Four white teenagers and their parents apologized to a black family in Clinton yesterday after Prince George's County police seized a five-foot high wooden cross soaked in flammable liquid that the teen-agers had carried into the black family's backyard.
The embarrassed parents and the apologetic teen-agers stood face-to-face in the living room of John and Eva Quarles trying to explain that the cross the teen-agers carrying bore no racial connotation.
The teen-agers said they never even planned to burn the cross in the black family's yard but in a nearby gravel pit. It was only after "getting tired" that the four long-haired, freckled face teen-agers said they decided to prop up the cross against the black family's home and rest before going on. It was there that a neighbor spotted them.
The youths said they did not know "about the racial stuff" when they decided to burn the cross.
"We have colored friends and if they were with us we would have brought them along too," said one of the teen-agers.
Police and county fire investigators, who interrogated the youths after the incident yesterday, released them to the custody of their parent's without charging them because: "there was no evidence of racial motivation and no fire," an investigator said.
The Maryland suburbs have been plagued by numerous cross burnings over the past year, some of which were the work of self-described Ku Klux Klan members, according to police.
The youths are 13, 15 and 16 years old. "I thought they were boy scouts going to school," said 34-year-old Mayo Conner, a neighbor, who spotted them marching down the middle of the street about 8 a.m. yesterday morning carrying what he thought was a "scarecrow."
He got suspicious when they paused in the black family's backyard. "I peaked back behind the house and smelled the lighter fluid and got scared as hell," said Conner.
He screamed to rouse his neighbor and the youths took off in different directions with Conner running after them. The youths were captured only after two of them came back through the Quarles backyard on their way home.
"You know they could not have known it was wrong or against the law if they came right back to the scene of the crime," said one of the teen-agers's parents.
The parents repeatedly tried to explain to the Quarles that their children had "suburban" perceptions of race - so they were "less sophisticated then those children who live in the District."
"It is the fault of television and newspapers for making issues like crossburnings so sensational," said one parent who also blamed the presentation of "Roots" for causing racial tension.
One of the parents said the incident "should let people know that we are forgetting about racism in the suburbs."
"Our coming to apologize should let you know all honkies are not racist," said another parent.
After the parents shook hand with the Quarleses and left, Eva Quarles said, "we are grateful they came and apologized, but I still believe the incident was racially motivated. You don't decide to burn a cross without knowing what it is all about."
he Quarleses said they are now planning to construct a fence around their property to ward against intruders.
"We had been considering building a fence earlier, but this incident did it," said John Quarles, a cook at Sheraton Park Hotel.
The concern over crossburnings by the county has prompted legislation by the county council to double the penalties for the crime. If convicted, the crossburner can now receive 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
"I wasn't no little cross, it was bigger than I am," said Mrs. Quarles who stands 5 feet 2. She said she "won't be able to sleep after this" because she believes more incidents might follow.
"I thought they were going to set the whole house on fire," she said.