Michigan – The Confederate flag placemat on the dining room table was Rob Mathis’s first hint that something was off inside the home he was thinking of buying.
"I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if this was a Klansman’s house?’" said Mathis, who is black.
Previously, Mathis and his wife, Reyna, had been ready to make an offer on the five-bedroom home they viewed on Wednesday in Holton, Michigan, a small township of less than 3,000 people in Muskegon County. They thought the house on the 22-acre wooded lot about an hour outside of Grand Rapids would give them enough space to entertain their children and grandchildren. Then, Mathis walked into the NASCAR-decorated garage to see not one but two Confederate flags in what his wife would tell him was the home of a police officer, MLive reported.
When the family and their real estate agent went upstairs to check out one of the bedrooms, Mathis and his son noticed a lone wooden plaque holding an aged, yellowed document. Once the father and son got closer, they were disgusted to realize what they were looking at: an application to the Ku Klux Klan.
"I said, ‘Oh my God, let’s go and get out of here right now,’ " said Mathis, an Army veteran, in an interview to WZZM.
Walking through a home of a police officer with KKK memorabilia rattled Mathis, who struggled to grapple with what he’d seen in the "Klan house."
"I feel sick to my stomach knowing that I walk to the home of one of the most racist people in Muskegon hiding behind his uniform and possibly harassing people of color and different nationalities," Mathis wrote in a Facebook post late Wednesday.
In response, Muskegon announced on Thursday that the police department had opened an internal investigation "after a social media post was brought to our attention accusing an officer of being in possession of certain items associated with a white supremacy group." The local government wrote in a Facebook post that the police officer was "immediately placed on administrative leave, pending a thorough investigation."
The home’s owner was identified by local media as Charles Anderson, a 48-year-old white officer.
"The City of Muskegon requests your patience as we thoroughly investigate this issue," the city said.
The police department could not be reached for comment late Thursday. Anderson, a longtime Muskegon police officer who was cleared of fatally shooting a black man in 2009, offered a brief response to the allegations to MLive.
"They said not to talk about it. That’s what they told me," Anderson said to MLive. "Because it’s under internal investigation they said not to make a statement."
The police officer’s wife, Racheal, told WOOD that she rejected the question of whether her husband was a member of the KKK.
"No, he’s not, no, no," she said, chuckling. She added: "He can’t say anything right now, I wish we could because it would probably set a lot of things straight."
The incident in Michigan comes amid a recent uptick in law enforcement and government agencies, from St. Louis police to the State Department, addressing allegations of officers and other officials accused of promoting white supremacy, racism or violence.
By the time he exited the police officer’s home around 3 p.m. Wednesday, Mathis said, he felt violated by the open displays of racism. The couple was told the homeowner collected antiques like the ones inside the home, but the Mathis family maintains that the officer knew exactly what he was doing in showing off pieces of KKK and Confederate memorabilia.
"It was basically also telling me that he only [wanted] whites only to purchase his home," he said to MLive. "People who had that type of hate in their heart, he wanted those people."
His wife, Reyna Mathis, who is Hispanic, recalled the situation as "uncomfortable." She said her family collects items from the Detroit Red Wings and the University of Michigan because they are proud of those affiliations, which is why she questions how he could keep racist items up in his home if he didn’t associate with them, according to WOOD.
"He didn’t know if blacks or whites or whoever was walking in there, but he left it there proudly," she said to MLive.
Explaining to their daughter what was unfolding at the Holton house was perhaps the most difficult part of the experience, the mother said to WZZM.
"I was just angry, and my daughter started asking questions and she’s only 12," she said.
The discovery of Anderson’s racist collection has cast new light on a nearly decade-old fatal shooting. Anderson was pursuing 23-year-old Julius Johnson during a traffic stop on Sept. 23, 2009. According to the findings of an investigation from the county’s prosecutor, Johnson beat Anderson in the head, which caused the police officer, who said he feared for his life, to shoot and kill the black man. Johnson’s sister, Tunisia Phillips, initially told investigators that she heard her brother beg for his life before Anderson shot him, according to WOOD.
The prosecutor later cleared Anderson of wrongdoing and eventually charged Phillips with lying to police, prompting protests from Johnson’s family and the NAACP, according to MLive. Eric Hood, the president of the Muskegon County chapter of the NAACP, has now called for a comprehensive look at Anderson’s dealings with people of color, WOOD reported.
"We want a thorough investigation to be sure that when he goes out there and puts on that uniform and performs his duties as an officer that he’s being fair and impartial," he said to the outlet.
It wasn’t an easy decision for the Mathises to publicize their experience. Reyna Mathis worried about their family’s safety, but was eventually convinced by her husband that they needed to speak out, resulting in an overwhelming response on social media.
"I hope for the community, if his intentions aren’t good, he does not need to be a police officer," she said to WZZM. "We, and all minorities, are in harms way if that’s the case."
Rob Mathis said the public deserves to know exactly why a police officer owned a KKK application.
"You can’t serve your community and be a racist," he told MLive. "You can’t protect one group of people."
The Washington Post