updated 5/26/2005 8:36:00 AM ET 2005-05-26T12:36:00

Three large crosses were burned in separate spots around the city during a span of just over an hour, and yellow fliers with Ku Klux Klan sayings were found at one location, police said.

The cross burnings Wednesday night marked the first time in recent memory that one of the South’s most notorious symbols of racial hatred has been seen in the city.

“At this day and time, I thought we’d be beyond that,” said Mayor Bill Bell. “People do things for different reasons, and I don’t have the slightest idea why anyone would do this.”

The first burning was reported at 9:19 p.m. outside St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. The next came at 9:54 p.m. atop a large pile of dirt near an apartment complex construction site; the third was at 10:28 p.m. at a downtown intersection.

Police said each cross was about 7 feet tall and 4 feet wide and made of four 2-by-4s. They were wrapped in burlap and doused in a liquid that smelled like kerosene.

Burning a cross without the permission of the property owner is a misdemeanor in North Carolina. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that, under the First Amendment, cross burning could be barred only when done with the intent to intimidate.

Cross burnings have been associated with the Ku Klux Klan since the early 20th century. The first known cross burning occurred when a Georgia mob celebrated a lynching, according to the high court decision.

Bell said he couldn’t recall a cross burning in Durham since he arrived in 1968. He said his office had not received any correspondence suggesting someone might target the city with cross burnings.

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