SAN MARINO — An Asian real estate broker whose Chinese business sign has been repeatedly vandalized has asked that charges be dropped against eight high school students who were caught stealing the sign last month.
The sign has been stolen five times since November and some city officials feared the thefts had been committed by racists opposed to the growing Chinese business presence in San Marino.
But Caesar Wu, president of Golden Acres Realty, said he has talked with the students and believes they had nothing to do with the previous thefts and were only taking part in a club initiation.
"I have no doubt that they are telling the truth," he said. "I was young once, I made mistakes, too."
No Decision Made
Whether the charges of petty theft and vandalism will be dropped is up to the district attorney's office. "In a criminal prosecution a victim can't drop the charges," said Marguerite McKinney, a deputy district attorney in charge of Pasadena juvenile cases. No decision has been made, she said, on whether to drop the charges.
But Wu said he will do everything in his power to help the students.
"If it is legal, I won't testify against them," he said. "Having this mark against them will affect them for the rest of their lives. It is too much for them to pay."
Neither Wu nor the police have any idea who is responsible for the other thefts of the sign.
But since the arrest of the students, there have been no more attempts to pry the two Chinese characters off the building.
"Everything's quiet," said Police Cmdr. Paul Butler. "I think we got a lot of peoples' attention and I don't think it's going to happen again."
The students, who attend San Marino High School, were arrested about 11:30 p.m., Feb. 4 after an officer noticed a car stopped behind the building on Huntington Drive.
One student, Ronald C. Steffey, 18, was caught on the roof of the building near a plastic Chinese character that had been pried off the wall, police said. None of the other students were identified because they are juveniles. Police said the charges are misdemeanors. Steffey faces a fine of $1,000 or up to six months in County Jail. The juveniles would be turned over to Juvenile Court.
Source of Controversy
Steffey, who is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday in Pasadena Superior Court, said none of his companions were aware of the controversy surrounding the sign and would never have touched it if they had known.
"I know I've done wrong," Steffey said last month after his arrest. "It was such a stupid thing to do, but it had nothing to do with race."
The Golden Acres Realty sign became a source of controversy in this quiet, wealthy city when it first appeared last November.
Two other businesses in town use foreign words on their signs, but neither have experienced problems. One belongs to the Shanghai Palace restaurant, a longtime San Marino fixture; the other to East-West Federal Bank, which uses Chinese characters in its company logo.
Wu was allowed under the city's sign ordinance to mount 10 Chinese characters on the building above the company's name in English.
But the city asked Wu to reduce the number to four and ultimately to two to avoid provoking critics of signs that are not in English.
Wu agreed, and put up the one-foot-high, blue plastic characters.
But some residents still complained to Wu, City Hall and the police that the two characters had no place in San Marino. Some callers said they feared Huntington Drive would soon become another Valley Boulevard, a street in Alhambra that is one of the main Chinese commercial areas in the San Gabriel Valley.
Sign Was Stolen
Within a few days the sign was stolen.
Mayor Paul Crowley wrote a letter to the San Marino Tribune calling for peace in the community and explaining that Wu's sign was perfectly legal. The police also increased patrols in the area.
But the sign was stolen several more times.
Since the arrest of the eight students, Wu has received about 100 phone calls. This time, however, the callers have all been supportive and have deplored the vandalism.
"I think we all learned something from this experience," Wu said. "I learned to be friends with people no matter what their intentions. If you show your friendship, you can change peoples' attitudes.
"Make friends, not enemies, that's the thing," he said.