Persons of interest 

Activists voice bewilderment over arson investigation

Missoula detectives have questioned Karl Olson, executive director of Montana Pride, a state gay rights organization, about the February arson fire that gutted the South Hills home of Carla Grayson and Adrianne Neff. Olson says that, after being labeled a “person of interest,” the police asked about his whereabouts on the morning of the fire and about the community’s ability to organize such a large rally so quickly in support of the victims.

“They were intensely interested in the logistics of planning such an event and asked for the names of those individuals involved in the planning,” Olson said at an Aug. 24 press conference in front of the Missoula County Courthouse.

The police questioning came after a North Carolina fire investigator, who was asked to review the case, stated that in his expert opinion, the fire had been intentionally set to maximize exposure and/or sympathy and did not match the usual profile of a hate crime.

Olson believes the implication behind the police questioning of him was that groups or individuals working to support the couple conspired in the arson to bring attention to a lawsuit filled by Grayson, Neff and another lesbian couple, demanding that the University of Montana provide equal employee benefits for same-sex partners. Neff and Grayson agree with Olson’s theory.

“We are completely confident that neither Karl Olson nor any other community activist set fire to our home,” says Neff in a written statement to the Independent from the couple’s new home in Ann Arbor, Mich. where Grayson has taken a one-year university research position. “The Missoula police investigation has progressed from initial victim-blaming onto an utterly deplorable attempt to cast suspicion and blame on the entire community.”

A few days after the press conference, 11 individuals, many of whom were instrumental in the first community rally, met to discuss what they are calling a “bizarre” turn in the arson investigation. Including representatives from Pride, the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Friends Service Committee, and the Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Equality, the group expressed a mutual bewilderment at the developing situation.

“If Olson is under investigation because the detectives find it suspicious that community organizations pulled together the rally on Saturday following the fire with such speed and success, then I wonder who’s next?” asks Mona Bachmann, a member of Outfield Alliance, the group that initiated the lawsuit.

According to the group, a quick response is a necessity in a world where hate crimes exist. They spoke about how quickly word spread of both the arson and the rally: a chain of early-morning phone calls, massive e-mails, circulated fliers and news reports. Grayson and Neff supporters scrambled to find a big enough location, and the rally eventually drew about 700 people and spilled out of the First United Methodist Church and into the street. “It reflects an incredible lack of knowledge of social justice networking,” says Kay Whitlock of the American Friends Service Committee. “What’s so strange about neighbor telling neighbor and organizing a lawful, peaceful, and spiritual rally?”

The police restated that no single individual or group is being targeted in the investigation and that Olson was just one of many people questioned, and thus far no suspects have been named. “The fact that someone gets interviewed by the police doesn’t mean that they are the only person being interviewed,” says Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg.

But Grayson and Neff supporters remain skeptical about police motives. The group spoke of the ill effects the investigation is having on the community. There are worries about losing support in the heterosexual community, doubts about how future grassroots rallies will be judged, and a desire to mend the growing rift between the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (GLBT) community and the police.

Then there is the massive and growing sense of frustration about the progress and direction of the investigation, which appears to be focusing on Grayson and Neff’s possible involvement.

“Instead of blaming the victims of the fire and the activist and advocates who defend human rights for gay people, the police should be doing everything they can to find the perpetrator,” says Bachmann.

Beyond the criminal investigation, Montana ACLU Board of Directors Chairwoman Jane Grochowski thinks the police may be profiling. At the meeting, she read a statement asserting her discontent with the police behavior. In read: “Government should never base suspicions on the fact that a group has exercised its First Amendment right. Looking at activities that happened after this first as a basis for suspicion is not only misguided, but a threat to free speech that we find unconscionable and inexcusable.”

Van Valkenburg disagrees with Grochowski’s logic and believes the focus of the investigation has not changed and is entirely appropriate.

“Let me reiterate that we are not focusing on any particular person or any particular group,” he says. “Karl Olson is the only one who has made public the fact that he was interviewed, but he is not the only person we’ve talked with.”

One thing the investigation has not done is silence GLBT advocates. Olson says he decided to speak out by choice, not by necessity. Hate crimes are meant to keep people silent but this community won’t stay silent. His hope is that if they continue to speak out, people will remember their plight.

“It has eroded some support,” says Neff. “But only at the fringes. When you are only hearing one side of an issue it does raise doubts, but don’t think it undermines the lawsuit.”

Olsen agrees that the lawsuit is on solid ground because it will be fought in court, and believes justice will be easier to come by than in the court of public opinion.

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