More than 50 people showed up Friday morning to clean up and paint over spray-painted graffiti, racial slurs, curse words and insults discovered earlier this week at a popular barbecue-picnic spot outside the town of Tuolumne, including three of the five individuals who said they took part in the vandalism.
“We weren’t thinking when we did it,” said one of the boys, who is 15 years old and a resident of Sonora. “We felt really bad. We wanted to help clean up the mess we made.”
“We thought it was just a place in the middle of nowhere,” said his 16-year-old brother, a Sonora resident, who also contacted the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday to turn himself in. “We didn’t know it meant so much to so many people.”
“We saw it blow up on Facebook and TV news and we felt bad for what we did,” said a third boy, a 16-year-old resident of Jamestown. “It was wrong.”
The Jamestown boy’s mother and stepfather came down to help supervise the cleanup at Riverside Day-Use Area on the North Fork Tuolumne River. The stepfather said the boys were scared before they came to the cleanup because they feared they would get jumped and beat up by people who are angry about the graffiti, vandalism and defacement of a public community recreation area where so many families go.
“I told them, ‘No, they’re going to be mad, but they’re not going to beat you up,’” the stepfather said.
One of the boys watched a young mixed-race girl paint over a racial slur. When he was asked how he felt about it, he looked down at the ground and muttered and indicated it made him feel bad watching somebody else cover up hurtful words.
The Union Democrat does not name minors in most cases, and is not naming the boys involved in the vandalism at this point.
Damage estimated $1,500 to $2,000
Forest Service workers discovered the graffiti Monday morning, said Diana Fredlund with the Stanislaus National Forest.
Someone reported it to the Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday and a deputy went out there on Wednesday morning. Later that day, a graffiti storm of white spray-painted words and numbers was still splattered on public picnic tables, a stand-up grill, a metal bear-proof recycling and trash container, and paved walkways. Wanton defacement of a public recreation area popular with many families sparked outrage among Tuolumne County residents and visitors alike.
Sgt. Andrea Benson with the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office said Friday five juveniles and their parents came to the Sheriff’s Office and the Juvenile Detention Center on Thursday night, to talk with law enforcement about the juveniles’ involvement in the vandalism at Riverside Day-Use Area.
Deputies took their statements and forwarded the information to federal Forest Service law enforcement. In addition to the five juveniles, one adult has been identified as a possible suspect in the vandalism.
Kris Proctor, a Forest Service law enforcement officer, said Friday at Riverside Day-Use Area the juveniles are all teens and the adult suspect is around 21 years old.
“Three of them decided to come today to try to right their wrong,” Proctor said. “I’ll be citing three of them today. There’ll be more paperwork because it involves restitution.”
All the suspects are locals, from Tuolumne, Sonora and Soulsbyville, Proctor said. The citations Proctor intended to write are going to be federal misdemeanors with a maximum penalty of $1,500 to $2,000 for the costs of repairing the damage they did, including labor and materials.
“The work they’re putting in today may help reduce the amount of restitution they’ll be expected to pay,” Proctor said. “In part because they’re stepping up and trying to do the right thing to right their wrong.”
Ronda Hollandsworth, a Forest Service off-highway vehicle and law enforcement officer with Mi-Wuk Ranger District, told volunteers she was grateful to see the turnout of volunteers about 9:30 a.m. at Riverside Day-Use Area.
She said graffiti vandalism is common in the 1,400-square-mile Stanislaus National Forest.
“It’s not just here, it’s all over the forest,” Hollandsworth told volunteers. “Some places are even worse than this. So this isn’t really a shocker for us but it’s nice to see you all out here. This is awesome, thank you. I wasn’t expecting this great turnout.”
Later, Hollandsworth said tagging and graffiti creates fear and discourages people from going to places they otherwise would visit. Some people see tagging or hear about it about a particular place and then they don’t want to go any more. That reduces visitors and user-traffic, and it opens up more opportunities for taggers, vandals, drug-users and partiers.
“People are afraid of that,” Hollandsworth said. “Fear creates opportunities for the riff-raff. But look around, it’s beautiful here. I don’t want people to be afraid of coming down here.”
All ages of people came out Friday morning, including Carmi Ennis and her 7-year-old daughter, Brooke, who came from Mi-Wuk Village.
“We want to help our Earth,” Brooke said. “We don’t want it to be dirty.”
Ennis said she knows people are learning about Earth Day and she thought Friday’s cleanup at Riverside Day-Use Area would be a good opportunity for Brooke to learn more about taking care of the planet.
Sonora resident Ashley Foye brought her daughters Alice, age 10 months, and Alexandria, 9 years old, and her son Elijah, 12. Alexandria said they were trying to help clean up and help the community.
Gaila Ward, 57, a resident of Tuolumne, said she graduated from Columbia College with degrees in natural resource management and environmental science, so it broke her heart when she saw video of the graffiti at Riverside Day-Use Area earlier this week.
“I wanted to do something,” Ward said. “I talked to the Forest Service and let them know people wanted to help out here.”
Angela Bell, another resident of Tuolumne, said she was pleased to see so many people volunteer. One of the people who was named and insulted and threatened in the graffiti said he and the other named target planned to come and help clean up and cover up the vandalism.
“I'm hoping the ones who did it realize how wrong it is, and they don’t do it again,” Bell said. “This is such a peaceful, fun place, everyone in the community loves it here. It was heart-breaking to see it vandalized.”
Debi Grahek of Soulsbyville said she’s glad the boys who confessed turned themselves in, and she’s happy three of boys came out to help clean up their mess. Grahek said she raised three children, two boys and a girl, as a single parent during the 1980s and 1990s, and she’d call the Sheriff’s Office whenever she had trouble with her boys.
Mike Austin, 26, and his girlfriend, Selena Bettner, 23, both of Tuolumne, helped publicize the graffiti vandalism at Riverside Day-Use Area earlier this week when they made a video and put it up on social media.
“I’m just glad everyone came together,” Bettner said.
“We’re happy the whole community turned out,” Austin said. “And how quickly we got most of it cleaned up. It took like 90 minutes to clean up most of it.”
The cleanup started about 9:30 a.m. and by 11 a.m. more than 95 percent of the graffiti was painted over. A handful of volunteers remained to await delivery or more black-colored sealant to cover up the last remaining curse words on a paved walkway.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.