The FBI has opened a civil rights investigation into the killing of a black teenager who police said was shot by two teenagers who wanted to become members of a white supremacist prison gang.
The FBI will work with police in Elkhart to determine whether Jason Powell and Alex Witmer killed Sasezley Richardson simply because he was black, a charge that under federal law could bring the death sentence.
Richardson was walking home from a shopping mall in Elkhart on Nov. 17, carrying diapers for his girlfriend's baby, when drive-by gunmen shot him several times in the head. He died four days later.
Powell, 19, the alleged gunman, and Witmer, 18, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to murder. Each could get up to 65 years in prison and a $10,000 fine if convicted.
According to unidentified sources quoted by the Elkhart Truth newspaper, Powell was seeking admission into the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang. He reportedly wanted to earn a spider web tattoo, considered by some skinheads to be a badge of honor for having killed a black person.
Records from the Department of Correction showed Witmer told state prison officials last year that he had been affiliated with a skinhead organization before he was held in juvenile custody on a handgun violation.
Family members of Powell and Witmer said the allegations were "half-truths."
"They've made him out to be a little monster, and he's not," said Christina Bumpus, Witmer's mother.