ROCK HILL — The FBI confirmed Monday it is investigating the beating of a 19-year-old gay man by a group of at least eight men at a Rock Hill convenience store.
The federal involvement in the probe of the potential hate crime comes as local law enforcement continues to investigate the attack as an assault.
"We're all over it," said special agent Earl Burns, a spokesman for the Columbia office of the FBI. "Matters of this sort - hate, civil rights - are one of our highest priorities in the bureau.
"What we're trying to do now is determine the extent of FBI involvement."
South Carolina has no specific hate crime laws, but laws passed in 2009 give federal authorities extended power to investigate allegations of crimes against gays that could potentially be civil rights violations.
Also Monday, gay rights advocacy groups across the South demanded federal action in the beating of Joshua Esskew.
Local law enforcement has made no arrests in the brutal beating of Esskew, who claims he was beaten because he is gay.
But coverage of the beating in The Herald and at heraldonline.com, coupled with release of the video to the public over the Internet, has sparked a firestorm of outrage from gay rights activists who don't just want federal action.
They want South Carolina to consider enacting state hate crime laws.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Columbia, which prosecutes federal hate crimes, would not confirm or deny any ongoing investigation.
A spokesman did say prosecutors have received a copy of the video and have heard reports of the beating.
"Hate crimes are one of our top priorities," U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said Monday. "But it is the policy of the Department of Justice not to comment on pending investigations."
Esskew said in an interview with The Herald Saturday that someone at the store first called him a gay slur and curse words, then he yelled back at the person.
Surveillance video of the beating shows Esskew was hit in the head with a beer bottle, which broke against his head.
Esskew fought back, and then, at least eight men punched and kicked Esskew after running to join the fracas.
Esskew, who could not be reached Monday, said after the beating he wants his attackers caught and prosecuted.
The Gay American Heroes Foundation - one of the largest gay rights groups in America that follows crimes against homosexuals and acts as an advocacy group for victims - said Monday it has asked the FBI for a full investigation into the beating.
"We are reaching out to the FBI, just as we have in several other cases," said Scott Hall, founder and president of the Florida-based Gay American Heroes Association. "This victim is the true definition of gay pride."
Gays are the victims of attacks every six hours in America, Hall said, yet most victims do not report the crime because of fear of retribution or retaliation.
Hall called Esskew "courageous" for demanding that his attackers be caught and prosecuted.
The York County Sheriff's Office received tips over the weekend and continues to look for suspects, Lt. Mike Baker said.
The police report from the incident lists the crime as an assault and battery by mob, serious injury.
"It was very violent, very vicious and very, very serious," Baker said of the attack.
"We want to investigate and prosecute as such. Our main emphasis is to identify these individuals and go from there."
Federal law recently changed to include protection based on sexual orientation - the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act took effect in October 2009.
Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center - an organization that tracks hate crimes - said gays are targeted at high rates because of their sexuality.
Using almost 15 years of data from the FBI, the Southern Poverty Law Center has found gays are twice as likely to be the victims of hate crimes as Jews or blacks; more than four times as likely as Muslims; and 14 times as likely as Latinos.
A 2005 U.S. Department of Justice report showed the FBI reporting between 80,000 and 90,000 hate crimes, but Beirich said that number is probably closer to 200,000 because victims are afraid to report attacks.
"Given the high rates of victimization for this population, those protections need to be there," Beirich said. "... Hate crimes are one more way of saying this violence is unacceptable. Hate crimes are different from other kinds. They make everybody in the targeted group afraid.
"If people realized the extent of the problem, they would be more willing to do something about it."
Elke Kennedy of Greenville, a board member of the Gay American Heroes Foundation whose gay son, Sean, was killed in 2007, described the beating of Esskew as "unacceptable and an outrage."
Kennedy, who runs a foundation in honor of her son, said there is "no question" the FBI should get involved immediately.
"This federal law is on the books for prosecuting these kind of hate crimes," Kennedy said Monday.
The Gay American Heroes Foundation plans to have Kennedy present Esskew with its "Heart of a Hero" award next month.
Wendy Adams, a McNair scholar at Winthrop and former police officer who works for the political science department at Winthrop, said hate crimes have no place in a civilized society.
"The law should include harsher penalties as well as redirection, behavior modification and education for those who choose to violate someone's civil rights," Adams said.
Adams, who is gay, said her heart goes out to Esskew.
"It's time for this community to stand up and demand accountability and change," she said.
See video of the attack below.