found in his car outside the Hartford Distributors warehouse.

His girlfriend, Kristi Hannah, said Thornton used his phone to photograph slurs and a noose scrawled in a company bathroom, though police will not say whether they are searching the phone specifically for those purported images.

"We don't comment on open cases. It's just inappropriate," State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance said. "Our goal is to attempt to answer any and all questions related to the incident."

Thornton, 34, killed himself after the spree — but not before calling 911.

"You probably want to know the reason why I shot this place up. This place right here is a racist place," he told the state trooper who answered.

"They're treating me bad over here, and treat all other black employees bad over here, too," he added. "So I took it to my own hands and handled the problem. I wish I could have got more of the people."

Hannah said Thornton called his union representative about the problems, but that his calls were never returned.

Officials from the union and Hartford Distributors say that's not true and that he never raised discrimination claims with them.

"I can state to you unequivocally no racism claim was ever alleged," company president Ross Hollander said at a news conference Thursday. He also said the company would cooperate with investigations into Thornton's "ugly allegations."

The allegations have upset many friends and family members of the victims and the Hollander family, which owns Hartford Distributors and is well-regarded in greater Hartford.

The Hollanders donated a full-size brass statue of Mark Twain to the city of Hartford in 1994, sponsor local sports teams in Manchester and are involved in volunteer and community service groups. Ross Hollander also was a plaintiff on a successful 2006 lawsuit to protect the results of a contested referendum on spending $94 million to improve schools in his hometown of Bloomfield — a majority-black school district bordering Hartford.

Some experts said Friday that, although nothing justifies Thornton's killing spree, the allegations of workplace racism should be investigated so they can either be dealt with or laid to rest.

"You have to investigate it," said employment lawyer Kelly Scott, adding that racial harassment in the workplace is often a crime.

"Any chance you have to make your workplace a better place, a safer place, you have to take it," Scott said. "If there are people who have these attitude problems or a problem dealing with other races, they should lose their jobs."

Sharon Toomer, founder of the website blackandbrownnews.com, called it "an accountability issue."

"If he didn't (report harassment), that's great. He's just a nut case," she said. "If he did go and nobody did anything, then the company's hands are not clean."

Messages seeking comment about a potential investigation into Thornton's racism claims were left Friday for the Hartford State's Attorney's Office, the FBI's New Haven office, the chairman of the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, and for the president of the Connecticut NAACP.

On the federal side, a spokesman for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said the agency is barred by law from confirming or denying the existence of any discrimination investigation.

And the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which investigates whenever workplace fatalities occur, reviews compliance with federal workplace law, a spokesman said. Though it is investigating the shootings, OHSA'S jurisdiction is safety and health issues, not personnel issues, spokesman Edmund Fitzgerald said Friday.

Associated Press National Writer Jesse Washington in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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