Police arrest student in election sign vandalism

Posted on Apr 18 2017 - 5:25pm by Lana Ferguson and Clara Turnage

Updated at 9:50 p.m.

University police arrested a student Monday in connection with the vandalism of an Associate Student Body candidate’s sign earlier this year.

Freshman accounting major Taia McAfee was escorted to Lafayette County Detention Center Monday in connection with the vandalism, according to University Police Department Chief Tim Potts. McAfee was notified of the warrant for her arrest Friday, turned herself in voluntarily Monday and left the detention center immediately after paying bond.

“I don’t regret painting over the flag because it’s something that was taken off campus because it is hateful and harmful to people of my identity,” McAfee said. “I felt like as a student activist, as a student who speaks up for other students, it was within my responsibility to cover it up. I do want to say I regret not coming forward earlier, before things blew up.” 

On March 3, several Associated Student Body campaign signs were knocked over or damaged, and one was painted. Despite being widely thought of as the same crime, video evidence clearly shows the signs were vandalized by two different groups of people with hours separating the incidents, Potts said.

The sign that was defaced, which belonged to the ASB secretary candidate Dylan Wood, had the Confederate emblem on the Mississippi state flag marked out and “BLM” – an abbreviation for Black Lives Matter – painted on it.

UPD has not yet released the police report. 

Wood pressed charges against McAfee and senior sociology major Dominique Scott. Potts said Scott was identified early as a bystander during the vandalism but said she did not take part in defacing the sign.

“I can sit here and tell you she did not participate,” Potts said. “She was present; she did not damage that sign. That’s just a fact of the matter.”

Once identified, officers took Scott in for questioning.

“Did we get full cooperation from that person to identify the other people? No. I think that’s fair to say,” Potts said. “I won’t try the case in the paper, but I think it’s fair to say we identified one person early on, the person admitted their role in it and opted not to share more information at that time – which is their right. They don’t have to.”

Scott said when she was questioned, she cooperated with the police.

“I gave them all the information that I was comfortable sharing with them,” Scott said. Scott said the individuals she was with that night said they had been thinking about the sign – and the state flag on it – all day.

The Mississippi state flag has been controversial on campus for some time now. Wood is an avid supporter of the state flag. In October, Wood was arrested after refusing to relinquish his larger-than-regulation-size flag while in the football stadium. Wood was charged with disorderly conduct, public drunk and possession of an alcoholic beverage under 21 after the arresting officer’s report says he, “became more belligerent (asking) why I hate the flag.”

Both Wood and Scott say after the police took Scott in for questioning, Wood signed a non-prosecution agreement against Scott and the other people involved in the alleged vandalism. At the time, no one else had been identified in the crime. A non-prosecution agreement is a voluntary alternative to pressing charges wherein the prosecutor agrees to withhold charges as long as the perpetrator agrees to fulfill certain requirements. In this case, Wood’s requirements included a public apology and a forum-style meeting between the parties.

“My vision for that was to have (an event at) the Overby Center, and we discussed that. That’s not going to happen, unfortunately,” Wood said. “I wanted to pack the Overby Center with groups like the BSU and Our State Flag Foundation. I would be on stage with one other person, and they could ask me questions. They could ask her questions, but that’s just not going to happen. I wanted it to be all good and end the year on a ‘Look. See? We can all agree that we’re all Rebels at the end of the day.’”

Scott said she viewed the requirements differently.

“The stipulations that he gave in order for him to drop the charges on me included me paying for him to drop the charges, me agreeing to a public apology to him and the third is that he be allowed to create a sort of program to allow people to talk about political issues,” Scott said. “None of the stipulations were for me to tell him who else was involved or who actually did it. He didn’t ask for a public apology from anyone else than me. He only put these stipulations and these rules on me, and I think that’s really telling.

“He’s on a political vendetta. It’s a lot less about justice for his sign and a lot more about fighting me,” Scott said. “The point to which Wood has escalated this situation is ridiculous.”

After Scott was identified as only a bystander, the investigation stalled. The other people involved couldn’t be identified from the video, Potts said. After spring break, Wood said he felt his conditions would not be fulfilled, so he decided to press charges. Since no one else had been identified in the case, his charges were directed at Scott.

Taia McAfee stepped forward days after spring break, Potts said.

“Over a month went by with that person knowing and the other people who were involved in the event knowing that we were looking for them but refused to turn themselves in,” Potts said. 

