Not guilty plea for alleged church vandal

GLENDALE— A 23-year-old Glendale man who allegedly used a sledgehammer to smash a religious monument outside St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church pleaded not guilty Thursday to felony vandalism, officials said.

Victor Petrescu appeared in a Los Angeles County Superior Court in Glendale to answer to a list of charges that included felony vandalism of religious property — with an enhancement charge for damages exceeding more than $50,000 — a misdemeanor count of possessing a sledgehammer with the intent to commit vandalism and graffiti, and having a suspended and revoked driver's license, Glendale Police Sgt. Tom Lorenz said.

Petrescu remained in custody in lieu of $160,000 bail.

Glendale police had presented the case as a possible hate crime, but a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said prosecutors settled with the felony vandalism charges.

"After reviewing the evidence, we felt that these were the appropriate charges," spokeswoman Shiara Dávila-Morales said.

If additional evidence is presented in the future, prosecutors may reevaluate the charges, she added.

Glendale Police Chief Ron De Pompa said that if investigators uncovered additional evidence of a hate-motivated crime,

"we will absolutely be requesting the district attorney to file those charges and amend appropriately."

Petrescu was arrested Wednesday after two Glendale police detectives spotted him allegedly hammering into the church's monument on the 500 block of South Central Avenue, Lorenz said.

The detectives pulled into the church's parking lot and identified themselves to Petrescu, who made his way to a fence while carrying the sledgehammer, Lorenz said.

Petrescu, who police said is a local transient, was apprehended after a brief chase.

Church officials estimated the damage to the monument at $80,000.

In two years of run-ins with police, Petrescu has exhibited "bizarre behavior," but no incidents were related to crimes against a church or ethnicity, Lorenz said. Petrescu also has a history of drug use, he added.

Representatives for the church deferred to authorities in evaluating the case.

"We commend the work of the Glendale police and, fortunately enough, they were there and were able to stop this assault in a very quick way, but we don't want to be in the position of condemning anyone," said Levon Kirakosian, a spokesman for the La Crescenta-based Western Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America. "We understand that there is a lot of fact that need to be discovered."

If in the course of the investigation evidence emerges of a possible hate crime, Garo Ghazarian, vice chairman of the Armenian Bar Assn., said he would urge county prosecutors to amend the charges accordingly.

"We don't want to say this is a crime directed toward an Armenian church because it happens to be an Armenian church," he said. "But at the same token, we don't want any early determinations of precluding any culpability by virtue of the potential mental health issue this male may or may not have suffered."

The cross monument, which was donated to the church in 2001, sustained heavy damage to its carvings, officials said.

The sacred monument, created from rare volcanic rock and shipped from Armenia, commemorates the day 1,700 years ago that Armenians adopted Christianity, church officials said.

The monument also represents the Armenian Genocide, Kirakosian said.

"It was an assault on something that symbolically is a representation of the Armenian people and its history, and for that reason we're are shocked and we can only believe this man must have been disturbed," he said.

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