When Kayla Norton broke down in court on Monday, Melissa Alford felt a twinge of sympathy.
Norton, the mother of three children younger than 9, was facing so much prison time that her children would be different people when their mother got out. That was not lost on Alford, who works as a children’s mental health advocate.
But then Alford thought of the reasons Norton was in court: the convoy of pickup trucks with Confederate flags, the vile racist epithets, the loaded shotgun leveled on her friends and family, the threats to blow children’s heads off. Norton had chosen to ride along on that convoy’s racist tear across two counties. Alford’s sympathy evaporated.
“When that gun was loaded, did you think about your children then?” Alford said in an interview with the AJC on Tuesday. “So, why you crying now?”
Kayla Rae Norton and her partner, Jose Ismael Torres, both wept copiously as Douglas County Judge William McClain passed sentence. The two were found guilty in February of street-gang terrorism for their roles in the pickup truck convoy, and on Monday McClain threw the book at them. He called their actions a hate crime and sentenced Torres to 20 years, with 13 to serve, and Norton to 13 years, six to serve.
Torres, 26, and Norton, 25, have three children between them. The two had been part of a group of 15 people calling itself “Respect the Flag.” On July 24, on 2015, they began a rampage through neighboring Paulding County. With Confederate battle flags attached to their trucks, they threatened African-American motorists and shoppers at a local Walmart and convenience store.
They caused so much mayhem, McClain said, 911 call centers were flooded with calls. The next day they kept up their campaign and happened upon Alford’s party for her 27-year-old son and her 8-year-old grandson. The yard was full of friends and family when Torres and their crew began hurling racial slurs at the party goers and threatening them.
Alford, 46, and other victims sat in the jury box on Monday through much of the sentencing hearing. Douglas County Assistant District Attorney David Emadi recounted the moment when Torres leveled a gun at birthday party guests in her front yard.
“‘We’re going to kill some (racial epithet)s today,’” Emadi said, quoting witnesses present during the standoff. “We’ll blow the head off the little bastards. We’ll kill all the little (racial epithet)s.”
After frantic 911 calls, Douglasville police arrived and forced Torres, Norton and their group to leave. The memory of that day loomed large for Alford as she watched Torres weep as he realized he was going to be sentenced to a long prison term. She said she could see he was scared on Monday, but she also remembered his rage on that summer day nearly two years ago.
“If that trigger would have gone off there would have been dead bodies all over that yard,” Alford said.
The display of the battle flag hadn’t disturbed Alford all that much. She said she grew up seeing it all over the Alabama town where she was raised. She was even used to hearing the type of slurs hurled at her and her guests.
“I wasn’t mad about them flying those flags,” Alford said. “It was when they pulled them guns and said ‘I’m gonna shoot the little bastards.’”
The children at the party heard and saw much of the altercation.
On Monday, Alford said, Kayla Norton’s tears may have come from remorse. But Alford wasn’t so sure.
“I think the tears were mainly because they got caught,” Alford said.
Most of the flag group members were sentenced to misdemeanors or put into diversion programs. Two others, Thomas Charles Summers and Lacey Paul Henderson II, had pleaded guilty to terroristic threat and battery charges prior to Monday. Summers is serving four years in prison and Henderson is serving two.
Alford said Torres and Norton should have pleaded guilty. She’s aware that some people have said the sentences were too harsh for the couple, especially since no one was physically injured. She doesn’t buy that argument.
“They got what they got,” she said. “… You didn’t take a plea because you thought you were gonna get off. You gamble, you win or you lose.”
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