Two teenagers wearing hijabs were walking home from a school bus stop in 2017 when they said a man shouted at them and told them to go back to their country. The same man is accused of attacking their father with a knife when he stepped in to defend them.
After nearly four years and a mistrial, the man charged in the incident — 35-year-old Christopher Beckham — pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges in Tennessee federal court on Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee said in a news release.
Beckham faces up to 10 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine when he’s sentenced in October.
“The cowardly and unprovoked attack and display of hate-filled aggression by this defendant toward two innocent young girls and their father is despicable,” Acting U.S. Attorney Mary Jane Stewart said in the release.
Public defenders appointed to represent Beckham did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment Tuesday.
The case dates to Oct. 24, 2017, when the teenagers told federal agents they opted to walk home from their school bus stop in Nashville instead of waiting for their dad to pick them up. He drove a cab and routinely give them a ride home from the stop but was sometimes late because of traffic.
As the girls were walking, they said a man they had never seen before passed them and shouted “Allahu Akbar!” The man, who investigators later identified as Beckham, then told them to “go back to your country.”
Around the same time, investigators said the girls’ father drove up in his taxi and saw his daughters being followed by an unknown white man. He reportedly parked the van and got out to stand between the man and his daughters.
Beckham is accused of throwing the first punch after the girls’ dad confronted him. They fought for a few minutes before prosecutors said Beckham brandished a small pocket knife and tried to swing it at the girls’ father, who ducked but lost his balance and fell.
When Beckham stood over him, one of teenagers reportedly yelled, “Don’t hurt him, he’s my father!”
Beckham ultimately walked away after other witnesses got involved, and investigators said the family followed him in their taxi while they called 911. Beckham reportedly charged the taxi when he saw it. He’s also accused of chasing the girls’ mother in her van with his knife drawn.
Officers with the Metro Nashville Police Department arrived shortly thereafter and arrested Beckham. While he was being arrested, Beckham reportedly called the family Iranians, N-words, terrorists and members of ISIS.
“He asked the officers why they were siding with a terrorist over one of their own kind,” investigators said after interviewing the father. “The family heard (him) clearly state that he would kill the family when he got out of jail.”
The father told investigators he was from Somalia and his daughters were born in a refugee camp in Botswana. He said they immigrated to the United States when the girls were 5 and 6 years old.
In addition to state charges related to the assault, Beckham was indicted on federal hate crime charges in April 2018. He was also accused of lying to FBI agents when he told them the teenagers were trying to break into cars and hit him on the head.
Public defenders representing Beckham tried unsuccessfully to have the case thrown out, saying the federal government was overstepping its bounds in a “local crime.”
The judge denied the motion, court filings show.
The case went to trial in September 2019 but the jury wasn’t able to reach a verdict. Beckham pleaded guilty on Friday before the case could go back to trial this summer.