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Ladera Ranch assault decried as hate crime

Weekend attack on a Latina in a low-crime area of Orange County troubles officials and residents.

July 09, 2009|Tami Abdollah

An assault on a Latina in a Ladera Ranch gated community over the holiday weekend is being called the worst hate crime this year in Orange County, and has prompted the Sheriff's Department to assign 20 deputies and investigators to the case.

"It's important for us to send a very strong message," said Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens at a news conference Wednesday. "We will not tolerate hate crimes."

The attack occurred about 10:30 a.m. on July 4. Maria Guadarrama, 45, a janitor for Ladera Ranch Maintenance Corp., was working in the Covenant Hills neighborhood. She had left her golf cart to put trash in a collection bin and returned to find two men near the cart. "Out of the blue" she was assaulted, said Sheriff's Investigator Alex Quilantan.

During the attack, Guadarrama hit her head on the cart, was struck by both men and was stabbed in the forearms with a switchblade when she raised her hands to protect herself, Quilantan said. Throughout, he said, the men yelled racial slurs at her, elevating the attack to a hate crime.

The men also ripped open the front of Guadarrama's shirt, and stole her wallet, $700 in rent money and her cellphone, said sheriff's spokesman John McDonald. They fled on foot after warning her not to tell anyone what happened.

Guadarrama, who has previously spoken to the media about the attack, was treated at the scene. Her phone was found broken in pieces, McDonald said, and is being tested for fingerprints.

Both suspects are white, officials said. One is 24 to 26 years old with a shaved head, blue eyes, a goatee and a swastika tattoo on his left shoulder. He is believed to be about 5 feet 9 and 150 pounds, and was wearing a white tank top, black shorts and blue shoes. The second is described as cleanshaven, 19 to 20 years old, 5 feet 5, 180 to 200 pounds, with brown eyes and short hair, and was wearing a yellow and blue T-shirt, brown shorts and white shoes.

At Wednesday's news conference, county Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Patricia Bates, whose district includes Ladera Ranch, called the crime "particularly heinous" because it was racially motivated.

Bill Wood, vice chairman of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, said hate crimes in the county were down over the last three years, but there has been an increase in those against Latinos, African Americans and Jews.

"In very difficult times, [for example] we're in this recession, hate crimes almost always increase," he said. "The human condition is such that many of us are always looking for someone to look down upon, and someone to blame."

Daniel Vazquez, a Ladera Ranch resident who called himself a "proud Hispanic American," was so disturbed by the attack that he plans to reimburse the woman for the stolen money. He said his family had seen her cleaning up around the clubhouse.

"We owe it to her, she works in my community," Vazquez said. "I'm guilty and responsible as anyone who lets this occur to her. If it happens in my house, I have to clean it up."

Ladera Ranch -- a south Orange County bedroom community of about 8,000 that's full of tennis courts, swimming pools, walking trails and even a water park -- has a relatively low crime rate and, Hutchens said, "Hate crimes are really unheard of" there.

"The fact that it is in an area where stuff like this doesn't happen makes it more serious," Quilantan said. "If it happens there, it can happen anywhere."

Investigators have few leads and are asking for the public's help. Anyone with information should call (866) TIP-OCSD.

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com

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