Couple attacked while getting gas in ‘wrong neighborhood’

Three people accused of assaulting a family late Sunday at a gas station in north Baton Rouge could face additional charges as investigators seek to determine whether the attack was motivated by race, authorities said Tuesday.

Baton Rouge police have not ruled out classifying the case a hate crime, and have contacted the FBI to see if there is any federal interest in the attack, said Lt. Don Kelly, a police spokesman.

Investigators were re-interviewing witnesses and the victims as well as reviewing surveillance footage of the incident, which happened about 11 p.m. at the Chevron station on Scenic Highway.

Donald Ray Dickerson, who is black, is accused of knocking a 41-year-old white man unconscious after telling him he had stopped “in the wrong neighborhood” to get gas, according to an affidavit of probable cause.

The victim, who was not identified, was hospitalized with a broken eye socket and broken nose among other injuries, authorities said.

The victim’s wife and 14-year-old daughter also were struck by two other suspects who were with Dickerson at the gas station, police said. Devin Bessye, 24, and Ashley Simmons 22, both were issued a summons for simple battery.

Dickerson, 41, who was recently released from federal prison, has an extensive criminal history, according to court records. He was booked in the attack with one count of second-degree battery, a felony, and prosecutors said they were strongly considering charging him as an habitual offender.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, who met with the victims in the hospital Tuesday, said Dickerson would face considerably more prison time — up to life behind bars — if convicted as a habitual offender than if he were found guilty of a hate crime.

“The bang for the buck is habitual offender,” Moore said.

According to the affidavit, the male victim had been waiting to pay for his gas when Dickerson approached him and told him he was “in the wrong neighborhood and he was not going to make it out.”

A witness, Mykeisha Henderson, said the fight did not appear to be racially motivated and began with Dickerson teasing the victim for wearing a pink shirt.

“The man said, ‘Do you feel offended by my shirt?’‚ÄČ” she said of the victim. “The white guy was minding his business. He wasn’t doing nobody nothing.”

According to initial reports, the first words exchanged were about the victim’s shirt, Kelly confirmed. “It escalated from there,” he said.

Dickerson then punched the male victim, who was knocked unconscious and woke up in a hospital, according to the affidavit.

The victim’s wife, who had been waiting in their vehicle, ran to help her husband but was also struck and knocked unconscious, the affidavit says. The couple’s teenage daughter told police she saw Simmons punch her mother in the face, and that her mother fell and hit her head on the ground, according to the affidavit.

All three assailants fled the scene, Kelly said, but they were followed by a witness, who provided a description of the suspects’ vehicle to responding officers. The victims, meanwhile, received aid from a number of other witnesses at the gas station.

Those people happened to be black, Moore noted, seeking to forestall any racial tensions.

“The allegations are horrendous,” the district attorney added. “But this isn’t all black versus white. It’s bad versus good.”

Once taken into custody, Dickerson admitted hitting the male victim but refused to make any other statements without a lawyer, according to the affidavit.

Despite Dickerson’s remark about the victims being in the wrong neighborhood, Kelly said, investigators “did not feel there was sufficient probable cause based on the information they had that night to charge (Dickerson) with a hate crime under the state statute.”

Kelly said police will “take a second look at that” when re-interviewing the victims and witnesses during their follow-up investigation.

Dickerson has prior convictions for armed robbery, purse snatching and carnal knowledge of a juvenile, according to court records. He was charged federally in 2001 after robbing two women at gunpoint.

He later pleaded guilty to a weapons charge in that case and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, according to court records.

Editor’s note: This story was modified on Wednesday, May 15, 2013, to correct the age of the male victim. Baton Rouge police originally provided the wrong age. He is 41, not 35.