BEAN BLOSSOM, Ind. - The knock on Nathan Stang's door came just after 1 p.m. Stang, a doctoral student in music at Indiana University, answered the soft rapping that Friday wearing a blue bathrobe. Standing outside his apartment was a clean-shaven man dressed in beige slacks and a pink, checked shirt.
"Hi, Nathan," said Brian Shrader, a deputy with the Brown County Sheriff's Department. "Remember me?"
"Yeah," Stang replied. It was Shrader who had interviewed him after an appalling act of vandalism at St. David's Episcopal Church, where Stang played the organ and directed the choir. On the Sunday morning after the 2016 election, Stang had discovered the church's walls defaced with black spray paint: a swastika, along with the words "Heil Trump" and "Fag Church."
The graffiti in rural Indiana became a national sensation, part of a string of high-profile hate crime reports in the wake of Donald Trump's victory. Late-night television host Stephen Colbert featured an image of one of the tagged walls during a monologue. The church's priest, the Rev. Kelsey Hutto, appeared on CNN to champion the values of St. David's, an island of liberalism in conservative Brown County.
"Doing the right thing is not always the popular thing, and if that's why we were targeted, we're okay with that," she said.
The church purposely left the graffiti untouched for more than two weeks to send a message that it would not be cowed. Stang played music as the spray paint was finally scrubbed off at a ceremony of healing attended by more than 200 people. But the hatred and distrust behind the markings could not be washed away so easily - either for the congregation or for its 26-year-old organist.
As a gay man, Stang had dreaded the unexpected triumph of Trump and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, an ardent opponent of same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ rights. Stang's boyfriend, a professional flutist, had wept after the election results were finalized.
When Shrader appeared on his doorstep five months later, in April 2017, Stang was struggling with major depression. Over the winter, he had contemplated suicide. His face - fine-featured and quick to come alive when he sat at the keyboard or stood before a classroom of undergraduates - was covered in dark stubble.
"Do you have like 5, 10 minutes you could walk out to my car?" Shrader asked. "Have a seat with me, chat for a few minutes?"
"Sure I could," Stang replied. "Do you mind if I put on some clothes?"
A few minutes later the doors of Shrader's unmarked Ford SUV, streaked with rain from the day's intermittent storms, swung shut.
"Alright," Shrader said, shifting in his seat. "So, again. Here for the church case."
Stang, expressionless, watched the 30-year-old detective's face. There had been no arrests for the vandalism, and no outward signs that investigators were making progress. But the case had reached a critical juncture, and though Stang didn't know it, Shrader was surreptitiously recording their conversation. A copy of the video was later provided to The Washington Post.
"I've spent six months on this case, okay? A long time," Shrader said slowly. He took a breath and placed his right hand, palm down, on the armrest console that separated them.
"Based on what I've found in this investigation," he told the organist, "you're responsible for this."
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Brown County's border lies less than 10 miles from Bloomington, the urbane hub of Indiana's state university system. But across that short distance is an unmistakable political and demographic divide.
Driving east on State Road 46, Bloomington's neat outer subdivisions give way to church steeples, rusting mailboxes and satellite television dishes, a landscape of forested hills and hollows that feels more Appalachian than Midwestern. Many of the county's 15,000 residents embraced the rise of Trump, who captured 63% of the vote. But few of those supporters worshiped at St. David's Episcopal Church. The small congregation welcomed same-sex weddings. Its rector was a woman. God was routinely invoked during sermons with a female pronoun.
To the parishioners who gathered in the parking lot to stare at the graffiti on the morning of Nov. 13, 2016, the motive for the crime - and its connection to a season of political vitriol - seemed obvious. Jim Huber, the church's senior warden, found his thoughts turning to a nearby property flying a Confederate flag. Michael Day, a retired doctor, felt an upswell of righteous anger. "My attitude was, 'This is my church family. My family has been hurt,' " Day recalled. "I was ready to go out Nazi-hunting."
But to Shrader, the first officer on the scene that morning, the circumstances of the crime didn't seem so clear-cut. The son of a brick mason, Shrader never finished college. But beneath his boyish features and deliberate, almost plodding manner was a knack for seeing things others overlook. As he took statements and scoured the scene in vain for useful physical evidence, something seemed off to him.
