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Residents of a home in Boones Mill have filed a $66.9 million lawsuit over a news story that aired on ABC News in January 2022, saying that the use of an image of their house in the piece about the ripple effects of the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol falsely depicts them as individuals who, among other things, discriminate against people of color.
According to the suit, Crystal Minnix and her father, Eugene Muse Jr., co-own the home – a white house, emblazoned with red stripes with blue shutters decorated with white stars.
The defamation, assault and endangerment, and negligence lawsuit was filed against Devin Dwyer, an ABC News senior Washington reporter, as well as Elizabeth Thomas and Jacqueline Yoo, producers for ABC News, who put together the news segment headlined “Cops’ role in Jan. 6 attack divides Virginia town with ties to Confederacy.”
Bridgette Craighead, the owner of EL3ven11 Beauty Lounge in Rocky Mount, and Black Lives Matter Franklin County, an organization Craighead founded, are also named as defendants. Craighead was interviewed during the story but did not mention the patriotic house.
The suit, filed in Franklin County Circuit Court, asks for $62 million in compensatory damages and $4.9 million in punitive damages.
What the lawsuit says
From the suit:
“The media piece referenced above centers its theme of racism in Rocky Mount, Virginia, referencing whites versus people of color and specifically, President Donald John Trump supporters as white supremacists being involved in a violent insurrection at the Washington, D.C. capital on January 6, 2021. The piece tied the Confederacy to the supporters of President Donald John Trump, based on information and belief and accordingly alleged herein. Defendant Craighead says, ‘Its their land and their county and we just live in it,’ a clear reference that white people control the land.
“The Plaintiffs Minnix house being painted ‘Red,’ ‘White,’ and ‘Blue’ was shown on the video immediately after the Defendant Craighead’s words. The video depicts the Plaintiff’s Minnix house and a minor male being one of the Minnix children visible in front of the house near a bicycle and family van. Defamation requires the examination of the entire media piece considering the reporting and video and audio as a complete piece of work. Plaintiffs Minnix house celebrates their pride in their country, depicts United States of America flag. Plaintiffs Minnix house has been falsely depicted as being tied to violence in Washington, D.C. capital on January 6, 2021. Plaintiffs Minnix house has been falsely depicted as being associated with the Confederacy. Plaintiffs Minnix house has been falsely depicted as supporting President Donald John Trump. Plaintifs Minnix house has been falsely depicted as an inhospitable place for people of color.
“By clear implication, the minor male child has been falsely depicted as a violent insurrectionist, a rebelling Confederacy supporter, a supporter of President Donald John Trump and as an individual who stands against or discriminates against people of color. By clear implication, the residents of the Minnix house and each individual Plaintiff’s Minnix has been falsely depicted as violent insurrectionists, as rebellious Confederacy supporters, as supporters of President Donald John Trump and as individuals and businesses, who stand against or discriminate against people of color.”
At the point in the story when the house is shown, Dwyer explains in a voiceover that “Rocky Mount is predominantly white and politically conservative.”
The suit charges that “although the piece published did not specifically name [the plaintiffs] as racists, the depiction of their personal residence with a minor child outside, clearly characterized their residence and, by clear inference, all those who reside therein as racist or having racist tendencies.
“Any implication that [the Plaintiffs] are racist is categorically and demonstrably false,” the suit says.
The ABC News story looked at how the people of Rocky Mount responded after a town police officer and his supervisor were spotted at the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Last August, Thomas Robertson, who was previously a police sergeant for the Rocky Mount Police Department, was sentenced to more than seven years for five felonies and one misdemeanor. Jacob Fracker, the former police officer, was sentenced to home confinement and probation for his actions related to Jan. 6.
The suit says that in the news story, a minor son can also be seen in the front yard of the house, which is easily visible to cars traveling on U.S. 220 through the town.
In the suit, Minnix and Muse Jr. allege that they, along with other residents of the house including numerous children, have suffered mental anguish since video of their home was included in the report. They charge that since the piece aired, they’ve dealt with trespassers and people watching their comings and goings. Additionally, the suit claims that Crystal Minnix lost revenue from her Scentsy business and a business called Goldens Promise, both of which are run out of the home, because of the news segment.
Zachary Tyler Muse answered the door at the Boones Mill house on Friday and said that the family would not comment to the media. In the suit, Muse is listed as the adult son of Crystal Minnix who also lives in the house.
Lance Hale, a Roanoke attorney, and Ethan Koelsch, a Salem attorney, are listed as co-counsels for the plaintiffs. They did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
Sinclair Television Group Inc., Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. and WJLA-TV are also named as defendants in the suit, which alleges that these businesses profited from airing the news piece on their numerous stations.
Neither Dwyer nor a representative for Sinclair Broadcast Group responded to emailed requests for comment on Friday.
Craighead said she couldn’t sleep on Thursday night after learning of the suit.
“I’m baffled,” Craighead said. “I’ve never seen so many zeros in my life.”
The ABC News story featured interviews with a number of people from Rocky Mount, including a local artist, a member of the town council and a pastor, but only Craighead was named as a defendant in the suit. It charges that she and other defendants conspired “either expressly or by their actions to target, single out, identify and direct national and international derision, animus and dangerous actions against [the Plaintiffs].”
Craighead, who ran for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2021, was interviewed for the ABC News story in Rocky Mount, not in Boones Mill. She said she never told the reporter or producers about a red, white and blue house in Boones Mill. “Never knew it existed,” she wrote in a text.
Al Tompkins, a member of the senior faculty at Poynter, a nonprofit media institute, spent several decades working in broadcast news. He said Friday that the complaint made in the lawsuit “doesn’t jive” with the image that was included in the ABC News story.
“Anybody can sue for anything,” he said. “And all you got to do is have enough money to file the papers, but that’s a long way from proving defamation.”
Tompkins points out that the house included in the story can be seen from public roads. “So there’s not an intrusion that’s going on here and the story does not say anything about the people that live in that house,” he said, “doesn’t name them.”
Tompkins added it’s also difficult to make the claim that you don’t want anyone to know anything about you or your patriotism when you’ve painted a house to “blatantly attract attention.”
Tompkins did provide a critique of the ABC News story.
“A journalist generally should avoid generic video when they’re talking about specific facts,” he said. “It is something that all of us should be paying attention to when we use images, particularly about stories of some controversy or contentiousness.”
When a juvenile is included in a story, a journalist should take extra care, Tompkins added.
“So it’s something to be sensitive about, but I would be hard pressed to come up with a reason why it would be a collectible lawsuit,” he said.
Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, said the suit has a “very, very long shot of prevailing.”
You can’t sue someone because you’re offended, he explained. “They have to prove that they said something untrue, that damaged their reputation,” he said.
He thinks there will be a motion to dismiss. “And you would think any judge with an understanding of libel law would dismiss it,” Paulson said.
Even so, Craighead worried on Friday about having to use money she has earmarked for bills to pay for a lawyer. She can’t rely, she said, on any attorneys hired by ABC News. “They’re going to look out for themselves,” she said.
She pointed out that the American judicial system isn’t known for its history of treating Black people fairly.
“I feel like they can do whatever they want to you,” she said.