BILLINGS — Hate crimes are on the rise in Montana and across the country. Now, the FBI is looking into whether an incident that happened along North 27th Street and 6th Avenue North on Saturday warrants those type of charges.
Billings police say a woman drove into a religious group, telling police afterward that she thought they were "terrorists" for what they were saying on the street, according to charging documents.
“She was just like, should I go run them over with my Jeep? And none of us thought she was serious, and she did it,” said a witness to the incident, Sarah Gebhardt, on Wednesday.
Gebhardt was one of the few who saw what happened in the Albertsons parking lot Saturday. She was working at a convenience store across the street when 55-year-old Genevienne Rancuret came in, appearing intoxicated, inquiring about the group demonstrating along the street.
“I’ve heard a lot of opinions about how they think she was being racist and hating on the religion, and I don’t know if it will help any. I just think that I want to make it clear that that wasn’t what she was upset about. She was upset about a certain exclusion of race of what they were saying,” said Gebhardt.
Gebhardt says Rancuret proceeded to drive at the group not once, but several times.
“I actually went out to the corner to try and see if I could get her attention and tell her to stop, but she didn’t look my way,” Gebhardt said.
Billings police said those demonstrators were members of Israel United in Christ, a group that the Anti-Defamation League says is a prominent sect of the black Hebrew Israelites movement, which espouses a theory that Jews aren’t really Jewish, claiming instead the only true Jews are people who descended from Africa or other continents of color.
“In the past, these groups have compared Jews to the devil, have blamed them for world events, and have really just unfortunately advanced antisemitism more generally,” said Stephen Paolini, the Pacific Northwest associate regional director for the Anti-Defamation League.
That makes this a complicated situation as authorities investigate whether Rancuret’s actions, which were motivated by a possible hate group, rise to the level of a hate crime.
“Their race, their religious beliefs, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation. We have to be able to prove that someone committed a violent act against someone because they’re a member of a protected class,” said Montana U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich.
“ADL doesn’t feel that this needs to be investigated as a hate crime. We don’t feel that it’s necessarily a hate crime. We’re just sort of assessing,” Paolini said.
The FBI is now reviewing the case and only time will tell whether the 55-year-old could face more serious charges.
One thing is certain, hate crimes are on the rise across the nation.
“We’re seeing the highest level of hate crimes in at least 20 years,” Paolini said.