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State: Millville owners hesitated to sell farm to black couple

ILLVILLE - The small, light blue farmhouse sits on 21 acres of cleared farm land, yellowed by the cold winter months. Behind the farmhouse are a barn, a garage and allegations of racism now being pursued by the state Division on Civil Rights.
/ Source: The Press of Atlantic City

ILLVILLE - The small, light blue farmhouse sits on 21 acres of cleared farm land, yellowed by the cold winter months. Behind the farmhouse are a barn, a garage and allegations of racism now being pursued by the state Division on Civil Rights.

According to a report released by the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety, Edwin Baker is accused of announcing that he would not sell his property to a black couple on the date of closing.

Division on Civil Rights Director J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo announced Wednesday that the state has issued a finding of probable cause against Baker and his wife, Doris, for agreeing to sell their Millville home, then reneging after learning the buyers were black.

Lee Moore, a spokesman for the Office of the Attorney General, said a finding of probable cause does not represent final adjudication, or settlement, of the complaint. It merely means the state has found reasonable suspicion that discrimination laws have been violated.

"The conduct alleged in this case is troubling," Vespa-Papaleo said in a statement. "Despite what some may believe, owning a property does not give one the discretion to pick and choose - based on race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, etc. - who can buy that property."

According to the testimony of witnesses present at the closing, that's exactly what happened.

The Bakers and Rigginses entered into a contract on the Hogbin Road property in July, and an Aug. 31 closing date was scheduled then rescheduled for Oct. 1, according to an investigation by the Division on Civil Rights.

The buyers and sellers did not meet prior to the closing date.

On the rescheduled closing date, accompanied by his real estate agent and the buyers, Baker, who is believed to be in his 80s, is alleged to have said, "I can't do this," and to have offered other comments about his reluctance to sell his property to the Rigginses.

Witnesses also say, according to the report, that Baker was heard to have said, "It's my house, I can do what I want."

arcus and Brenda Riggins filed their complaint with the division Oct. 22. The Bakers reconsidered their terms and completed the sale of the property Nov. 29. However, the Rigginses pursued their complaint, saying the Bakers' conduct caused them humiliation and distress.

The Law Against Discrimination finds those who have committed a violation subject to a penalty of up to $10,000. Repeat offenders are subject to higher penalties if they've been convicted of similar instances within the past five years.

oore stressed that this is not a conviction and that there are several avenues, including a hearing or possible settlement that the case could go through.

Attempts to reach the Rigginses at their new home were unsuccessful and it is believed that the Bakers have relocated to Florida.

To e-mail Edward Van Embden at The Press:

evan embden@pressofac.com