The crime was highly unusual in Brown County, where residents prided themselves on their neighborly ways. In heavily touristed Nashville, the county seat, the glass blower could be found just down the street from the gun seller.
"You believe what you believe. I believe what I believe. We just don't talk politics," said Sandra Higgins, a local township trustee and Trump supporter who, along with her grandson, helped to scrub the graffiti from the walls of St. David's.
But something else was nagging Shrader, and as the first day of the investigation drew to a close it finally hit him. He called his boss, Sheriff Scott Southerland.
"Did you know that church performed gay marriages?" Shrader recalled asking Southerland, who replied that he did not.
The detective had put his finger on what was bothering him: the words "Fag Church." St. David's was indeed a beacon of support for gay rights. But the fact had gone all but unnoticed outside the church's several dozen parishioners.
"I didn't know that. People in the county didn't know that. People I work with didn't know that. Someone 'down the road,' so to speak, really would not have known that," Shrader said. He began to wonder if the hateful graffiti could have been scrawled Saturday night by somebody who planned to sit in the pews Sunday morning.
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Real hate crimes far outnumber fake ones. Exact estimates vary, but academic researchers put the number of confirmed hate hoaxes in 2016 in the dozens - a tiny fraction of the 6,121 crimes of bias reported that year to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
But when they do occur, they invariably generate intense publicity - stoking denunciations by those who say they damage the credibility of legitimate hate-crime victims and fueling assertions by others that most bias-motivated attacks are fake.
"In real life, hate crimes are rare," Fox News host Tucker Carlson argued during a segment earlier this year. "Hate hoaxes, by contrast, are common."
Carlson was commenting on the Trump era's most notorious alleged hoax: black actor Jussie Smollett's claim that he was attacked in Chicago by men who beat him and placed a noose around his neck while invoking the president's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan. Police said Smollett staged the incident, an accusation the actor denies.
The episode evoked another famous hate hoax. In 1987, Tawana Brawley, a black teenager from Wappingers Falls, New York, was found seemingly unconscious in a garbage bag, racial slurs written on her body. She alleged that a group of white men, including a police officer, had raped her. Civil rights activists, including the young Rev. Al Sharpton, took up her cause, but a grand jury concluded a year later that the story was untrue and that Brawley's condition may have been "self-inflicted."
Falsified displays of bigotry have been particularly explosive on college campuses, from Bowling Green State University to the Air Force Academy to Kansas State University, where activists and administrators denounced racist incidents that were later revealed to be hoaxes.
"Each one of these cases that happen is cited as a reason we shouldn't have hate-crime legislation - that all hate crimes are made up," said Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University.
The reality, he added, is very different: Many hate crime victims are afraid to go to police. "The problem is underreporting, not overreporting," McDevitt said.
Shrader had no experience with hate crimes, let alone hate hoaxes, when he began investigating the vandalism at St. David's. The sheriff's office subpoenaed records from a cellular tower near the church, and Shrader painstakingly sifted through the numbers of those whose phones had sent or received data in the area on Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Checking those records against the phone numbers of people connected to the congregation, Shrader found a match.
Nathan Stang wasn't a longtime member of St. David's. He didn't even believe in God. He was the church's paid organist, a job he'd held for less than a year. Church leaders admired his mastery of sacred music, and the young composer had become a favorite among members of the choir.
On the morning he found the graffiti, the organist said nothing to Shrader about being in Bean Blossom the previous night. About a month after Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, the detective briefly questioned Stang again, disguising the interview as a routine follow-up.
When Stang denied being in Brown County on Saturday, he became Shrader's prime suspect. The detective now believed the gay organist had desecrated his own church with homophobic graffiti.
He just didn't know why.
- - -
Stang's path to a church in the hills of Indiana began in Vero Beach, Florida. As a child, he would wrap his arms around his mother's neck and watch as she played Air Fortress on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Rhonda Stang separated from her husband when Nathan was 3, and those gaming sessions helped cement an intense bond between mother and son.
"When I started to land the spaceship, he would be hanging on to me, and he would say, 'You going in, mom?' " Rhonda, now 55, recalled. "And I would say, 'Yeah, I'm going in.' "
When he was old enough to play games himself, Stang fell in love with the Zelda and Mega Man franchises. In high school, he began trying to re-create games' soundtracks on his tuba. Those youthful acts of musical mimicry would transform Stang's life and define his career.
