FBI helps with probe into cross burning in Arroyo Grande

clambert@thetribunenews.comMarch 21, 2011 

The mother of a black Arroyo Grande teen said she’s heartened by the outpouring of support in the few days since a cross was shoved into the ground and set on fire outside her daughter’s bedroom window.

But the cross-burning incident — which police are investigating as an arson and hate crime — will leave a scar.

“I will protect her always,” the teen’s mother said Monday. “I thought I had done a great job protecting her from harm until this point. This just destroyed her faith and mine.”

In the meantime, the city has stepped up its response to the incident. After releasing scant information about the burning Friday, and with media and local residents asking for more details, city officials called a news conference Monday to stress the seriousness of the crime and their investigation.

Residents across San Luis Obispo County — including a large number of religious leaders — have spoken out against the crime.

“Burning crosses, swastikas on synagogue walls, hateful words on mosques doors are not pranks. They are hate crimes meant to frighten and intimidate,” stated an e-mail sent to The Tribune and signed by 31 members of the San Luis Obispo Ministerial Association. “They should have no place in this beautiful county, but they do sometimes happen here. When they do, they cannot be tolerated or laughed off as ‘just a joke.’ ”

On Friday, police said they were investigating the suspicious activity, which could be a possible hate crime; on Monday, they called the incident an arson and hate crime investigation.

The cross, which was in pieces when police and firefighters arrived at the teen’s home Friday, was stolen sometime between Feb. 5 and March 5 from Saint John’s Lutheran Church, Police Chief Steve Annibali said. Police are pursuing the theft as a separate crime.

Mayor Tony Ferrara said at the afternoon news conference that a thorough investigation is under way, and that “the city of Arroyo Grande takes this matter very, very seriously.”

Police do not have any suspects in the case. On Monday, Annibali said the department is not aware of any active hate groups in the area.

Police said the incident started about 12:30 a.m. Friday, when a black 19-year-old woman awoke to find a blazing cross outside her window. She woke her mom, who told her to call 911.

Police and firefighters arrived at the home to find charred, burning pieces of wood, which they extinguished using a garden hose.

Since then, Annibali said, police have reached out to other agencies, and investigators are working with the District Attorney’s Office, the Sheriff’s Department, the FBI and the state Justice Department.

The Sheriff’s Department has offered the use of its crime lab, and two FBI agents have been committed to the case, Annibali said.

Doing so “is a testament to how seriously we are taking the crime,” he said.

Police have also provided information about the district attorney’s victim/witness advocacy unit to the teen and her mother. Extra patrol is being provided in the victims’ neighborhood, and fliers will be distributed in the community and at Saint John’s church to solicit information.

Police plan to send some physical evidence to an independent crime laboratory for forensic analysis. In addition to the cross, a shovel was also recovered from the scene.

Annibali said it was unknown whether an accelerant was used in the cross-burning.

Randy Ouimette, the pastor at Saint John’s Lutheran Church, identified the cross at the Arroyo Grande police station Friday and shared the news with his congregation Sunday.

The church has received a 10-foot cross that originally belonged to a church in Los Olivos. It is currently inside the sanctuary.

About 60 church members have signed a card and plan to give it and two prayer blankets to the teen and her mother.

“We were just in total shock that someone would do something with what is to most people a symbol of peace and love,” church member Dean Limbo said. “It was surreal.”

Other residents interviewed Monday expressed surprise that a hate crime of this nature would happen in Arroyo Grande.

“It’s a tight-knit community,” said Carlos Castaneda, 34, who was born and raised in Arroyo Grande. “I think you see a lot of different cultures that work here … they’re all treated fairly.”

Oceano resident Brent Brace, who has lived in the area seven years, said that while he views local residents as respectful toward each other, “there are pockets of ignorance, and this kind of proves that.”

“It’s unusual that there are goofballs still out there with a racist mentality,” added Brace, 62.

FBI data shows the Arroyo Grande Police Department has not reported a hate crime in the city since 2002. In that incident, a gay student was approached at a bus stop by another juvenile, who pulled out a knife. Police made an arrest in that incident, police Cmdr. Chuck Gerhart said.

Two incidents were reported in 2001. In the first, a passenger in a vehicle yelled derogatory remarks at two Portuguese brothers and challenged them to a fight. No arrests were made.

The second incident happened after Sept. 11, 2001, when an individual confronted a person of Indian descent and urinated on the person’s vehicle. An arrest was made in that incident.

No other hate crimes were reported by the city in the past 15 years, according to information available on the FBI’s website.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

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