More than 20 months after a cross stolen from an Arroyo Grande church was burned in a hate crime — and months after the convicted perpetrators were sentenced — the congregation received the charred remains of its 11-foot-tall cross.
Members of the Arroyo Grande Police Department formally returned the cross to St. John’s Lutheran Church in a ceremony Sunday. Church members will work with a local artist on a display utilizing the remains, according to a news release from police.
Police hope returning the cross is another step in the healing process for a community shocked by the county’s first hate crime since 2002, according to FBI data.
Just after midnight in mid-March 2011, a 19-year-old woman of mixed African-American descent noticed a glowing light outside her window and saw a large, white cross burning in the neighbor’s yard.
In the months that followed the cross burning, many residents expressed outrage and questioned how such an incident could happen. About 150 people gathered for a community forum to speak out against hate and bias. Soon after, the Five Cities Diversity Coalition was created to prevent and respond to hate crimes and acts of hate.
After a four-month investigation involving more than 5,000 hours of work by the Arroyo Grande police and other law enforcement agencies, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office filed felony charges against four people.
Jason Kahn, Sara Matheny and William Soto entered no-contest pleas, receiving prison sentences of 12, five and five years, respectively. Kahn’s sentence was longer because of other criminal activity, including a conviction for an unlawful taking of a vehicle.
Jeremiah Leo “Smurf” Hernandez, 33, went to trial and was convicted of arson, terrorism in the form of a cross burning, terrorism in the form of arson targeting a person’s race, and conspiracy to commit a crime. He was convicted and sentenced to 11 years in state prison.