The man charged with Ethnic Intimidation and Assault and Battery after an incident at the Meridian Mall says he's innocent and the whole situation "has been blown way out of proportion."
Jonathan Deuel is charged with felony ethnic intimidation and a misdemeanor of assault and battery after a dust-up with another family in Okemos last month.
A witnesses told police Deuel and two others surrounded a Muslim woman near the mall parking lot and tried to pull her dress and face veil off before knocking her to the ground.
"I stand innocent; I didn't touch this lady," Deuel told News Ten Friday night. "I didn't verbally abuse them. None of that. None of that happened."
Rather, Deuel said, he tripped over a rug near the entrance and fell toward the woman. The motion, he acknowledged, startled the woman.
"I can understand on her part why she would have been shook up a little bit, but to that extent? Never," Deuel said. I never touched her once. My hands never made physical contact with her. I never tried to de-robe her."
The only thing he did do wrong, Deuel said, was flee the scene in his car. Deuel said he feared arrests for two outstanding warrants.
"By me leaving, it really blew up and I knew I made a big mistake," he said.
Thasin Sardar, outreach coordinator for the Islamic Society of Greater Lansing has spoken with the purported victims of the assault. The woman went into shock and the family felt it was attacked, he said.
But Sardar says he is trying to stay out of playing he-said she-said.
"My role is not to guess what happened," Sardar said. "Our role at the Islamic Center here is merely to offer support to the affected family here. It is up to the judge and jury to determine who is at fault."
Sardar did not refute the claims made by Deuel, though said he had been told different things by the other family -- which Sardar said was in East Lansing as the husband pursued his doctorate degree.
Sardar says he hopes something good can come from the incident.
"When [the victim] finishes his studies and returns back home, I want to make sure that he doesn't leave with a bitter experience about America," Sardar said. "I want him to rather carry forward the American values of tolerance, mutual respect, multiculturalism. I want him to take those back to his country and not the bitter experience."
The sorts of things that happened at the mall last month are far from normal, Sardar said, and he doesn't want this incident to tarnish the area's reputation for safety.
And as for Deuel, Sardar says if he truly didn't do the crime, he doesn't want him to go to prison.
"I do not want him to be taken away from his family if he did not perpetrate the crime," he said. "If he has children, I don't want them to be deprived of a father either. So as a person of faith, a house of faith, we hope that mercy will prevail and that something good comes out of this whole thing."