LA MIRADA — For the third time in a month, vandals have burned or defaced a public building or synagogue in this city, leaving telltale markings--swastikas and anti-Christ slogans--that officials believe may link the incidents.
The latest attack occurred shortly before midnight Sunday at Eastwood Elementary School. Nearby residents spotted flames coming from the school's administration wing, and by the time firefighters contained the blaze an hour later, the teachers' lounge, a curriculum resource center and several offices, including the principal's, were badly damaged.
Preliminary estimates place structural damage at $200,000. That figure will surely go higher as officials in the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District assess the extensive smoke and water damage to office equipment, teaching materials and student records.
Despite the blaze, Eastwood opened Monday on schedule at with minimal disruption, said Principal Jack Hively.
Arson experts from the Los Angeles County Fire Department said the fire at the school in the 15000 block of East Pescados Drive was set. Neither the number of people involved nor their identities have been determined.
"It was definitely arson," said Sheriff's Department Arson Investigator Harold Johnston. "There was a strong gasoline smell at the scene." On the sidewalk in front of the school and on the administration building doors, a swastika, a satanic pentagram and the words, "Kill administration" and "Punk lives" were scrawled in ink and paint.
In the past month, those same symbols were found on the walls of a local synagogue and recreation center at Windermere Park, city officials said.
Early last month at Temple Beth Ohr on the corner of Rosecrans and Santa Gertrudes avenues, vandals painted anti-Semitic slogans and swastikas across the synagogue's exterior.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, more swastikas and anti-Establishment signs and slogans, were discovered on the Windermere Park recreation center, which was also set on fire, said Robert Dominguez, La Mirada's assistant city administrator. Although firefighters saved the center where community classes and clinics are held, Dominguez said the structure was moderately damaged with repair estimates running about $50,000.
"We can't rule out the possibility that the three incidents are related," Dominguez said.
Geographically, the park, school and synagogue are less than a mile apart in the southeast corner of the city. Only a block separates the school and synagogue.
5 Juveniles Charged
Authorities have charged five juveniles between 16 and 18 in connection with the first two incidents.
In the Windermere Park fire, three juveniles were charged with felony arson, while two other juveniles were charged with felony vandalism for defacing the synagogue, said sheriff's Deputy Mike Cole of the Norwalk Substation. All five, Cole said, are heavy-metal or punk-rock music followers. Lyrics from those types of music often are laced with "anti-Christ or anti-Establishment" overtones and messages, he said.
"We are still trying to determine whether these crimes are being committed by a single group," Cole said. "Certainly the individuals committing the crimes are similar--same dress, beliefs and aggressive behavior. And the crimes themselves are very similar. It's a possibility they may be related."
Because of the frequency and close proximity of the crimes, Cole said the Sheriff's Department is increasing patrols in southeast La Mirada.
Believed Set by Youths
Arson Investigator Johnston believes the Eastwood fire was set by youths. He said in "99% of school arsons, kids are involved."
Angry at a teacher, a grade or friends, a youth often strikes back at the school, damaging lockers, breaking windows or even sparking a fire, according to Steve Curl, director of security and energy management for the Norwalk-La Mirada district. Those in search of attention often attack a school, Curl said, because it is a well-known landmark within a community.
Damage at Eastwood could have been worse if firefighters had not responded so quickly, Curl said.
The arsonists, he said, apparently entered the Eastwood administration building through a window in the vice principal's office. Unlike the rest of campus, the office was not protected by alarms and tied to the district's computerized security system because it used to be a storage room that was converted to an office, Curl said.
Ignited by Gasoline
Gasoline was used to start a fire in that office, investigators say, and it quickly spread to the main office, an adjoining teacher's lounge and a curriculum center, where books, teaching materials and manuals are stored.
Almost as soon as the fire was out, district employees began the tedious cleanup task. They worked through the early morning hours, boarding up windows, mopping water and scrubbing the walls of the multipurpose room and cafeteria that were not burned but sustained heavy smoke damage.
"They found one small opening in our security system and took advantage of it," said Curl, whose small security force with its computerized alarm system is responsible for protecting 37 school campuses spread across 15 square miles. Normally, at least one district-hired officer patrols the campuses at night, but Curl said because of an illness no one was patrolling the district Sunday night.
Until repairs are completed, principal Hively and other Eastwood administrators have moved into several classrooms.
"It's going to be a little tight for awhile," Hively said. "But we'll manage. If we had lost a classroom or two, we would have been in real trouble."