He became a standout in the high school band and orchestra; then a music major at Stetson University; then a composition student in the master's program at the Eastman School of Music, one of the nation's top conservatories, in Rochester, New York.
In his 20s he won awards for a body of works that ranged from "Undertow," a brooding rejoinder to Claude Debussy's languid "La Mer," to "Side-scroller," an orchestral homage to the games of his childhood that incorporated the Super Mario Bros. theme. Arriving at Indiana University to pursue his PhD in music composition, he created and taught a popular course on video game music in which undergraduates could be found listening to their charismatic young instructor discuss melodic shapes in scenes of monster-slaying.
"He is one of the most talented musicians I know," said Jay Hurst, a fellow IU doctoral student and composer.
At Eastman and at IU, Stang thrived socially, making friends whose interests, from Prokofiev to PlayStation, matched his own. But his relationship with his mother began to fray. In temperament and intellectual interests, Rhonda - an extroverted newspaper ad clerk - was very different from her son. Still, for as long as Stang could remember, she had been his closest friend and confidante.
"I used to trust her with anything, and talk to her about anything," he recalled.
He had come out in 2008, when he arrived at Stetson. Though his mother had long suspected he was gay, she struggled to accept it. She dreamed of grandchildren, and a devoted daughter-in-law. She worried about her son being persecuted.
"I have no problem with anyone being gay," she said. "But it was a little different when it came to my own kid."
Yet it was politics, not sexual identity, that drove mother and son apart.
When Barack Obama was elected, Rhonda embraced the tea party movement. She began to fear the that U.S. government was dominated by a network of shadowy, corrupt elites bent on enriching themselves and destroying citizens' freedoms. She wept when Obama won a second term, and as his presidency came to a close, she began trying to interest Stang in strange theories she discovered on YouTube.
By then, she was living with him in Bloomington after renting out her house in Florida. Arriving home from work or class, the doctoral student would listen in astonishment as his mother discussed the possibility that the U.S. government was secretly promoting homosexuality in its citizens through chemicals placed in tap water, or that Queen Elizabeth II and other world leaders are disguised envoys of the Anunnaki, an extraterrestrial race of lizard people.
Rhonda acknowledged that the ideas were far-fetched but said she found them intellectually stimulating. "What's the old saying, that truth is stranger than fiction?" She said. "No, I don't necessarily believe [the queen is] a lizard person. But I like tossing around the idea."
After several months, Stang asked her to leave - deciding, he said, "that this relationship is not a healthy one."
Rhonda moved to Tennessee, and not long afterward adopted another belief that astounded her son, and would prove to be his breaking point. She thought Trump should be president.
Furious, Stang posted a meme on her Facebook page linking Trump to Nazism and displaying a swastika. She deleted it and posted a video by conspiracy-monger Alex Jones insulting Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., her son's preferred candidate.
As the election neared, Stang gradually stopped responding to his mother's calls and text messages. Looking back, Rhonda said, she failed to grasp what her embrace of the Trump-Pence ticket meant to him.
"I don't know if he thought he was going to get rounded up or what," she said. "I don't know, because he was barely communicating with me at all."
The first time she spoke to her son after the election was when he called her on Sunday to recount the vandalism at St. David's. As he described the words scrawled on the church, Rhonda found herself unable to share his alarm.
No Trump supporter would write those things, she assured him. It had to be a hoax.
- - -
As he sat in Shrader's SUV five months later, it was the only word Stang could muster in response to the detective's accusation that he'd committed the crime. He leaned back into the passenger's seat, as though trying to recede from view.
"I'm not here to arrest you or anything like that today," Shrader said. "In fact, you can get out anytime you want to, OK? But the reason I'm here is I feel like you and I can sort it out."
The detective paused.
"The case has been stressful," he said. "Needless to say, it's been stressful for me. For a lot of different people. When I think about this case, I think, what would make someone like you - or, really, anybody - do this, right? And I think you're either the person that's hateful, doesn't like churches, doesn't like gay individuals . . . "
"I'm a gay individual myself," Stang said.
