Police in Sheridan, Colo., were dubious of Joshua Lee Witt the instant they met him nearly two weeks ago, bloodied but surprisingly calm, in a Steak ‘n Shake parking lot.
It was there, Witt claimed, that a knife-wielding black man attacked him for looking like a neo-Nazi.
The incident in Sheridan happened Aug. 16, just four days after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, which left one counterprotester and two state troopers who were monitoring the rally dead and 19 injured when protests fueled by racial tension exploded into horrifying violence, once again raising difficult questions about the state of race relations in the United States.
On Facebook, Witt posted photos of his bandaged hand and blood-soaked jeans, saying he managed to deflect the knife when he was attacked. “Apparently I look like a neo-Nazi and got stabbed for it,” he wrote.
The post was shared tens of thousands of times.
In an interview with the New York Post, Witt said some friends suggested his haircut may have made him a target. As Yahoo News’ Gordon Hurd noted, the style is similar to that worn by white nationalist Richard Spencer.
But the officers who responded found it odd that Witt’s impulse was not to call the authorities, Sheridan Police Chief Mark Campbell told The Washington Post on Monday. Rather, the 26-year-old phoned his grandmother.
No one else had called 911 to report the attack, Campbell noted, and police could locate no other witnesses.
Then detectives found the suspect Witt described, a homeless man. “We did a photo array with that person in the lineup,” the chief said. “Witt couldn’t pick him out.”
Police now say Witt fabricated the story, that he later admitted having stabbed himself after mishandling a knife he’d just purchased at a Sportsman Warehouse down the street.
“Right from the beginning of this whole thing,” Campbell told The Post, “most of the officers who responded, we all thought, ‘This isn’t right.’ ”
Witt was charged Aug. 24 with making a false report. He faces up to a year in jail and a $2,600 fine.
The Post was unable to make contact with Witt, and it appears he has shut down his social media accounts. It’s unclear whether he has retained an attorney.
Witt told investigators, however, that he was recently discharged from the Navy and concocted the hate-crime story with hopes that the Department of Veterans Affairs would pay for his medical bills, Denver’s CBS News affiliate reported.
Witt separated from the Navy in January 2016, a spokesman at the Pentagon confirmed Tuesday.
Sheridan police investigated Witt’s case as a possible hate crime, cognizant of the national discussion in the wake of Charlottesville, Campbell said.
Local officials in Sheridan were concerned, Campbell added, that Witt’s story had attracted such broad attention, yet there was little evidence to support his story.
“The reason we worked it so rigorously,” the chief added, “is because he was making the claim that he was targeted because he’s white. … We’re fortunate we got him to admit he made a false report.”
It’s the latest in a series of similar cases in which people claim to be the victims of a racially motivated attack only to later recant their stories.
In November, for instance, police in Lafayette, La., dropped their investigation into a college student’s claim she was attacked by two white men who took her wallet and forcibly removed her hijab. The woman said she made up the story, police said.
A similar tale came to light in December, when an 18-year-old Muslim woman from Long Island said she was cornered by three drunk men who called her a terrorist and yelled “Donald Trump” before demanding that she leave the United States. Police said later that her story was a lie.
“We want the truth to be out there, no matter what it is,” Campbell said. “If he’s creating a false story, we want to make sure we get that story out so people aren’t afraid to go about their daily activities in our community.”
This post was updated to reflect that Witt separated from the Navy in January 2016.