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Vandalism victims feel targeted over faith.

Byline: Rebecca Taylor The Register-Guard

The owners of two nativity scenes whose baby Jesus figures were replaced with severed pigs' heads this week believe they were targeted because of their Christian faith.

In both cases, the culprits left other, more secular decorations untouched and focused only on the families' religious displays.

"To me, they definitely wanted to make a religious statement," said David Stahl of Eugene, who discovered a pig head in his front yard on Thursday. "This takes definite thought and too much anger."

The pig heads appeared to have come from a butcher shop or other commercial source. The Jesus figures have not been recovered.

Eugene police are investigating the cases as possible bias crimes, a classification that could lead to harsher sentences if the vandals are ever caught.

But proving hate can be difficult, authorities said Friday.

"The status of the victim alone is not adequate" to make a crime a hate crime, Chief Deputy Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner said.

"That's difficult to accept because people of color or of a cultural background that are used to being victimized because of their race or religion immediately assume that that's the reason they've been victimized again," he said. "In an area like Eugene, where we have very high burglary and vandalism rates, sometimes it's just bad luck."

That was the case earlier this year when four men broke into the Ahavas Torah Synagogue in south Eugene and damaged two valuable Torah scrolls and the ark that held them during a vandalism spree.

The attack deeply offended synagogue members, who felt that the act was motivated by hate.

But authorities found no evidence that the four men specifically targeted the synagogue for abuse.

Instead, investigators believe that the men were transients in search of wine, food and shelter from a February rainstorm.

"To the victims of the crime it doesn't make it any less traumatic," Gardner said. "The fact that the Torah was damaged ... really shook them to their roots. There could not have been a more profound way to harm them."

Under Oregon's hate-crime law, first passed in 1983, prosecutors need evidence of intent to upset or harm a person or community because of their race, color, national origin, religion or sexual orientation. The fact that the target is of a protected group does not make an act a hate crime.

The issue arose again in April when a man shattered windows at two downtown Eugene churches, discharging a fire extinguisher in one and writing nasty messages on a chalkboard inside another. Police initially treated the burglaries as possible hate crimes, but the investigation found otherwise.

The man, who left his wallet and cell phone inside one of the churches, told authorities he was fueled by alcohol - not hate - after a night of drinking. He admitted to the damage and to scrawling in chalk, "Think Jesus can save you? Think again." But he said he had no motivation other than making trouble. He was charged with criminal mischief, a charge that will be dismissed if he abides by certain conditions determined by prosecutors and approved by a judge.

The intent was much clearer when skinheads threw swastika-engraved rocks through stained-glass windows at Temple Beth Israel in south Eugene in October 2002.

In that case, federal investigators were able to prove that the men responsible had conspired to intimidate the Jewish congregants, about 80 of whom were inside the building at the time of the attack. Last year, the ringleader of the group was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Eugene Police Chief Robert Lehner said it's too early to tell whether the recent nativity defacements amount to hate crimes, because police have just begun their investigation and no arrests have been made. Ultimately, it will be up to the district attorney's office or a grand jury to evaluate the evidence and decide how to charge those responsible, he said.

If found guilty of a hate crime, which Oregon law calls "intimidation," the culprits face anything from five years in prison to three years of probation, depending on their criminal history, Gardner said.

Shannon Cooper, owner of the other damaged nativity scene, said Friday that she was glad police were looking into the possibility of bias. She said kids have pulled pranks in the neighborhood before, stealing Christmas decorations or moving them all to one neighbor's yard.

This was different, she said.

"Pranksters don't just carry pig heads around in paper bags," she said.

The Cooper family replaced their baby Jesus with a swaddled doll that they tied down to prevent further thefts. And they bought a backup doll just in case the new one goes missing.

For Stahl, the incident cast a pall over the holiday and frightened his children, ages 9 and 13.

"We tried to explain to them that in other countries if you don't follow the religion you're more than persecuted," he said. "But that doesn't happen here, and that's what makes this country great. This shouldn't happen in America."

The theft prompted Stahl to remove the rest of his Christmas decorations, leaving only lights to brighten his yard for the holidays.

Both Stahl and Cooper hope publicity about the case will prompt the culprits to brag about their involvement.

"Somebody always knows something," Stahl said. "I just hope they come forward."
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Title Annotation:Crime; Police are investigating two cases in which pigs' heads replaced baby Jesus figures
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 22, 2007
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