Murder of new Army officer at Maryland part of a frightening surge in racial violence
FBI investigating death of third-generation military man as potential hate crime
Summer semesters are often quiet in the ROTC offices at Bowie State University. The unit’s cadets are away, training in places from Kentucky to Tanzania. Those who graduated are launching their military careers.
But this summer the quiet is tinged with grief because one of their recent graduates, a newly minted officer, is dead. He was not killed in some faraway conflict. Instead, he was the victim of a murder the FBI is investigating as a possible hate crime at the nearby University of Maryland.
Lt. Richard W. Collins III, 23, was stabbed to death in the wee hours of May 20 as he waited for an Uber ride-sharing car with two friends on the College Park campus. Two days earlier, he had been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, and the following week he was set to graduate from Bowie State, a historically black university between Washington, D.C., and Annapolis, Maryland.
Collins, a third-generation military man who aspired to be a general, was killed in what police called a “totally unprovoked” attack. Court papers describe a white man screaming as he approached Collins and his two friends from a nearby stand of trees. “Step left, step left if you know what’s best for you,” the man said to Collins. Collins replied, “No,” and the man plunged a 3- or 4-inch knife into his chest, according to charging documents.
Police charged University of Maryland student Sean Urbanski, 22, with the murder. Urbanski, who grew up in a middle-class family in suburban Maryland, was described by authorities as a member of a Facebook group called Alt-Reich: Nation, which trafficked in racist, sexist and anti-Semitic material.
“Suffice it to say that it’s despicable,” University of Maryland Police Chief David Mitchell told reporters. “It shows extreme bias against women, Latinos, members of the Jewish faith and especially African-Americans.”
Within minutes of the stabbing, police found Urbanski sitting on a bus stop bench just 50 feet from the murder scene. They said a knife was in his right front pocket. Also, they noted, the crime was captured on video. Urbanski has pleaded not guilty and is being held in a suburban Maryland jail without bail. His lawyer, William C. Brennan, told a judge that his client was incoherent when he was arrested, and that drugs and alcohol likely played a role in the crime.
Prosecutors expect Urbanski to be indicted by mid-July on first-degree murder charges that could land him in prison for life without a chance of parole. The FBI is continuing to scour his cellphone records, emails and social media footprint for evidence needed to support federal hate crime charges, which could expose Urbanski to the death penalty. Prosecutors noted that his membership in the Facebook group, where one source in the office said his activity was limited to “liking” several posts, would not by itself be enough to sustain a hate crime prosecution.
Investigators may or may not find enough evidence for Collins’ murder to meet the legal standard for a hate crime. But its elements — a black victim, a white suspect with a connection to extremist social media, and the fact that Collins and Urbanski were complete strangers — have led many observers to see it as part of the mounting toll of racist incidents accompanying the rise of President Donald Trump.
After the murder, Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) introduced a resolution, co-sponsored by 55 members of Congress, condemning the murder as “racially motivated” and pointing to a troubling rise in extremist activity on college campuses around the country. The NAACP, Brown and U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, called on the Trump administration to condemn the attack.
The president has spoken out against racial intolerance on several occasions: in interviews, on Twitter, in official statements and, perhaps most notably, in an address to a joint session of Congress in February. But critics say the president’s efforts have been sporadic and at times come off as perfunctory. Also, they have not matched the racist and anti-immigrant passions his often caustic presidential campaign stirred among some of his supporters.
“When individuals occupying our nation’s highest office spew hate-filled rhetoric and unapologetically associate with and staff the White House with white supremacists, our entire nation drinks from the same poisonous well,” said NAACP chairman Leon W. Russell.
Trump has said nothing about Collins’ murder, despite the victim’s military pedigree.
“I don’t know of any statement or reaction that came out from the White House on the murder of Lt. Collins,” said Brown, himself a retired Army colonel. “Quite frankly, I think the president has been lukewarm at best in demonstrating his disdain and disgust and disagreement with hate crimes and extremist misconduct. He has spoken on a few incidents, but it has been very lukewarm.”
The White House did not respond to an email requesting comment on the president’s silence.
Since last fall, hate crime watchdogs have cataloged 150 racist incidents on college campuses in 33 states, Brown’s office said. Off campus, there have been many more. The Southern Poverty Law Center counted more than 1,000 bias-related incidents across the country in just the first month after the election. Many of the alleged perpetrators alluded to Trump or his campaign slogans. Hate crimes were up 6 percent in 25 large cities across the country in 2016, according to a new report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Of the 25 localities surveyed, 14 hit or tied multiyear highs, the report said.