McAfee said she had not planned the vandalism beforehand. She was traveling back home with several members of the Students Against Social Injustice after a sign-making meeting for the March on Mississippi. She said she had seen the flag earlier that day and decided while going home to use the paint she had from the meeting to cover the Confederate emblem. 

McAfee said she turned herself in on the same day that Wood first pressed charges against Scott. 

McAfee said she agreed to Wood’s three terms in the non-prosecution agreement except she wanted to talk to Wood in private, not in a public meeting. This, she said, was because she had received threats online after her involvement in the vandalism became apparent. McAfee said Wood would not accept these terms because he said people would “lose respect” for him if he did not stick to his original requirements. 

“Are you seriously considering your respect over someone’s life?” McAfee said.  “I’m afraid of everything because (the people who threatened her online) were literally saying, ‘Maybe we should take care of them ourselves.’ … We agreed to his conditions as long as our lives would be protected in the process. And he denied it.”

Scott said she felt the charges Wood pressed against her ignored clear evidence that she was not the perpetrator.

“So he pressed these bogus charges on me for conspiracy to commit a crime even though the actual assailant said I did not conspire to do anything and that I did not know about what was going to happen prior to,” Scott said. “I just happened to be with the person who did it. I know how that may sound, but there’s only one version of the truth that I can give. The truth is I did not know that they were going to do it.”

Scott said she did have regrets about that night but wasn’t responsible for what happened.

“For my part, I recognize that I could have been a better bystander,” Scott said. “That I could have been more active in telling her to stop, and I didn’t, and I recognize that that was not the best decision to make. But to be blamed for something I didn’t do and to subsequently be threatened and harassed is unacceptable.”

Scott said Wood would know that she wasn’t involved if he’d watched the video. But Wood says he’s tried to watch the video and has not yet been able to.

“I went and asked to see the video the first day it happened. (The police) were like, ‘We’re not going to let anybody back into that room to see the video anymore,’” Wood said. “Then I went to see the video again. … Well, I really went to see Lt. (Jeremy) Cook to see the video and to press charges. He wasn’t there at the time, so one of the clerks told me, ‘Well, you have to have a lawyer present to see the video.’ I asked Lt. Cook about that later, and he was like, ‘You can see the video, I’m pretty sure.’ But I still haven’t seen it.”

Potts said Wood was free to watch the video any time: “All he has to do is request to see it.”

Wood also said he did not know any other people had turned themselves in until after he had filed charges, but Potts said this is because McAfee turned herself in after Wood pressed charges against Scott.

Potts said the two parties were not notified earlier because there was a breakdown in communication between the student conduct office and the police department.

“On our initial case report, we didn’t have a suspect. So that initial case report wasn’t sent to student conduct because there was no one to file student conduct against,” Potts said. “So when we subsequently found out who the other parties were, an addition was done to the case. There was nothing that told our records people to send the entire case off (to student conduct). It was more of an internal breakdown on our part on just how cases are delivered. That’s been corrected. I don’t know when we would have learned of the issue if this situation had not come up.”

Potts said he felt Cook, the case’s lead officer, had been very patient in the case, giving time for the parties to solve the issue without pressing charges.

“We’ve been caught on both sides trying to work this out here when it’s not our job to mediate between the parties,” Potts said. “Had it been me, I would have just picked the person up if the warrant was signed and let the chips fall where they may. They wanted to try to work it out, so we wanted give them every opportunity.”

In the midst of these miscommunications, an article about the incident appeared on a Mississippi conservative blog, “Mississippi PEP.”

Wood said he didn’t know about the first Mississippi PEP article until after it published.  “One of my friends texted me and was like, ‘Have you read this article about you?,’ and I was like, ‘Oh god, what now?’” Wood said. “I thought it was pretty vicious.”

Though Wood said he was not aware of the first article, he was interviewed and was quoted for the second, which was published days later.  That article says Scott was responsible for the vandalism of all the signs. Potts, however, said signs other than Wood’s were vandalized by a group of male students later in the night. These signs were knocked over, and some were broken.

Scott said she didn’t think Wood understood the impact perpetuating these rumors had on her.

“One of the things I don’t think Dylan understands is how powerful words are,” Scott said. “How powerful lies and rumors can be. … I’m almost positive Dylan Wood hasn’t had to walk around campus looking over his shoulder. I’m sure he hasn’t been walked up to in public and harassed and called ‘nigger’ and ‘bitch.’ I’m sure that he hasn’t felt nervous about walking around campus.”

– Lana Ferguson and Clara Turnage