A Jackson man admitted to desecrating a Torah, musical instruments and religious prayer books when he pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge Monday, according to a news release from the office of U.S. Attorney Edward L. Stanton III, of the Western District of Tennessee.
Justin Shawn Baker, 25, pleaded guilty Monday to violating the civil rights of the faculty and students of the Margolin Hebrew Academy, which is located at 390 S. White Station Road, in Memphis, Tenn. Baker violated their rights by defacing a Torah and several religious books inside a Jackson hotel.
The case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and is being prosecuted by Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Laurenzi and Trial Attorney Douglas Kern of the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section.
According to the release, students and faculty members from the academy were staying overnight at the Doubletree Hotel in Jackson en route to Gatlinburg, Tenn. on or about Jan. 12. They used one of the hotel’s meeting rooms to conduct a Sabbath worship service and left a Torah, religious books, and musical instruments inside the room overnight with the intention of continuing worship services the next morning.
Jackson police said in a news release that around 8:20 a.m. on Jan. 12, officers were dispatched the Doubletree Hotel, located at 1770 U.S. 45 Bypass, about an overnight vandalism that occurred in a meeting room.
Officers found that several of the academy’s books, electronics, a Torah scroll, and musical instruments were marked, torn or damaged and defiled. There was more than $10,000 in damages.
Jackson police Investigators determined that the crimes were specifically directed at the objects representing the Jewish faith. and that the vandalism was opportunistic in nature and limited to Baker’s involvement.
Baker, who was a Maxx Guard employee and security guard at the time of the incident, admitted Monday that while employed as a security guard at the hotel, he discovered the items in the room.
The release said Baker admitted to defacing the prayer books, the Torah and the musical instruments with Satanic writing, profanity and anti-Semitic phrases. He also admitted to spitting on the Torah.
Photographs of the damage was presented during the hearing and confirmed that the Torah was defaced with profanity and phrases including “Hail Satan” written by Baker.
“Freedom of religion and the freedom to practice it without harassment are bedrock principles upon which our nation was founded,” Stanton said in the release. “Baker’s offensive acts represent an attack upon the rights and freedoms enjoyed by every citizen, which generations of Americans fought and died to ensure and protect.”
Baker pleaded guilty on Nov. 18 in Madison County Circuit Court to felony vandalism and civil rights intimidation, charges filed by the Jackson Police Department for the January incident. Baker, who is out on a $100,000 bond, is scheduled to be sentenced at 10 a.m. on Dec. 30 in circuit court.
Jackson police said Baker faces two to four years for the civil rights intimidation and two to four years for the vandalism over $10,000.