Set Afire, Homeless Man Feels Burned by Police

By Gregory Flannery

You can’t blame people who live on the streets for being less than comfortable with law enforcement; some of their experiences with police officers have been less than pleasant.

Thus when George Smock was set on fire during the night of Dec. 27, 2009, he didn’t call police.

“I didn’t fill out a police report that night, which I should have done, but I’ve got to live down here,” he says. “I don’t want to be made out as a snitch.”

The next day, when Smock saw the Rev. Fred Cook, the minister called police. Smock told the officer that he didn’t want to pursue the matter. When Smock lived in a camp along the Ohio River a few years ago, his camp mate was killed. Because the perpetrator has never been caught, Smock says, he had little hope that his assault would be treated as important.

“My friend – they called him Stringbean – got beat to death,” Smock says. “Nothing ever came of that. They’re going to make me a priority?”

When Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, heard about the attack on Smock, he urged Smock to cooperate with police.

“I told him that the people who set him on fire might try to do it to one of his friends,” Spring says.

That argument convinced Smock.

But now he’s having second thoughts.

‘Trying to survive’

The night of Dec. 27, Smock was at the corner of Main and Court streets, near the Hamilton County Department of Jobs and Family Services. Four African-American teenagers doused him with charcoal lighter fluid and threw a match on him, he says. His coat lit on fire.

“These four young boys walked up to me,” Smock says. “It was dark. They had a square can that you start your charcoal with, and they threw a match at me. My coat caught on fire. They said, ‘Now we got you, motherfucker.’ Everything happened so fast.”

Smock says he had a can of Gatorade and doused the fire. He was uninjured.

Now Smock feels threatened by police investigators.

“They’re trying to turn it around,” he says. “They said they’re going to arrest me for making a false report. The detective said, ‘We can’t find any residue on the coat.’ ”

Smock says he took investigators to his current campsite – a location he declines to identify – and turned over the coat.

“I went back and got the coat and gave it to him,” he says. “I’m trying to do the right thing here. I was willing to let it go. If I did set myself on fire, why would I take him where the coat was? The coat’s been out there for two weeks in the rain and everything else. That’s why there’s no residue. I’m the victim in this and they’re trying to make me out to be the one who did it.”

A longtime family friend gave Smock the coat, he says.

“My new Carhartt coat that I got for Christmas – why would I burn my own coat?”

A police investigator told Smock that he suspects Smock ignited a cigarette lighter in the coat pocket, causing it to burn.

“I don’t even smoke,” Smock says. “I don’t have a lighter. I chew tobacco.”

Last week Smock might have made his own legal situation – and the investigation of the assault – more complicated. He says that, in his exasperation, he gave a new account of the incident to a detective. Smock says he told a detective that he had been on riverbank and leaned against something that ignited the coat.

“He was browbeating me,” Smock says. “I gave in to it.”

At this point, however, bristling at the suggestion that he started the fire, Smock says he’ll fight in court any charge filed against him.

“I’m not trying to get anything out of this,” he says. “They’ll never find these guys but I’ll be damned if I’m going to be accused of lying about this. “I fly a (panhandling) sign. I don’t rob anybody. But they want to do this to me. I think it’s wrong. I’m just out here trying to survive.”

Smock says he doesn’t remember the detective’s name. Spring says a contact in the police department told him that the detective might be using an investigative technique, testing Smock’s ability to withstand cross-examination if the assailants are caught and go to trial.

Fighting hate crimes

Smock says he has long familiarity with discrimination against homeless people. He has been cited in the past for drinking in public, he says.

“I’ve sat in the Salvation Army lot and watched college students walk up and down the street drinking,” he says. “Just because they have money, they’re better than me? You’ve got these people drinking at tailgate parties. It’s OK for them to do it. But if I take a 40-ounce (beer) down there, I’m hit in the mouth. It’s an old expression: It means I’m screwed.”

Smock has agreed to speak at a forum on hate crimes being organized by the Homeless Coalition, according to Spring.

“They attacked Mr. Smock simply because he is homeless,” Spring says. “They believed that,
because Mr. Smock is homeless, he is not human and therefore they could viciously attack him and possibly murder him. The Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless (GCCH) condemns this hate crime and all hate crimes. GCCH encourages all people who are homeless to be especially cautious, especially at night, and to keep watch for one another.”
The forum on hate crimes will meet from 1:30-5 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29. Scheduled speakers include Michael Stoops of the National Coalition for the Homeless and Brian Davis of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. For details, contact Rob Goeller at robgoeller@cincihomless.org or 513-421-7803, Ext. 15.

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