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O.C. Shows '22 Tagger' the Exit

Freeway construction zone vandal is paying $30,000 in restitution after doing time in jail. He vows to quit. Officials hope others will too.

January 15, 2006|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Orange County officials had no idea what to expect when they started clearing brush along the Garden Grove Freeway last year. They thought they were making way for a $495-million freeway expansion project.

Certainly not creating a canvas for graffiti tagger Cesar Moncada, 19.

But no sooner did county workers clear debris from in front of sound walls, overpasses and concrete barriers than Moncada and his associates went to work.

"This guy was the guy who hit everything -- retaining walls, overpasses, railroad trestles -- anything that could be seen" along California 22, Deputy Sheriff Dominic Montalbano said.

It wasn't long before his mark "K.N.D." -- for Kings Never Die -- appeared everywhere. In some places, his insignia was 5 feet tall and 100 feet long. Before the infamous "22 Tagger" was apprehended, officials said, they were spending as much as $40,000 a month for removal of graffiti and other debris on that freeway.

Caught in the act late one spring night, Moncada pleaded guilty in October to felony vandalism, was given six months in jail and ordered to pay more than $30,000 in restitution.

But county officials didn't stop there.

They increased public education against graffiti and stepped up police patrols and surveillance. And last month, Robert Dunham and Montalbano, the deputies who arrested Moncada, were cited for outstanding work by the Orange County Transportation Authority.

"We're very serious about taggers.... If people tag in this county and get caught, they're going to go to jail," said Susan Kang-Schroeder, a spokeswoman for the county district attorney.

Los Angeles officials also prosecute taggers, said Jonathan Diamond, a spokesman for the Los Angeles city attorney's office.

"We have found that at times, particularly when taggers act as crews, they can evolve into street gangs," he said. "With the evolution, there is sometimes territorial violence" [among taggers].

Orange County transportation officials said they were surprised by the onslaught of graffiti after the freeway's sound walls were exposed.

"We had a major outbreak of vandalism," said Rick Grebner, the authority's senior project manager. "Here we had [about 12 miles] of new canvas" for graffiti vandals.

The authority hopes that its enforcement efforts will restrict or at least slow the amount of graffiti that ends up costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove.

Last year, Caltrans spent about $300,000 cleaning up and painting over graffiti in Orange County. Statewide, the agency spent $3.5 million over the same period.

Caltrans and authorities expressed doubt that technology alone -- such as ribbed and coated walls to deter taggers -- would eradicate freeway graffiti. It has cropped up on overhead signs, in tunnels, on equipment and in some areas several stories tall. "There is nothing sacred to graffiti taggers," said Caltrans spokeswoman Pam Gorniak.

Among Orange County's hardest-hit freeways are the Orange Freeway near Imperial Highway in Brea, the Costa Mesa Freeway at the Santa Ana Freeway interchange in Tustin, the Santa Ana Freeway along Manchester Boulevard in Buena Park and, yes, the Garden Grove Freeway.

There's a good chance cleanup crews will no longer have to worry about Moncada, who said he has quit tagging after going to jail cost him his landscaping job and embarrassed his family.

While on a late-night stakeout in Orange, Montalbano and Dunham surprised Moncada while he was tagging a railroad trestle in Hart Park.

He fled with a companion but a third accomplice, a juvenile, was caught.

Deputies said they found a jacket, a backpack, car keys, a digital camera and several photo CDs at the scene.

"There were literally hundreds of pictures and most of them were taken of him, members of his crew and his graffiti along the 22 corridor from Long Beach into Orange County," said Montalbano, who is assigned to police the authority's buses, roads and freeways.

Deputies found Moncada's car parked nearby and arrested him early the next day at his family's Costa Mesa apartment.

(In court records, he is listed as Moncadasolis, a family name combining his parents' surnames that he used when he applied for a driver's license, deputies said. They said Moncada Solis was the correct spelling.)

During his initial interview, Moncada surprised deputies with his openness, if brash attitude. When asked who did the spray-painting, he told them he did because he "was the talented one."

"He said he was the artist of his crew," Montalbano said. "He did the balloon type lettering for K.N.D. and the other guys just did the fill-in."

Moncada eventually pleaded guilty to felony vandalism, misdemeanor obstruction of an officer and trespassing. Although sentenced to 180 days in jail, he was released Dec. 14, a month short of the full time. In addition, he was put on three years' probation.

The recovered photographs were introduced during his preliminary hearing and played a strong role in the case, said Israel Claustro-Hernandez, who prosecuted Moncada.

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