Vauhxx Booker, a human rights advocate who is Black, went to Lake Monroe to watch the lunar eclipse one year ago today on July 4, 2020. Booker and the group he was with took a shortcut to get to the destination, and Sean Purdy claimed they were trespassing on private property. Booker believed he was on public property but decided to apologize and move forward to avoid escalation, and Purdy gave his group a ride to the site. However, the group allegedly blocked off the beach as more people began to arrive, so Booker and a friend decided to go back and talk to them again.
Booker said the group became aggressive, so he and his friend began to leave. But as they began to walk away, two from the group allegedly ambushed him and dragged him back. Ultimately, some of the men in the videos Booker posted on Facebook pinned him against a tree, physically attacked him and yelled racist slurs at him, Booker said. He alleges the group attempted to lynch him and told people around them to “get a noose,” among other slurs and threats.
Once bystanders had intervened to end the encounter, Booker called 911, which transferred him to the Department of Natural Resources. No arrests were made. A few days later, the FBI opened a hate crime investigation into the encounter.
Little information about the investigation has been made public, and the FBI could not be reached for comment. Booker said the FBI has deferred to state prosecutors.
“Given the history of Indiana and the racism that’s still present, federal prosecution would be preferable,” Booker said.
Booker said the events at Lake Monroe were the most traumatic events of his life, and he is living with it and working through it every day.
“For everyone else, this happened a year ago,” Booker said. “For me, it’s everyday.”
Two of the alleged attackers, Sean Purdy and Jerry Cox, Jr., are facing felony charges including criminal confinement, battery and intimidation. They called the allegations a “smear campaign” and allege that Booker was the instigator, which Booker and his attorney have denied.
After all four criminal court judges of Monroe Circuit Court and Monroe County Prosecutor Erika Oliphant recused themselves from the case in July 2020 to avoid conflicts of interest and concerns of bias against the defendants, the Indiana Supreme Court appointed Johnson Superior Court Judge Lance Hamner to preside over the case. He then appointed Hamilton County Prosecutor Sonia Leerkamp in Aug. 2020.
Now, a year later, the case is still pending due to this process and delays related to the coronavirus. In Nov. 2020, Hamner said a trial would begin in the spring, but no formal trial has yet been scheduled.
Booker said the criminal justice system is punitive, not restorative, and unequipped to deal with the humanity of individuals. Booker said he was victimized not only by his alleged attackers, but also by the criminal justice system’s response, specifically the Department of Natural Resources.
“They seemed to elevate the importance of property rights above the harm that was done to me,” Booker said.
Booker said he has also experienced victim blaming by some members of the community over the past year, such as searching his background for criminality to explain away his alleged attackers’ behavior. Meanwhile, he said, his alleged attackers' backgrounds weren’t scrutinized.
“It all pointed to what Dr. King often referred to as the stigmata of Blackness, where America demonizes Black people and it justifies our oppression through some kind of innate criminality,” Booker said. “The reality is that Black people are human, and that we shouldn’t have to be saintly or even innocent to be afforded justice in America.”
Booker said the way he was treated in the aftermath of the incident exemplifies why so many victims never come forward.
At the same time, other members of the community showed up in support of Booker at a protest July 6, 2020, in response to the encounter. Booker said he was moved by the support.
“But it’s always also disappointing that the wheels of justice have to be greased by political unrest,” he added.
At that protest, Christi Bennett hit two protesters with her car. One of them, Chaz Mottinger, suffered a head injury and was unresponsive at the scene but has since recovered. Bennett, 66, was charged with two counts of criminal recklessness committed with a deadly weapon and two charges of leaving the scene of an accident. As of publication, no trial has been scheduled.
Booker said violence is always shocking, but that to say he was surprised would be to say that he hadn’t been paying attention to reality and history.
“Healing comes from accountability, and accountability is not the same as punishment,” Booker said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the context of Booker’s encounter at Lake Monroe.