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Black Engineer Finds a Burned Cross on Lawn : Investigation: Police are reluctant to class the Garden Grove incident in this year’s wave of hate crimes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A black aerospace engineer came home to find a burned cross on his front lawn in what police are investigating as a possible landlord-tenant dispute, authorities said Thursday.

Michael Coffey returned to his Jefferson Street home about 7:45 a.m. Wednesday and found a charred, 17-inch-tall cross embedded in his lawn, police said.

The cross was burned elsewhere and placed on Coffey’s grass, police said.

“It had already burned by then,” Police Sgt. George Jaramillo said. “But to clarify, we don’t have the cross being burned in the grass itself. What we have is a burned cross that has been posted in the grass.”

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Coffey could not be contacted for comment Thursday, but he has said in the past that he thinks that an earlier incident was racially motivated. Earlier this summer, he said, vandals spray-painted a racial epithet on his driveway, smashed one of the windows at his house and stole his 6-week-old Doberman pinscher.

However, police downplayed the racial elements of the case and warned the public not to jump to conclusions.

“We are not ruling anything out, but some of the things--such as the size of the cross--tend to undermine” a hate-crime explanation, Jaramillo said.

“While we’re looking at it with concern,” he said, “we don’t want to have the public overreact to it.”

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Jaramillo said investigators have yet to determine whether the vandalism is racially motivated, as have been dozens of other crimes reported in the county since the beginning of the year.

Jaramillo said police had been called to the Coffey residence several times because of a dispute between Coffey and a tenant.

Coffey, Jaramillo said, apparently rented out an apartment on his property.

“Apparently there had been a dispute between Mr. Coffey and this tenant,” he said.

“Whether that’s tied to this or not still remains to be seen, but that’s definitely a possibility that we’re looking at, among other things,” he said.

Meanwhile, FBI officials in Los Angeles said the agency has opened a separate investigation to determine whether the victim’s civil rights have been violated.

“In general, we investigate anything that would be or could be determined as racially motivated,” Special Agent Karen Gardner said. “Anything that fits the pattern, we take a look at it, along with the local authorities.”

Three years ago, federal agents investigated a cross-burning at the Westminster home of former Orange County NAACP President Alvin Heisser. Gary Skillman, a 24-year-old skinhead, was charged with conspiracy and violating civil rights for his role in the July, 1988, incident and sentenced to a 37-month prison term. Last year, a federal appeals court upheld the conviction and expanded Skillman’s prison term to 46 months.

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The Garden Grove incident occurred the same day that Fullerton police announced the arrest of two 17-year-old skinheads for allegedly beating a Chinese-American teen-ager unconscious in a July 7 attack.

On Thursday, two more youths were charged in that case, in which a group of about 15 youths allegedly shouted racial slurs and gave Nazi salutes before rushing the teen and two white companions.

Reported hate crimes so far this year are more than double those reported all last year in the county.

In recent weeks, for example, the word Jew was sprayed in 3-foot-high letters on the lawn of a Jewish family’s home in Rancho Santa Margarita; a white man was held on suspicion of attacking a black 12-year-old and yelling racial slurs at him, and a black man said he was verbally assaulted and knocked to the ground by three men at John Wayne Airport.


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