MONTPELIER — Dozens of racist and threatening text messages sent mysteriously to the only black business owner in this small Southeast Idaho city have “created a ripple of fear in the tight-knit community,” according to Montpelier Police Chief Russ Roper.
For the past several months, police have been investigating what 16-year-old lifelong Montpelier resident Jade Turner, who is black and operates her own dance studio in this small town of about 2,500 people, is calling a series of hate crimes against her.
In July, a rock was thrown through a large window at Turner’s North 8th Street dance studio, shattering the window and causing over $1,000 in damage.
No one has been criminally charged for the act of vandalism.
Turner opened her dance studio, Jade’s School of Dance, at age 14 with help from her grandfather and she currently teaches dance to over 60 students there, many of whom are scared for her safety.
Starting in early September Turner has been cyberbullied via text messages containing a plethora of racial epithets and death threats and has also received racist letters in the mail threatening that her pets would be killed if she didn’t kill herself.
“It started out as just normal bullying,” Turner said. “Then it started progressing more and more and became extremely vulgar and threatening. I was called every name in the book — racial slurs, told that I was fat and that I should kill myself.”
Turner lives in Montpelier with her mother, Shannon Chavez. Both mother and daughter say they have no idea who is responsible for the vicious harassment. Montpelier police are investigating but say they have been unsuccessful thus far in tracking down who the text messages and mailed threats are coming from.
Chavez provided the Idaho State Journal with dozens of screenshots showing the text messages Turner has received, which began in early September and have continued every day since.
Turner received 18 text messages in a two-minute span calling her the N-word. Other text messages told her she should be thankful she is only being cyberbullied as opposed to being ambushed outside of her dance studio, beaten so badly she would need facial reconstructive surgery and then having her head shaved and being thrown into a dumpster.
The text messages then began taking on a more sinister tone by asking Turner why she wasn’t in the studio at times she normally would be and describing her pets at home and at her studio with threats to kill them if Turner didn’t kill herself.
Turner has also received multiple letters in the mail calling her the N-word and threatening to kill her cats.
“It has gotten to the point that I am being stalked,” Turner said. “They texted me saying they knew I was not scared of them because I took my dogs out for a walk, which I did, or that I was teaching at my dance studio, which I was. They knew everything I did all day.”
If the racist and threatening behavior Turner has endured isn’t painful enough, Turner and Chavez feel as if the Montpelier Police Department has not taken the matter seriously.
On one of the 10 occasions Chavez has contacted police about the threats toward her daughter, the Montpelier Police Department sent two officers to her home to further investigate. The officers asked to speak to Turner separately but also out of view from the video cameras with audio recording capabilities Chavez installed outside the home after the barrage of racist and threatening letters and text messages began, Chavez said.
One officer stayed inside the home with Chavez while the other officer spoke to Turner in the backyard, away from the cameras.
“(The police officer) said he wanted the conversation to be completely private, but it felt like he was pushing me for the answers he wanted, not the actual truth,” Turner said. “He said that my case was a little fishy. Then he told me he wouldn’t tell my mom and that he thought he knew what was actually going on here.”
Turner continued, “He said, ‘I want to know if you are a lesbian.’ I was like, ‘What, how does that have anything to do with this case?’ He said that he thought I was a lesbian and he wanted to make sure I didn’t date a girl and break up with her, which would explain why I was getting the text messages. I told him, ‘First of all, I like boys, but that has nothing to do with anything.’ Then he said he thought I was having a relationship with an older man over 18 and I didn’t want to get him in trouble.”
Turner said she told the police officer that not only does she tell her mother everything, but she is also not your typical teenager. Since sixth grade, Turner has been home-schooled, primarily so she can concentrate on her dancing career as well as her modeling and acting aspirations.
“I told the police to come into my room to see the hundreds of awards and trophies that I have worked hard for years to achieve,” Turner said. “I have a safe in my room with money that I am already saving up for my first home. I have my head on straight and I don’t know why my sexuality has anything to do with this.”
Chief Roper said the Montpelier police officer who interviewed Turner in her backyard recorded the conversation.
“(The police officer) did request to speak to Jade, but not necessarily out of view of any recordings,” Roper said. “We recorded that interview, so it’s not like we were trying to hide anything.”
The officer was caught on one of the audio-equipped camera’s at Turner’s home asking to speak to her out of view of the home’s cameras but Roper defended the officer’s actions and line of questioning.
“The messages Jade received had a homosexual tone to them and we wanted to know if she was involved with anyone as part of our thorough investigation to see if we could narrow our list of suspects,” Roper said. “That’s hard sometimes for a teenage girl to say in front of their parents and that’s why we asked to interview Jade alone.”
Roper says the Montpelier Police Department has invested many hours into this case and is aggressively pursuing criminal charges against those who are responsible for harassing Turner.
“We do have an open and active investigation into this case and are in the process of obtaining search warrants into the messages Jade has received,” Roper said. “We have treated this very seriously, including extra patrols at the dance studio and at their home.”
Roper continued, “Not only are we focused on safety for her family and the community, we are aggressively searching for the information we need to bring criminal charges. We are getting closer and closer to that.”
What’s made this case difficult to investigate is the way in which the messages are being sent to Turner’s phone, Roper said. Not only are the messages being disguised in a manner that makes them appear as if they are coming from an out-of-state number, Roper said the police investigation has led them to believe that the messages are coming from multiple cellphone carriers. This could suggest more than one person is sending the messages or that one person is using multiple cell phones to harass Turner.
Police have determined that at this point none of the threats pose a legitimate threat to Turner’s safety nor to the safety of any Montpelier community member, Roper said.
“It takes much longer than the television would lead you to believe to track these cases down,” Roper said. “Some of these messages were generated by a computer, which in and of itself is difficult to track down. I don’t want it to sound like I am blaming the family, but this does take a while. We have six officers and every one of them has been involved in this case.”
Roper continued, “Other students at her dance studio are concerned, too. It has created a ripple of fear in this tight-knit community, there is no doubt about that.”
Turner and Chavez said they didn’t decide to go public with what they have experienced to put pressure on the local police. Really, it’s about speaking out about bullying, Turner said.
“I really want to spread awareness about this,” Turner said. “There are so many girls out there, even in this small town, that are getting bullied so badly. And today’s bullying is not like it used to be — getting called names like fat or whatever. This is serious stuff. We live in a small town and it’s bad here, but I can’t imagine how bad it is in bigger schools. I’m home-schooled and I can only imagine what it is like in public schools.”
Like Turner said, she is not a typical teenager. She owns a business, has set lofty goals for herself and she feels as if she needs to be a voice of support for youths across the nation who are experiencing bullying.
“I want to talk about this,” Turner said. “But what about the girl who is shy and wants to keep this to herself. It could build and build to the point where she commits suicide. That is not OK. It’s just horrible and people need to start speaking out about it.”
Turner continued, “I have learned from experience, when you bottle this up and keep it in it hurts you, almost more than the words you read on the screen.”
For Chavez, her most serious worry is that the bullying her daughter is experiencing escalates from the racist and threatening text messages to violence against Turner.
“These could just be text messages, but what if they are not?” Chavez said. “As a parent, I worry about the text messages turning into reality.”