Tuolumne County Facilities Management worker Brett Wilson hunched over a pressure-washed patch of brick outside of the University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisory office in downtown Sonora on Tuesday morning.
A pentacle — a five-pointed pentagram surrounded by a circle — was spray-painted there earlier, in white onto the brick.
“We’re the ones that have to go out and handle all these jobs, from the vandals to the homeless,” said Wilson, 49. “But there’s a difference between artful graffiti and destructive graffiti.”
About a month ago, Wilson was responsible for cleaning red gang-inspired spray-paint graffiti off the window of the Tuolumne County Superior Court on North Washington Street, which, like the brick courtyard, is county property.
Wilson and a groundskeeper used a pressure washer and a mechanical wire grinder to remove the paint, which was sucked into the pores of the brick. The blank patch, surrounded by a ring of dark debris, was still streaked with waves of white residue while Wilson took a morning break.
“To me, this is destruction. I don’t believe in what the symbol was, but it does instill fear in other people,” Wilson said.
Pentacles were found in two other locations in downtown Sonora as of Tuesday morning, on the ground outside of the Sunday school for the First Church of Christ, Scientist on North Washington Street and on the stone wall along the stairs at Coffill Park.
Sonora Chief of Police Turu VanderWiel said Tuesday a suspect had not yet been identified. And their motivation for spray painting a commonly misunderstood symbol — rife with supernatural and demonic connotations — remained unknown, too.
What a pentagram actually represents was often ambiguous and open to theological interpretation, said Henry Ansgar Kelly, 84, a distinguished research professor of English at UCLA and one of the foremost world experts on Satan.
“It’s often used for good purposes as well as bad,” Kelly said. “With all things, a symbol can be perverted. It would just depend on who the perpetrator was reading.”
The pentacle is commonly associated with the lore of paganism, witchcraft and the occult as a protective talisman against evil spirits.
Kelly said the icon was known to be used in conjuring rituals and represented a place of safety because it matched the five points of the human body. But the invocation of the pentagram as a sacred religious or literary symbol stretched back for centuries, he said.
Kelly said he has seen the icon on a first-century synagogue in Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee Israel, interspersed with the Star of David. In early Christianity, the pentagram could also represent the five wounds ascribed to Christ at the crucifixion. In the 14th-century English epic poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a pentagram (described in the text as a pentangle) adorns Gawain’s shield as a reference to a symbol associated with the seal of King Solomon.
When it showed up in downtown Sonora, the symbol could just as easily be from a kid employing ages-old Christian symbolism as a rogue Aleister Crowley acolyte, he said.
“What it would mean as a graffiti, I don't know what the motivation of the perpetrator would be,” Kelly said. “At Capernaum, it’s very early to know of any kind of symbolism because these things build up over the ages.”
Though the two pentacles on the ground can be viewed from any angle around the edges, the icon at Coffill Park is undoubtedly inverted.
Kevin Lewis, an associate professor of Theology & Law at Biola University in La Mirada, said the inverted pentacle could represent many different things, depending on the neo-pagan, witch or wiccan who was interpreting it.
“The pentacle has many meanings, but the most common is to symbolize harnessing or controlling the five elements, earth, air, fire, water, and spirit. An inverted pentacle can mean one does it with malice, which some practitioners refer to as the Left-Handed-Path,” he said.
Lewis said most practitioners of religions which utilize the symbol would likely denounce its use as vandalism.
“It was likely an angry loner who is taking out his or her anger on the church,” Lewis said.
The inverted symbol is also associated with the Church of Satan — formed in 1966 in San Francisco — as the “Sigil of Baphomet,” which features the head of a goat inside of the encircled pentagram and surrounded by five Hebrew letters.
A volunteer and church member with the First Church of Christ, Scientist, said she reached out to a board member, who declined to comment on the graffiti.
She said the church has been at the location on North Washington Street since 1928 and she was not aware of any other vandalism to the property.
“We’re not following or aware of any specific kind of activity like that locally for us to draw any connections to. We don't know if there’s a connection with the building it happened to be in front of or if it's random. Hopefully as this evolves and if we get a suspect, we can figure this one out,” VanderWiel said.
Officers are seeking leads or surveillance footage, he said.
It is unknown when the vandalism occurred.
The first report of the graffiti came at 10:25 a.m. on Monday morning at the location outside of the UCCE. The pentacle outside of the church was reported at about 8 a.m. Tuesday and the Coffill Park graffiti was reported a few hours later.
VanderWiel said he would be making an assumption if he said pentagrams had never been used as graffiti in Sonora, but he was most concerned about a chronic issue of vandals using the downtown as a canvas.
“I can’t speculate on why someone's painting pentagrams around town. I don't know what the motive would be for that,” he said. “I don't believe [the current and past graffiti] are connected in any way other that they both show a great deal of disrespect for their community.”
VanderWiel said the spate of graffiti could be curbed if residents could report potentially suspicious activity to law enforcement at the immediate time they observe it.
Obviously these people do this when the eyes of law enforcement and authorities are not around,” he said. “If you see something, say something. Call it in and let us check it out. If it is something that turns out to be a crime in progress, it allows us to put a stop to it before it gets out of control.”
Sgt. Andrea Benson with the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office said she was not aware of any recent reports involving pentagram vandalism or any public rituals associated with the occult.