A Mexican-American family was the target of racially fueled threats from neighbors in the Ozarks. And the tension grew so heated that the local sheriff called the violence a “melee” and a “small riot.”
“We’re researching ... to see if it’s a hate crime,” said Dallas County Sheriff Scott Rice. “I don’t think it’s going to fit that, but we’re looking more toward another charge.”
The sheriff declined to specify what charge or charges were possible in the Sunday night clash that came after weeks of racial animosity between next-door neighbors. The sheriff said Thursday that deputies have spent 200 hours investigating what happened outside the family’s Buffalo, Mo., home.
On Friday night, a divisive sign was hung on a chain-link fence separating the properties, Rice said. He added it was removed before daylight Saturday and has yet to be recovered. A photograph shared with The Star shows its content:
“Go home. No Mexican crossin.”
The tension might have begun when roaming pigs belonging to one of the neighbors brought sheriff’s deputies to the area many times in the past four weeks, Rice said.
What exactly led up to the sign and the violence that broke out two days later depends on whom you ask. But Jesse Vega and his partner, Cassie Parish, say they were targeted for being Mexican-American.
Vega is Mexican-American, and the couple have four children together. They were living with Parish’s parents.
Vega said by phone that a neighbor called one of his four children, all under 9 years old, a racist and homophobic slur.
Rice said a “deputy is working on charges for that now.”
Vega said his neighbor also threatened to fight him and “beat him into refried beans.”
“I was kicked and punched,” Vega said, adding he caught some of his attackers’ names, including “some guy they called Fluffy.”
Parish said she was put in a choke hold in a video she shot shortly after the incident.
One woman wrote she’d put up the sign in a message that was shared with The Star. “You got a problem come find me.”
The woman later said she was lying and didn’t put up the sign.
Vega and Parish’s neighbors did not return requests for comment.
No one has been charged in the incident. Rice said a lack of witness cooperation has held up investigators.
Vega, Parish and others have called for more action to be taken by the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office, deeming the conflict a hate crime that’s gone unpunished.
“That’s beyond messed up,” wrote Cheryl Ann on Facebook. “That’s one of the reasons my husband and I had 2 leave buffalo cause the cops wouldn’t do nothing 2 our neighbors who were white (whereas) my hubs is Mexican.”
Rice contended investigators are dedicating hundreds of hours of resources to the case, have researched hate crime law in the state and have encouraged witnesses to come forward.
“We’re looking. We’re trying to do something, trying to go by the letter of the law,” he said.
Rice said there were claims that a gun was fired in the air.
Vega said the person with the gun threatened his friend by pointing it at his head. In the video, a woman off-camera is heard saying, “I was standing over here, and I heard a shot fired.”
Vega and Parish feel so alienated they’ve left the home to get away from their neighbors.
“Every time I’m outside or my kids (are outside),” Vega said, “they’d yell, ‘You guys need to go back to Mexico.’ ”
Rice said investigators have learned that Vega responded to some of the invective with slurs of his own directed at his neighbors. He added that Vega admitted to having a torque wrench during the melee, but like the gun that was reportedly fired, “that’s mysteriously disappeared also.”
“It’s a two-way street,” Rice said.
But Vega said he and his family were not the instigators.
“We got dragged into this,” he said. “Everything that started did not have anything to do with us.”