Orange County: Swastikas and racial slurs painted at elementary school

(OCRegister) LAKE FOREST A Rancho Santa Margarita man and three Mission Viejo teens were arrested early this morning after swastikas and racial slurs were spray-painted on Foothill Ranch Elementary School, police said.

School neighbors called police about 11 p.m. Friday and responding deputies saw several people spray-painting graffiti at the back of the school, said Sheriff’s Lt. Don Barnes, the city’s chief of police services.

“They painted swastikas and white power racial slurs on the walls, windows, doors and grounds of the school,” Barnes said. “Everything was painted in white supremacy-type statements.”

The group fled to nearby Foothill Ranch Towne Centre. Deputies eventually arrested two teens at a hamburger stand, Thomson Vo, 19, from Rancho Santa Margarita, and a 16-year-old boy from Mission Viejo. Vo was booked into Men’s Central Jail and the juvenile was taken to Juvenile Hall., Barnes said. Both will be charged with felony vandalism and hate crimes, he said.

About 8 a.m., deputies arrested two more teens – a 15-year-old boy from Mission Viejo and a 17-year-old boy from Mission Viejo. A fifth person is believed to have been involved, Barnes said.

Barnes said that hate crimes like this are rare in southern Orange County.

In 2005, a giant menorah erected for Hanukah was destroyed in Ladera Ranch. A Hanukah display at Four Corners in Mission Viejo was destroyed a year later. Some graffiti with hate messages was scrawled on a wall in Ladera Ranch shopping center two months ago.

“Overall this type of thing is rare,” said Jim Amormino, spokesperson for the Orange County Sheriff Department. “You can count one had the number of incidents but one is too many. We will aggressively investigate and prosecute anyone we catch.”

Robert Cohen, a Ladera Ranch resident who built the menorah, was outraged to hear of the swastikas at Foothill Ranch Elementary School, calling the act especially troubling because of the timing of the Jewish community’s celebration of the High Holy Days.

“Swastikas are anti-Semitic tagging,” he said. “There will always be people who try and get their naïve ideas out to the masses. If you look at the time period, it is the holiest time for the Jewish community right between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on Monday. There is a naïveté that when one group is celebrating, the other group wants their voices heard. This may be a random act but is indicative of the time of year.”

Cohen added that windows were broken just days ago at the Chabad Jewish Center in Mission Viejo but it was not publicized.

Mitch Gutell, former president of Congregation Eilat in Mission Viejo, is also offended by the swastika but is not quick to call the vandalism an explicit act against the Jewish community.

“This graffiti is full of mixed messages,” said Gutell, a resident of Lake Forest. “One guy (Vo) appears to be Vietnamese – that’s not a white supremacist. I don’t know what the other guys are but if he’s Vietnamese, what’s he anti?

Gutell said the act is offensive in that it desecrates property but he doesn’t think the messages in the tagging are a sign of an organized skinhead group.

“I’m offended at anything that is directed at blacks, Hispanics and particularly if it’s a hate crime against Jews,” he said. “But I’m not quick to leap and say it’s anti-Semitic. If it said ‘Jews’ specifically and targeted that’d be in a very different position.”

Barnes estimates that the damage to school could be as high as $20,000. The Saddleback Valley Unified School District has cleanup crews working today and anticipates that the graffiti will be removed before school resumes Monday, Barnes said.

The graffiti appears consistent with actions by white-supremacist street gangs, but it is not yet known if the arrested teens are gang members, Barnes said.

“If they are members of a crime street gang, they would face additional charges for gang enhancements,” Barnes said.

Lake Forest Sheriff’s deputies were out in force Friday night after preparing for more than 100 protestors who announced they planned to rally at Saddleback Church to protest Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum hosting the president of Rwanda.

When the protestors didn’t show, Barnes redeployed the deputies to saturation patrols in the city. These patrols targeted possible DUI drivers, did bar checks and patrolled the community. Some deputies involved in the vandalism investigation were part of the saturation patrols, Barnes said.

Since June 2008 Barnes has run a highly visible graffiti task force in Lake Forest, leading to numerous arrests, convictions and thousands of dollars in restitution.

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