Shrader told Stang his sister was gay, too. He talked about the turbulent emotions that followed Trump's election.
"People were scared, my sister included," he said. "And I think that someone could get to the point where they just make a spur-of-the-moment decision that's not of their character. . . . They do something like this out of fear. . . . My sister cried, you know, for several days. And I think that that's something that went through you. That's why I'm here."
"Do you mind if I ask what leads you to believe all of this?" Stang asked.
"There's irrefutable evidence that you were there Saturday night. You were at the church Saturday night."
"What evidence is that?"
"I'm not even [going to] get into all of it," Shrader said. "I can tell you that we pulled surveillance vid. . . " Shrader stopped before the word was fully out of his mouth. Then he resumed: "You've got to understand, the FBI got involved in this case, okay? So they have a lot more avenues, they're a lot smarter people than I am at pulling different evidence from wherever. Cellphone technology shows where people go at given times."
Shrader's words were a mix of truths and lies, pressure and patience, sympathy and ruthlessness. His sister was in fact a lesbian alarmed by Trump, but to his knowledge she had never shed tears about it. ("My sister is not a very emotional person," he later explained.) Cellphone data indicated Stang had been in Bean Blossom on Saturday night, but there was no surveillance video, and the FBI had never come in on the case.
Most of all, the detective deceived the organist about the purpose of his visit. He knew Stang had no criminal record, and believed he was a good guy who had committed an impulsive act. But he wasn't there to help him.
On that Friday in April 2017, Shrader had come to Bloomington because after consultation with a prosecutor he believed the cellphone evidence he possessed was insufficient to bring charges.
Pushing Stang to confess - and recording it on the camera disguised as a fob on his keychain - was his last chance at solving his case.
Stang was now staring vacantly in the direction of the SUV's glove compartment. He had tried to leave behind his emotions from that week. The fear of what might happen after the graffiti was found. The devastating conversation with his mother, who refused to acknowledge the meaning of the words scrawled on his church's walls - who hadn't even asked if he was OK.
When Shrader spoke again, his voice was quiet.
"Where did the paint come from?"
Stang raised his eyes and stared straight ahead, through the windshield. "From Bloomington Hardware, down the street here," he said. "I was just so f-----g - I was just terrified."
Stang had answered Shrader's question. Now he looked at the detective with a question of his own.
"What's going to happen to me?"
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Five days later, Stang's boyfriend received a cryptic text message. Stang was asking to be picked up in Nashville, not far from St. David's. Eric Bowling, an easygoing flutist in the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra, guessed Stang's car had broken down.
When Bowling arrived and learned the truth, he was speechless.
Earlier that day, Shrader had showed up for the third and last time at Stang's apartment. The detective left the handcuffs off till Stang stepped into his cruiser for the ride to the Brown County Jail. Stang was fingerprinted and photographed before he was released on a $1,500 bond for a misdemeanor charge of institutional criminal mischief.
Bowling steered the car back toward Bloomington in what he later described as "a state of shock." Stang begged him to say something, and Bowling eventually did, telling him he needed to hire a lawyer and delete his social media accounts. His boyfriend's hate crime hoax, he suspected, would be national news.
He was right. That night, as a TV news crew prowled the parking lot outside Stang's apartment, Bowling sat in the corner while a group of Stang's friends gathered to hear him explain what he had done. What Stang offered, as they choked back their anger and tears, was a version of the formal statement he had written after Shrader's visit.
He was frightened, he wrote, by Trump's rhetoric. "I felt very scared and alone and, at the time, really didn't know why I was doing what I was doing. I suppose I wanted to give local people a reason to fight for good, even if it was a false flag. I of course realize now that this was not the way to go about inspiring activism."
But that explanation was in one sense misleading. Local people were not his prime audience.
"If there was someone I was trying to get the attention of," he says now, "it would be my mom."
In that effort, he succeeded.
After learning about her son's arrest on the internet, Rhonda drove six hours to Bloomington from Tennessee. She showed up at the office of the real estate company where Stang worked and demanded to see him. When he refused, she waited outside his apartment. He came home and threatened to call the police if she didn't leave. She careened out of the parking lot, screaming that she had a gun (she didn't) and was on her way to shoot herself at St. David's (she wasn't).
