OAKLAND, Calif. — A 16-year-old teen has been charged as an adult in an alleged hate crime against an agender victim whose skirt was set on fire while sleeping on a city bus.
A spokesperson for the Alameda County District Attorney said that Richard Thomas was charged Thursday in a criminal complaint in adult court with aggravated mayhem, felony assault and a hate-crime “enhancement” after telling investigators that he committed Monday’s attack “because he was homophobic.”
The attack left 18-year-old Luke Fleischman, who also identifies by the name Sasha, hospitalized with second and third-degree burns below the waist. Fleischman was listed in stable condition, according to a spokesperson at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco.
“The intentional and callous nature of the crime is shocking and will not be tolerated in our community,” Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said in a statement.
Oakland Police spokeswoman Officer Johnna Watson told LGBTQ Nation that Thomas was arrested Tuesday at Oakland High School after examining surveillance video from the AC Transit city bus that showed him setting the victim’s skirt on fire.
On Thursday, California Superior Court Judge Gregory Syren ordered Thomas to remain in custody without bail.
Thomas told the court that his relatives were trying to hire a lawyer to represent him in his defense. A woman who identified herself as the suspect’s grandmother in the courtroom pleaded with Judge Syren for more time to find an attorney. Syren postponed proceedings for entering of a plea until next Tuesday to give the family time to obtain counsel.
Outside the courtroom, Thomas’s mother, who gave her name only as Ms. Jackson, denied that her son was homophobic or that he meant to hurt anyone.
“My son is not a hateful person,” she said. “He’s not homophobic. He was joking, and he didn’t know it would go that far.”
“I am very sorry, very sorry for my son’s actions,” Jackson told reporters, adding that her son, too, was remorseful and was drafting a letter of apology to the burn victim. “I did not raise him that way.”
Fleischman’s mother, Debbie Fleischman, said Sasha will require massive skin grafting as a result of the attack.
She said she is torn about whether the fire was a prank, or if Sasha was targeted because he was wearing a skirt.
She added that Sasha, a senior at Maybeck High School in Berkeley, does not identify as male or female, but as nonbinary, an umbrella term covering all other gender identity.
“My son considers himself agender,” Debbie Fleischman said. “He likes to wear a skirt. It’s his statement. That’s how he feels comfortable dressing.”
Debbie Fleischman said Sasha has been riding the bus home from school, oftentimes wearing a skirt, for the past year and has had no problems or threats. She said Sasha has identified as agender for about two years.
A crowdfunding page for Sasha was set up Tuesday by family members in an effort to raise $10,000 toward medical bills, and by Friday more than 500 supporters had donated over $21,000.
Numerous students at Maybeck High School showed up on campus Friday wearing skirts to honor Sasha.