Greater Morristown church vandalism ‘a cry for help,’ says family of defendant

Authorities released this image when investigating vandalism of black churches in Greater Morristown. Church surveillance video led them to Zuri Towns, 45, who was charged with criminal mischief. Image courtesy of Morris County Crime Stoppers.
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It was wrong.

But Zuri C. Towns, 45, who was charged with the weekend vandalism of five African American churches in Greater Morristown, is no monster, according to family members.

“This was a cry for help,” said Towns’ sister, Theresa Towns.

Zuri Towns, left, was a varsity wrestler at Morristown High School in 1990. Photo: MHS yearbook.
Zuri Towns, left, was a varsity wrestler at Morristown High School in 1990. Photo: MHS yearbook.

Zuri Towns struggles with an undiagnosed condition that hampers his concentration and ability to communicate his feelings, relatives said.

They fear this was compounded by the recent loss of his job at a convenience store, and by new acquaintances taking advantage of him–perhaps even pressuring him to try the drug ecstasy.

“He was on a drug, and had this built-up anger, and he snapped. He didn’t know what he was doing,” said Desmond Towns, Zuri’s kid brother. “It wasn’t that he hated churches or hated religion…he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”

Morristown Green asked to interview Zuri Towns, but his family was unable to arrange that.

A broken stained-glass window at Morristown's Church of God in Christ for All Saints, Nov. 26, 2017. Photo by Bill Lescohier
A broken stained-glass window at Morristown’s Church of God in Christ for All Saints, Nov. 26, 2017. Photo by Bill Lescohier

On Saturday morning, a stained glass window was found broken at the Church of God in Christ for All Saints in Morristown.

Glass enclosures containing worship schedules were shattered outside the Bethel A.M.E., Calvary Baptist and Union Baptist churches in Morristown, and the Morristown Church of Christ in Morris Township.

Against a national backdrop of church shootings and white supremacist agitation, the damage alarmed many in Greater Morristown, a place where diversity is celebrated. Bethel’s pastor initially called for the vandalism to be treated as a hate crime, and the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office at first said it was pursuing that possibility.

Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. of Bethel A.M.E. Church beside shattered sign, Nov. 26, 2017. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. of Bethel A.M.E. Church beside shattered sign, Nov. 26, 2017. Photo by Bill Lescohier

The incidents, first reported by Morristown Green, were picked up by New York television stations, and wire stories appeared online in Time and media outlets across the country. Police were visible outside Sunday worship services, to reassure congregants.

A church surveillance video led detectives to Zuri Towns, who lives alone near the churches, on Sunday morning. 

Towns, who is black, was not charged with a bias crime because that “legally requires purpose to intimidate a person or group based upon their protected class,” Prosecutor Fred Knapp said in a statement.

Instead, he faces a handful of criminal mischief charges, the kind of charges that can be wiped clean for some first-time offenders via a program called pre-trial intervention.

Bias / hate crimes in New Jersey boil down to purpose and perception, according to the state Attorney General.

  • Someone is guilty of such a crime if he commits, or conspires to commit, an offense with the intention of intimidating a person or group “because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity,” OAG guidelines state. 

  • A bias intimidation charge also may be prosecuted if a victim reasonably believes either that the offense was meant to intimidate him or her because of the above reasons, or:

  • That he/she was targeted, for the above reasons. Criminal mischief is listed as a potential bias/hate crime.

 

 Towns’ relatives and friends were quick to say they do not excuse what took place.

Zuri Towns, left, gets high fives for a 1990 wrestling victory at Morristown High School.
Zuri Towns, left, gets high fives for a 1990 wrestling victory at Morristown High School. Photo: MHS yearbook.

“I don’t fully understand it, and I don’t condone it,” said Theresa Towns, asserting she was as stunned as others who know her brother as “a gentle giant” incapable of harming anyone.

“This is a shock to me… he’s a peaceful guy,” echoed Morristown Councilwoman Hiliari Davis, who’s known him for years. “He’s never caused trouble for anyone.”

Zuri Towns hails from a family with deep roots in Morristown. His late stepmother, Brenda Towns, served on the town zoning board. His cousin, Toshiba Foster, is a councilwoman.

