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Hate crime charge for California boy accused of setting transgender teen on fire

By Ronnie Cohen

OAKLAND, California (Reuters) - A 16-year-old California boy accused of setting fire to a transgender teen's skirt as the victim slept on a public bus in the city of Oakland earlier this week was charged as an adult on Thursday with committing a hate crime.

Richard Thomas was charged with aggravated mayhem, felony assault and a hate-crime "enhancement" after telling a police officer he committed Monday's attack "because he was homophobic," according to the criminal complaint.

The 18-year-old victim, Luke Fleischman, who was born male but identifies himself as gender neutral and goes by the name of Sasha, remained hospitalized in San Francisco with severe burns on Thursday and was listed in stable condition, a hospital spokeswoman said.

The teen will require several surgeries to recover, according to a website posted by family members to raise money for the victim's medical treatment.

"The intentional and callous nature of the crime is shocking and will not be tolerated in our community," Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said in a statement.

Thomas stood in a glass cage in Superior Court out of view of observers and told Judge Gregory Syren that his relatives were trying to hire a lawyer to defend him against the charges.

A woman who identified herself as the suspect's grandmother begged the judge for more time to find an attorney. Syren postponed proceedings for entering of a plea until Tuesday and ordered Thomas to remain in custody without bail.

Outside the courtroom, Thomas's mother, who gave her name only as Ms. Jackson, denied that her son was homophobic or that he meant to hurt anyone.

"My son is not a hateful person," she said. "He's not homophobic. He was joking, and he didn't know it would go that far."

"I am very sorry, very sorry for my son's actions," Jackson told reporters, adding that her son, too, was remorseful and was drafting a letter of apology to the burn victim. "I did not raise him that way."

Police arrested Thomas at Oakland High School, where he is a student, on Tuesday after examining surveillance video from the city bus that allegedly showed him setting the victim's skirt on fire.

Tiffany Woods, a liaison between the transgender community and Oakland police, said Fleischman identified as gender neutral or "agender" and was a "well-liked kid."

Trevor Cralle, director of the Maybeck High School in Berkeley, where Fleischman is a senior, described the teen as a "wonderful, exceptional student."

(Reporting by Ronnie Cohen; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Steve Gorman and Ken Wills)

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