COEUR d'ALENE - A Coeur d'Alene man faces up to life in prison stemming from an alleged hate crime incident on Saturday.
Joel T. Diekhoff, 29, faces five years in jail and up to $5,000 on one count of felony malicious harassment - or hate crime. With two convicted felonies on his record, Diekhoff qualifies as a persistent offender, upping the possible incarceration term to life.
Magistrate Judge Penny Friedlander issued a $50,000 bond for Diekhoff, as well as a no-contract order with the alleged victim, Demetrius K. Lee, 39, during the suspect's first court appearance Monday.
"The seriousness of the offense is significant here before the court," the judge said. "I don't think (the bond amount is) unreasonable."
Diekhoff has two felonies on his record, including for theft in 2000 and a felon in possession of firearms in Washington in 2005.
Diekhoff told Friedlander that the harassment charge wasn't warranted.
"I kind of feel like this thing is pretty out of line," he told the judge. "I do have an 8-month-old daughter. I'm currently working full time, I go to school full time, my fiancee is pregnant. I live a pretty normal life. I live right here in Coeur d'Alene. I'm not a threat to the community, I feel."
Police reports of the incident vary.
Lee told officers while he was walking by Diekhoff's apartment, on the 200 block of S. 19th Street, on his morning walk to Sanders Beach, Diekhoff stared at him. When Lee walked back to his room at the Lake Drive Motel a short time later, Diekhoff allegedly asked Lee: "Are you (expletive) lost?"
Lee said Diekhoff had a small girl in his arms, and described Diekhoff as having several tattoos, including a Swastika symbol.
Lee asked Diekhoff what he had said and Diekhoff repeated it and used racial slurs toward Lee, who is African American.
When Lee asked Diekhoff if he was going to beat him up with a child in his arms, Diekhoff reportedly put the child back in the apartment and returned outside, according to police reports, and a verbal confrontation ensued.
Other people from the apartment joined Diekhoff in his yard. Lee then ran to a nearby friend's house to get a baseball bat, and returned to the street corner.
"Usually I ignore it, it's silly," Lee, a cook, told The Press about the reported racial taunts. "It was dumb of me (to get the bat), my pride got in the way."
After another argument, neighbors came outside, and Lee walked back to his residence and called police, who arrested Diekhoff around 11:30 that morning.
Diekhoff told officers he asked if Lee needed directions because Lee had walked back and forth around the block, as though the man had been lost, and had not swore at or threatened Lee.
Randi Tapia, Diekhoff's fiancee, said Monday that Diekhoff isn't a racist, and does not have Aryan ties. She said he is enrolled and works at North Idaho College, which court records also state.
"He's not Aryan, just because he has a tattoo does not make him Aryan," she said.
She said the neighborhood has had vandalism in the last six weeks, the same time she'd noticed Lee and other new faces around the neighborhood. People with loud music had been disturbing the peace lately too, she said, which used to not be the case. She said her fiancee wouldn't do anything unless provoked.
"We're a hardworking family and it's not what it made it seem like," she said of the news coverage, adding that the bystanders weren't threatening Lee, just watching the children in the yard. The Swastika tattoo, she added, doesn't represent racism.
"It does not mean you're Aryan Nation," she said of the tattoo. "He's had it a long time, and actually, it's just a belief, it has nothing to do with Aryan. It can mean several things actually. In China, it means good luck. It can mean several things. But the cops saw that and took it as, whatever, I don't know."
Lee, who has been incarcerated for forgery in his past, said he moved to Coeur d'Alene to escape gangs in southern California and to make a better life for his family. He said he has lived in the area seven years and is moving his mixed-race children here. He said his friends have been taunted at the 19th Street residence as well. He said racism in Coeur d'Alene is confined to a small pocket population, but seems to be growing recently, although the community has supported him since news of the incident broke.
"I've never felt threatened like that (here)," he said. "People don't want that around here, it's ignorance, it's stupid."
Diekhoff pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery earlier this year in an unrelated case.