For three and a half years, the killing of a Chinese-American teenager who was set on fire and burned alive in her family’s Colorado home has confounded investigators.
But now, as the federal government focuses on a spate of attacks targeting Asians, the 2017 killing of the teenager, Maggie Long, is being investigated as a hate crime, the local sheriff and one of Ms. Long’s sisters said in interviews on Tuesday.
They said that they had recently been informed by the F.B.I. that the scope of its investigation had evolved to take into account that the killing of the 17-year-old high school student might have been racially motivated.
“They have reclassified it as a hate crime,” said Sheriff Tom McGraw of Park County, Colo.
Sheriff McGraw referred further questions on the hate crime aspect of the investigation to the F.B.I., which confirmed in a statement on Wednesday that it was “investigating the murder of Maggie Long as a potential hate crime matter.”
“The F.B.I. is committed to combating hate crimes and condemns violence directed toward any individual or group,” Michael Schneider, the special agent in charge of the agency’s Denver field office, said in the statement. “We are grateful for the community’s support of Maggie’s family and their patience with the ongoing investigation.”
The agency said it was seeking information from the public, such as descriptions of people or vehicles that were seen near Maggie’s family’s house around the time she was killed. A $75,000 reward is being offered for information that leads to an arrest and conviction in the case, the F.B.I. said.
Maggie’s sister Connie Long said in an interview on Tuesday that she was told by an investigator with the bureau that the decision to treat the homicide as a hate crime was a tactical one that would provide law enforcement officers with more money and resources to try to solve the case. It was not prompted by a specific development in the case, she said.
“With the media attention on anti-Asian hate in the country, there has been another look at our case with that lens,” Ms. Long, 27, said. “It is definitely a new angle that may bring new answers.”
The development came during a week in which the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a measure that is intended to bolster protections for people of Asian descent, who have been increasingly targeted for attack since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Passed last month by the Senate, the anti-Asian hate crimes bill is expected to be quickly signed by President Biden. It creates a position at the Justice Department to streamline the review of hate crimes and expand the channels to report them.
On the night of Dec. 1, 2017, sheriff’s deputies responded to a fire at the Longs’ home in Bailey, a small town in the mountains about 45 miles southwest of Denver, the authorities said. Emergency responders had reported receiving a 911 call that people had caused damage inside the home.
When firefighters put out the blaze, they discovered Maggie’s remains, according to the authorities, who said that they found evidence of a physical struggle.
A torrent of hate and violence against people of Asian descent around the United States began last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Background: Community leaders say the bigotry was fueled by President Donald J. Trump, who frequently used racist language like “Chinese virus” to refer to the coronavirus.
- Data: The New York Times, using media reports from across the country to capture a sense of the rising tide of anti-Asian bias, found more than 110 episodes since March 2020 in which there was clear evidence of race-based hate.
- Underreported Hate Crimes: The tally may be only a sliver of the violence and harassment given the general undercounting of hate crimes, but the broad survey captures the episodes of violence across the country that grew in number amid Mr. Trump’s comments.
- In New York: A wave of xenophobia and violence has been compounded by the economic fallout of the pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to New York’s Asian-American communities. Many community leaders say racist assaults are being overlooked by the authorities.
- What Happened in Atlanta: Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in shootings at massage parlors in Atlanta on March 16. A Georgia prosecutor said that the Atlanta-area spa shootings were hate crimes, and that she would pursue the death penalty against the suspect, who has been charged with murder.
A Beretta handgun, an AK-47-style rifle, 2,000 rounds of ammunition and jade figurines had been stolen from the residence, according to the F.B.I.’s Denver field office, which released composite sketches of three male suspects in November 2019.
Maggie’s parents were born in a Chinese community in North Vietnam and fled to the United States during the Vietnam War, her sister said. They owned two local Chinese restaurants and a liquor store.
On the night of her death, Maggie had gone home to get refreshments and snacks for a high school concert, for which she had been in charge of a V.I.P. lounge. She never showed up for the concert.
Connie Long said that she had not considered at the time that Maggie’s killing could have been racially motivated, but said that her family had been keenly aware that few people in their small town looked like them.
“Me personally, I did not go there in my mind,” she said. “I did not think this was a hate crime or overt racism. We definitely did take our culture into consideration.”
Christine Hauser contributed reporting and Jack Begg contributed research.