Updated April 22, 2015
Shaare Torah congregation in Gaithersburg was feeling relieved after the April 14 arrest of 18-year-old Sebastian Espinoza-Carranza for the vandalism of their Conservative synagogue.
“It puts some closure to know who’s responsible,” said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal. “We’re grateful to the police forces for their extraordinary work.
Detectives have identified more suspects in the crime, and they are juveniles, according to Montgomery County police, who conducted an investigation with Gaithersburg police, with assistance from county prosecutors. At press time no additional arrests had been made, but in the juvenile justice system a suspect must be adjudicated within 30 days, according to State’s Attorney’s Office spokesman Ramon Korionoff.
The vandals, who spray-painted swastikas, “KKK” and other hate-based graffiti on the walls, windows and door of the synagogue, were recorded by a surveillance camera.
“Surveillance cameras are a deterrent,” Blumenthal said. “It’s good when it deters a crime. And it’s helpful to know the police can use it to help solve a crime.”
Based on the video and additional security footage, police identified and interviewed Espinoza-Carranza and several other teenage males, according to Montgomery County Police. On April 14, Espinoza-Carranza “was arrested and confessed to the crimes,” according to a statement.
He was charged with property damage to a religious institution, defacement of a religious property, and malicious destruction of property over $1,000. Espinoza-Carranza has been released on bond.
After the attack, Gaithersburg Police said the incident was a hate crime because it was “an unlawful act designed to frighten, intimidate or harass” with a bias against a religious group, according to Mark Sroka, Gaithersburg’s chief of police.
A hate crime carries a penalty of up to three years imprisonment and/or a $5,000 fine, he said.
The State’s Attorney’s Office is “working with [Rabbi Blumenthal] and the synagogue leadership to ensure that this young man is held accountable,” said Korionoff.
One possibility is community service to bridge the gap in Espinoza-Carranza’s understanding of the intolerance reflected in his actions.
“We’re working to resolve this charge and work out a mutually agreeable resolution for the Jewish community and leadership of the synagogue, and make sure the young man understands that what he’s done is not acceptable in society,” said Korionoff.
Shaare Torah has received a steady stream of good will since the attack, Blumenthal said. The congregation held an interfaith service on the evening after the incident. And he has received phone calls, emails, Facebook messages and visits from well-wishers.
In one day, Shaare Torah “found the graffiti, removed the graffiti and convened the community” at the evening service, said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington. “For all that to happen in one day was quite magnificent.”
He said the county could have reduced the vandalism to the actions of a kid. But “the symbolism is very offensive and it has to be taken seriously,” he said. “It’s very important that county took it seriously and law enforcement took it seriously.”
A group of local Muslim organizations condemned the vandalism. The Muslim community “extend[s] our hand in friendship to the Shaare Torah congregation of Gaithersburg, as well as to the greater Jewish community,” according to a statement.
Signatories included: WORDE/International Cultural Center, Muslim Democratic Club of Montgomery County, Islamic Affairs Council of Maryland, Howard County Muslim Council, Montgomery County Muslim Relief and The Islamic Congregations of Montgomery County.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a national advocacy group, expressed its support of with the Jewish community.
“We stand in solidarity with the Jewish community as they respond to this act of hatred,” CAIR National spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said in a statement. “Americans of all faiths should be free to worship without intimidation or harassment. Targeting a house of worship with symbols of hatred and violence is a despicable act.”