It happened right there,” said the woman, pointing to a burned patch of grass in an unkempt plot in Arroyo Grande.
The burned grass, now faded after two months of spring storms, and a few bits of wood scattered around the yard are all that remain of a hate crime that shocked the community and may have triggered a series of copycat crimes reverberating through the county.
The woman, a neighbor to one of the victims, wouldn’t reveal her identity for fear of retribution.
“That’s all that’s left of what happened, I guess,” she said gesturing to a piece of wood on the lawn.
The wood, rough and looking a bit like an ax handle, was partially burned and smelled faintly of a petroleum product.
In the early morning hours of March 18, someone set fire to an 11-foot cross outside the window of an African-American woman. The cross was stolen weeks before from the parking lot of Saint John’s Lutheran Church where it had been used for Easter services.
Since the incident, Arroyo Grande and the area surrounding the city have suffered a rash of hate and arson incidents.
On the weekend of April 1, vandals struck Mesa Middle School south of Arroyo Grande, drawing swastikas on a gym door and on class whiteboards, triggering a hate crime investigation by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department. Three minors were later arrested in connection with the incident.
On the evening of April 2, a small fire was lit against the back wall of the Arroyo Grande police station. No suspects had been arrested as of press time.
Two incidents of racially charged graffiti occurred in late April and early May at Dunlap Elementary School in Orcutt. As of press time, no suspects had been arrested in that case, either.
An 80-year-old wooden Boy Scout hall and former Japanese community center was burned down May 1. Two teenagers were arrested May 9 on suspicion of conspiracy, burglary, possession of stolen property, and arson in connection with the fire.
Police sources say it’s unlikely any of the incidents were committed by the same people, but it’s entirely possible they may be incidents inspired by the initial cross- burning.
New Times asked Sheriff Ian Parkinson for his impression of the succession of apparent hate incidents in the South County.
“It’s strange to have them all happen all at once,” he said. “The thing we don’t know is, and we’re trying to get to this … are they reading about this or are they hearing this in the news or is it word-of-mouth? … I don’t know.”
Parkinson said the Sheriff’s Department is doing all it can to assist Arroyo Grande with its investigation of the cross-burning. Arroyo Grande leaders faced a strong backlash after The Tribune reported a police commander had said the cross- burning may have been a “prank.” Such comments drew a stern response from the Santa Maria/Lompoc branch of the NAACP.
Soon after, community leaders and civil rights groups met for a forum on April 11 at St. John’s, the church from where the cross had been stolen. The event was sponsored by the Santa Maria/Lompoc NAACP and the Santa Barbara/Tri-Counties Anti Defamation League. More than 150 people attended.
On May 10, the Arroyo Grande City Council unanimously approved a resolution “Honoring and Respecting Diversity” and forming a Five Cities Diversity Coalition and Diversity Effort.
The Diversity Coalition will have representatives from the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, the Latino Outreach Council, the Japanese Welfare Association, elected officials from the Five Cities and the county, and representatives from the faith community, school district, and the area’s various Chambers of Commerce. A high school student pointed out to city council members that the proposal omitted any gay/lesbian/transgender representatives, an issue they said would be corrected.
While the city government gathers its Diversity Coalition, the person or people who burned the cross remain at large.
“That’s nice they’re putting that together, but when are they going to catch the creeps who did this?” said the woman who lives near where the cross burned.
She said she’s seen cars sometimes slow down and stop with their engines running in front of the lot where the cross was burned. She didn’t have any idea whether it’s crime scene tourists or someone worse. Whoever it was, they scared her.
In the two months since the event, Arroyo Grande Police say they are “following leads.” Police sources said after the incident they were confident the perpetrators would soon be found.
The cross was heavy—nearly 100 pounds of wood and strong enough to hold the full weight of a man—and was originally designed for a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Police said they thought it likely would have taken more than one person to help bring the cross down from its perch, because it was bolted into the ground and probably would have taken a pick-up truck to move.
“You can’t keep an 11-foot cross in your truck and not have someone see something,” a police official said the week after the cross-burning.
As of yet, however, the mystery remains. And some Arroyo Grande residents wonder why it’s taking so long.
“They need to get the people who did this,” said the woman. “We need to move on.”
Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.