"I was being very mean and crazy," Rhonda said. "I was, like, obviously we have a problem here. My son faked a hate crime and was on national TV . . . so, yeah, I felt like we had something to talk about."
She drove back to Tennessee feeling utterly betrayed - and not just because her son had set out to portray those who shared her political views as bigots. Worse, she said, was that he refused to discuss with her what had happened.
"I guess I thought I was the one person that would be the one he should, would, could talk to," she said. "But he's a grown-up man, and I was not the chosen one. And that devastated me, quite honestly."
Back in Bloomington, Bowling took some time to think about his future with Stang. The crime itself was shocking: the painful homophobic slur, the damage Stang had done to victims of real hate crimes by handing a talking point to those seeking to delegitimize them. But even more unsettling were the months of deception that had followed. How could he trust Stang again, in matters big or small?
Bowling talked to his parents. He talked to his friends. He remembered his history with Stang, how he had asked him to drinks the first time they met, despite suspecting he was straight. He thought about the secrets everyone keeps, the limits to how fully one person can know another. And then he decided to give his boyfriend another chance.
It was the first of many acts of forgiveness Stang would experience. But it came with a condition.
"You have to go to all the communities that you've affected," Bowling recalled saying to him, "and make things right."
- - -
"Eternal God, Heavenly Father, you have graciously accepted us . . . "
The timeworn words from the Book of Common Prayer echoed in the nave of St. David's. The last of the day's pale autumn light illuminated the apse, with its wall-length purple tapestries and cross of oak. Two white-haired worshipers stood at the altar to receive the Eucharist from the Rev. Mary Bargiel, a part-time pastor who had driven down from Indianapolis before the Wednesday evening service.
Otherwise, the church was empty. Shadows gathered in the recesses of the boxy pipe organ where Stang had once presided over the church's small but enthusiastic choir.
Much had changed at St. David's in the three years since Stang called Hutto, the church's priest, to describe a crime he had secretly committed. There was the new rector, Bargiel, who had replaced Hutto; a new organist who studied, like Stang, at IU's Jacobs School of Music.
What had not changed was the struggle of an aging congregation to attract new members. A single child had attended worship the previous Sunday, seated amid two dozen adults, most of them past middle age. At a time of political and religious certainty, Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow, celebrity pastors and nondenominational megachurches, the quiet tolerance and familiar rituals found at St. David's were facing extinction. But they appealed deeply to Jan Benham, a retired doctor who was one of the two people taking Holy Communion on this October evening.
"If anything smells of certitude, I tend to run the other direction," said Benham, 78, who has worshiped at St. David's for 14 years. "I don't believe anyone is lost forever. I don't believe in hell, and I may not believe in a literal heaven."
A member of the choir, Benham was close to Stang, and felt the sting of betrayal when she learned he was responsible for the violation of the church. But she also felt remorse that neither she nor her fellow parishioners had recognized the pain that drove him to his crime.
St. David's leaders fired Stang after his arrest. But when the time came for him to be sentenced, they sent an extraordinary letter to the judge and prosecutor that was less a recommendation on Stang's punishment than a confession of the congregation's own sins.
Members of the church council wrote that they had "looked within ourselves to find ourselves guilty of assuming it was done by a 'certain sort of person.' "
"We forgave Nathan," the letter continued, "then found we also had to forgive ourselves. We discovered ourselves guilty of the same prejudice we silently accused others of."
They concluded by acknowledging "a lack of consensus" within the congregation on whether Stang should face further consequences in the legal system for his actions: "Some feel that Nathan has shown genuine remorse, has suffered professionally and personally, and should receive no additional punishment. Others feel the need for further accountability. All strongly believe that the prosecutor and judge should take Nathan's confession, state of mind and expressions of remorse into account during sentencing."
In June 2018, a Brown County judge sentenced Stang to 300 hours of community service. It was a large amount, but less than the 30 days of jail time sought by Ted Adams, the county's elected prosecutor.
Adams, a Republican, still thinks Stang should have served time for an act that "turned 65% of the county against 35% of the county for no need." He also believes Stang's crime was abetted, in a sense, by reporters too ready to embrace a caricature of Trump voters. The prosecutor ultimately called or emailed 92 news organizations that initially covered the vandalism as a hate crime, asking that they update their stories.