The number of incidents has tailed off, but alarming instances of racial violence have continued. On Memorial Day weekend, two men were stabbed to death and a third was badly injured on a train in Portland, Oregon, when they stood up to a man who was harassing two Muslim women. In court, the suspect, Jeremy Joseph Christian, 35, shouted, “Death to the enemies of America. … You call it terrorism. I call it patriotism.”
That same weekend, a white man was arrested and charged with intentionally running over two Native American men with his pickup truck in Washington state. One victim died and the other was hospitalized. Also that weekend, a white man yelling racial slurs and wielding a machete attacked and seriously wounded an African-American man in a Clearlake, California, apartment parking lot.
The Southern Poverty Law Center says some people take the president’s often harsh rhetoric as a signal to act on their racist sentiments.
“Trump’s racially charged, xenophobic campaign, coupled with his attacks on so-called political correctness, not only energized the white supremacist movement but gave people a license to act on their worst instincts — their anger, their prejudices, their resentments,” the law center’s president Ben Cohen wrote in an article on the organization’s website.
Even as the nation’s racial climate has turned stormy, few at Bowie State expected the hate to hit so close to home. Lt. Col. Joel Thomas, an Army Ranger who leads the university’s ROTC program, said it took a while for news of Collins’ murder to sink in.
“Initially, there was just disbelief,” he said. “I got a call on Saturday, and I don’t think it sunk in until I was at church the next day. This was a young man who did everything he was supposed to do. If he were on the front line, you would be a little more prepared for it.”
Montrose Robinson, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and the ROTC’s recruiting operations officer at Bowie State, had known Collins since shortly after he sent her an email inquiring about an ROTC scholarship in late 2012. It did not take long for him to be approved.
“He was a star, a model cadet,” Robinson said. “He excelled in physical training, and he was an excellent student. He wanted to be a general officer, and he had what it would take to be a general.”
The military had always been a big part of Collins’ life. His grandfather, Richard W. Collins Sr., served in a field artillery unit in the Korean War. His father, Richard W. Collins Jr., retired from the Navy after serving 25 years as an air traffic controller, with postings in places including Vietnam and Somalia. Collins, who had earned a business administration degree at Bowie State, was Airborne qualified and headed to be an intelligence officer.
Even while attending Annapolis Area Christian School for his final two years of high school, Collins had something of a military bearing. He was quiet and well-mannered, athletic and team-oriented. He played soccer and lacrosse and was devoutly religious. After he moved on to college, he would sometimes be seen in his ROTC fatigues picking up his younger sister after school.
“You always had the sense that he was well-raised. He was very respectful. He seemed to put effort into his studies,” said Don Wiley, a dean at Annapolis Area Christian. “He was gentlemanly and took care of his business. You got the sense the parents had sent him on a trajectory to become an officer and gentleman.”
The murder touched off an outpouring of support for the Collins family, who remain too devastated to talk publicly, according to a family spokesman. There were vigils at both the University of Maryland and Bowie State, and flowers, cards and notes of condolences have poured in from across the country.
But, disturbingly, not everyone has shared that sense of sorrow. Online, someone who identified himself as a classmate of Urbanski’s wrote in a screenshot released by police: “F— yeah Sean!!!!! That’s what happens when n—–s try and get frosty with an OG! Talk s—, get stabbed lol.”
In a comment on Facebook, Welby Burgone, a high school classmate of Urbanski’s who was training to be a dispatcher for the Anne Arundel County Police Department, posted an image that seemed to support that sentiment. It showed a crab holding a knife with the words “You mess with crabo You get stabo.”
The department denounced the post as “extremely insensitive.” Days after Anne Arundel police were alerted to the image via Twitter, Burgone was no longer working for the department, a spokesman said. Burgone could not be reached for comment.
The ROTC’s Robinson said it is unlikely that Collins would have attributed the nation’s always fraught racial climate to the president’s campaign. Collins was not one to “see race,” she said, and he had friends of many races. The night he was murdered, she said, he was out with two friends: an Asian woman and a white man.
“That’s who he was. He just looked at people’s spirit and who they were,” Robinson said. “When you are in uniform, you support the commander in chief, and I know that Richard did like the president. He is commander in chief, and Richard was excited and ready to serve.”