A woman was in custody Wednesday in connection with vandalism at Buddhist temples in Orange County, and officials appealed to the public to report more “possible hate crimes” to help them identify other potential suspects.
The vandalism — slashed fingers, chopped hands and other missing parts — has caused at least $60,000 in damage in the last two weeks, according to authorities. And that’s in addition to the theft of donation boxes, floral arrangements and dozens of items of religious decor.
Five temples in Santa Ana have been vandalized, along with two houses of worship in Garden Grove.
The arrest was announced at a news conference at Bao Quang Temple in Santa Ana on Wednesday afternoon, but few details — including the suspect’s name — were released.
“The question is, is this being done by an isolated individual or is it coordinated by other groups?” asked Andrew Do, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. He called on elected officials in his district to unite in finding those responsible “for this terrible, terrible act.”
“The statues symbolize the spiritual value that we have as a community. To have them be destroyed in such a systematic manner does great harm to our spirit,” he said.
At the temple, Do stood flanked by Miguel Pulido, mayor of Santa Ana; David Valentin, the city’s police chief; and Tony Rackauckas, Orange County district attorney. All of them pledged their support to find the vandals, with Do saying that “the sooner that crimes are reported, the fresher the evidence and the greater the ability to canvass neighborhoods.”
“This is so, so, so wrong,” said Pulido, citing Santa Ana’s diversity. “This is a gorgeous temple, and to think that someone wants to deface it this way hurts us in our hearts.”
The vandalism began Aug. 8, with the hammering of five statues at Huong Tich Temple along 5th Street in Santa Ana, where hundreds of worshipers stream onto the grounds each week. Six days later, someone struck three more statues, slicing off their marble fingers. And just Tuesday, an additional four statues imported from Vietnam were vandalized.
Surveillance video showed a woman walking into the temple’s back parking lot, carrying a bag and possibly holding a hammer. Valentin said police arrested the woman after the third attack, and, while not naming her, said she was convicted for similar vandalism at temples in 2014 and 2015.
The woman was previously charged with hate crimes and served up to two years in county jail, along with finishing a mental health treatment program, Rackauckas said. He described the recent incidents as an attack on “our core values” and urged members of the immigrant community to contact law enforcement.
“Often times, these crimes are committed but not being reported. They must be,” he said, adding that the latest string of crimes “looks like a hate crime, but we need to review it before deciding on the strategy.”
The houses of worship in Santa Ana where theft and vandalism occurred include Pho Da Temple, Truc Lam Yen Tu Temple and To Dinh Minh Dang Quang. The two locations in Garden Grove were the Lien Hoa Temple and Quan Am Temple.
“It does not matter what religion you are from or if you believe in a God or multiple gods. At a temple, everyone is welcomed to learn about peace — peace in the mind and in society being our goal. This shouldn’t be happening,” said Kim Hoang, a Garden Grove Buddhist who attends services at Truc Lam Yen Tu Temple with her husband. “Who would want to bring harm to a place of tranquility?”
Cynthia Le of Santa Ana, a regular at the Bao Quang Temple, said, “When you go to temple, you expect respect. Once, I had a homeless person follow me, and I didn’t know whether to feel scared or to feel sorry for him. I just want us all to feel safe in the place where we go to pray for a serene life.”