"Our media outlets - I don't care what side you're on - they actually pump people up with fear," Adams said. "That's why this case frustrates me. It just shows where we are at in this society."
- - -
Although Stang avoided 30 days in jail, he would spend many months trying to atone for what he had done.
Some of that work was court-ordered, some voluntary. He collected trash, cleaned toilets and did other maintenance jobs for 150 hours in Brown County State Park. He wrote a letter of apology, published in the Bloomington Herald-Times, and volunteered at a Jewish community center on campus. He traveled twice to Puerto Rico to provide hurricane relief on trips organized by Canterbury House, IU's Episcopal ministry, where he also volunteered and would eventually become the chapel's keyboard player.
"I want to be really clear - I have never excused what he did," said the Rev. Linda Johnson, the university's Episcopal chaplain and head of Canterbury House, who has mentored Stang through his efforts. Nevertheless, she said, the vandalism should not be judged outside the mistrust and hatred that she sees contaminating politics and the country.
"It was a complex event, from my perspective; very, very complex," she said. "And one that could have totally ruined his career. And yet it has not."
Although he is not religious, Stang speaks with reverence about the forgiveness shown by those who might have condemned him - by Bowling, who now lives with Stang at a house in southeast Bloomington; by the real estate company that still employs him and the university where he is still working toward his doctorate; most of all, by the parishioners of St. David's.
After his sentencing, Stang returned to Bean Blossom to try to explain himself to the church's lay leaders. It was another confession - not the kind extracted from a suspect in a parked police cruiser, but the beginning of penitence and reconciliation according to the traditions of the Episcopal Church.
The council of St. David's listened. Some asked why he had not felt comfortable talking to them about his anguish after the election. But they expressed no anger - just grief, bewilderment and, ultimately, compassion.
"It was shocking," he said. "I feel like that's one of the better definitions of grace I've ever seen in my life."
Having experienced forgiveness he did not expect and is still not sure he merits, Stang said he now tries to forgive others - to refrain from judging those whose desperate acts show up in the news, or whose political convictions differ from his own. But for a long time, there was one person with whom he did not reconcile: his mother.
In therapy, he had learned to avoid situations that could deepen his anxiety and depression. Contact with Rhonda, he believed, was too risky.
He blocked her from his cellphone. Eventually, she began emailing him.
"Cutting me out completely like this is just inflicting pain on me I don't understand," she wrote.
"I'm not doing this because I think you deserve pain," Stang wrote back. "I'm doing this because I need to be healthier, and this is the best way for me to do it. . . .
"The things you said when you came up here really hurt me, especially that you called me crazy/insane and a [screw-up]. You made it clear in the things you said that you haven't fully understood what effects some of your decisions have had on me and those around you. Please think about this and stop it with the martyr stuff."
He concluded, "Please don't reply to this email."
But Rhonda did reply. This time it was simply the word, "Hey," followed by a string of 63 seemingly unconnected emoji: hearts, cats, a video-game controller, a joint of meat, various facial expressions. Though she had not respected his request to stay away, Stang couldn't help but feel bemused.
"I can't tell if you've been hacked or you're trying to send a message in code," he responded. "If you have something you need to tell me, then tell me, otherwise please leave me alone."
Rhonda wrote back: "Yes, I was trying to send a message in code . . . I was trying to say Hey, ding ding, a message to tell you I love you, I'm blue, my heart is broken . . . remember I am your mom and you are my child, can we talk soon?"
She reminded him of how they used to play "The Legend of Zelda" together. She asked about his plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas. She asked about Bingo, his cat.
She asked if they could make peace.
"I'm yelling for you, can you hear me? Praying for peace, I want to punch you for pushing me away. crying, mad, frustrated, don't know what to do."
It took Stang a few days to digest his mom's email. He knew that she had not been hacked: In style and substance, this was a message only Rhonda could have written. So different from the intricately structured music he created or the artful observations he offered to classrooms full of college students. But perhaps not so different from what he was struggling to say on the night he stood outside an empty church clutching a can of black spray paint.
I'm yelling for you, can you hear me?
Stang picked up the phone.
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The Washington Post's Marc Fisher contributed to this report.