“He’s never been in trouble before,” Foster said of Zuri Towns. “We want to get him the help he needs.”

Foster described her cousin as dogged and uncomplaining. She said he used to walk two miles to his job in Morris Plains.

He even was named “Employee of the Month,” said Desmond Towns, a 2012 Morristown High graduate who is an assistant coach of the wrestling team.

A spokesman for QuickChek declined to comment, citing employee confidentiality.

Desmond Towns said Zuri always counseled him to do the right thing. “He made sure I’d never drink or pick up a cigarette. He always made sure I was heading in the right direction.”

He said he thinks his brother may have been pressured to take Ecstasy–a dangerous party drug–without realizing what he was taking.

A varsity wrestler at Morristown High School in 1990, Zuri Towns remained a familiar face at school sporting events, except for a stint when he lived near Boston.

Theresa called him her loudest fan when she was scoring 1,000 points for the girls basketball team in the late 2000s.

“He took care of me, he protected me,” she said, remembering cherished childhood piggyback rides from her big brother, her senior by 22 years.

When older aunts need help carrying their groceries–or when anyone else around town needs a hand–Zuri Towns is there, his sister said.

“My brother is not a bad guy,” Theresa Towns said. “He definitely will answer for what he’s done. He’s very remorseful.”

The cost to replace the stained glass window has not been determined yet, said the Rev. Robert Rogers, pastor of the Church of God in Christ for All Saints.

The African American Clergy Association of Morris County–which counts three of the vandalized churches among its members–expressed hope that the weekend’s unsettling events may bring greater understanding of what causes such acts, and lead to “ways to pro-actively address the needs of people before any other crime of this nature takes place in the future.”

Although the 60 members of the Morris Area Clergy Council were relieved that authorities found no bias motive, they stood ready to support their “African American brothers and sisters… because, sadly, we know this could have been an incidence of racism in our community,” said the Rev. Cynthia Black, clergy council president.

Residents of Morristown and Morris Township voiced “astounding” support for the affected churches, showing that “our communities cannot be easily broken,” Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty said in a statement.

While condemning vandalism, “we should not condemn Mr. Town but rather provide him with the help he needs,” Dougherty continued. “Now is the time where we must come together as a strong and open community to all that live here.”

If there is a silver lining, Theresa Towns said, it has been neighbors’ outpouring of love and support for her older brother, for which the family is grateful.

“He did something wrong, and we know that. But we want to help him, and want him to be safe.”

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6 COMMENTS

  1. A white male went into a black church and killed multiple people…. A white male went into a movie theater injured and killed multiple people…. A white male shot out of a window into a crowd of people at concert and again injured and killed numbers people. Remember all the injured and killed were innocent people but all three of these white male did they say had some type of mental illness trying to justify their actions. They were all premeditated crimes and hate crimes at that… With that said who are any of you to say if he had been a different race? White people have been getting away with harming blacks vandalizing black churches and accusing blacks of crimes they didn’t commit since slavery days. Zuri would never have done anything like this he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Stop bashing him and leave him alone. Keep your petty comments to yourselves! #teamzuritowns

  2. To Pat R…. May God Have Lots Of Mercy On You! Maybe you should read the article in it’s entirty….. #teamzuritowns

  3. This incident depicts exactly what is wrong with America today. Pastor Williams lead the charge of this immediately being described as a “hate crime” or “biased crime” without anything to prove that. It was described as an attack on the black community and black churches. The pastor among others were yearning for the suspect to be a white. Ironically enough the real perpetrator was a black male who lives in the community. This completely changed the way the pastor, Mayor and black community viewed this crime. It went from the hate crime of the century to a “cry for help” and really not that bad. Had it been a white male they would have called for him to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Now that it turns out it was a black male who is a “peaceful guy” and “gentle giant” it’s actually not that bad. Guess what Rev. Cynthia Black despite the desire by the Pastor and other black church community members this was not an incident of racism in our community, it was a crime that a black male committed against “black churches”.

  4. A guy commits a crime and has an entire article written about him, what makes this ok? Its ironic that his cousin is in on the town council too. In the town of morristown its all about who you know . If a person of a different race did this crime it would have been over and done with. I wouldnt be surprised if the charges get dropped.

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