D.C. neighborhood enraged over vandalism


Multiple vehicles parked in the Cathedral Heights neighborhood of Northwest Washington were damaged, including this one vandalized with a swastika. (Obtained by The Washington Post)
July 20, 2013

It started two days before the new year, when people living along secluded Bellevue Terrace in Northwest Washington awoke to find as many as 20 cars scratched or gouged — three of them with swastikas.

Another attack came in May, when five cars were damaged, and another a few weeks after that. Residents of Cathedral Heights felt terrorized, clamoring for more police and even thinking about moving as repair bills collectively climbed into the six figures and insurance companies threatened to cancel policies on luxury vehicles.

Even with the arrest of a young man, residents remain dissatisfied. The suspect, the son of a prominent Washington journalist, has not been charged with the more sinister acts, and the neighborhood remains on edge about the unsolved cases — and concerned that influence and money will take precedence over justice.

Lance Williams’s Audi was carved bumper to bumper in May. Williams, 51, who has lived in the neighborhood for four years, said residents are watching legal developments carefully. “A lot of people are concerned with what happens next,” he said.

Williams said attacks increased even as police poured officers into the neighborhood. “There was a certain maliciousness about it that made it feel more than vandalism,” he said. “I’ve had my car keyed before, but it was a little scratch. This scratched the hood, both fenders and the trunk. The cuts were down to the metal and really long.”

The attacks were concentrated on two streets near Washington National Cathedral that residents describe as being so tucked away that veteran cabdrivers sometimes can’t find.

In one instance, a German car was defaced with a swastika while nearby Swedish cars were untouched; in another, two German cars were hit, and a swastika was found on a Cadillac.

The swastikas and an apparent preference for German models added a frightening streak to what otherwise seemed liked run-of-the-mill vandalism — side mirrors ripped off, a planter thrown through the back of a Corvette. Some residents felt marked as anti-Semitic because of the car they owned.

Last week, after an undercover sting operation, authorities arrested Louis Levine Arenstein, 23, of Northwest Washington. He faces one charge of felony destruction of property in connection with backing over a motorcycle the night police were watching. No charges have been filed in the other vandalism cases.

Arenstein is the son of Howard Arenstein, the Washington bureau manager and correspondent for CBS Radio News, an award-winning veteran journalist and foreign correspondent. The elder Arenstein had his own scrape with the law in 2010, when D.C. police arrested him and his wife on marijuana charges. Those were dismissed after a government witness did not show up at a hearing.

In the vandalism case, Louis Arenstein has been released pending a preliminary hearing scheduled for July 31.

Court documents say the arrest occurred after an undercover officer staked out Bellevue Terrace on June 6 and saw a black vehicle pull slowly up to a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, stopping only when its bumper was touching the frame. The car then accelerated into the cycle, pushing it from the street to the curb, the officer said in the charging document, which also says that the driver “changed his direction and drove directly” at the officer to make an escape.

Police said they didn’t get a plate number but recovered a broken lens cover from a fog light. Police later saw a vehicle matching the description and missing its lens cover. The car, which police said is owned by Louis Arenstein’s sister, was parked behind a house on Garfield Street that police listed as the suspect’s home. The officer identified Arenstein from a photo lineup, according to court papers.

Louis Arenstein’s attorney, Steven D. Kupferberg, said the court documents supporting the arrest do not mention other cases or swastikas.

“We don’t know anything about the other allegations,” Kupferberg said. “My client is not charged with tagging anything. It seems to me there are two different things going on here.”

Kupferberg also said that he would question the identification of his client and that he wants more information on how police found the vehicle. He said he fears that Arenstein is being subjected to heightened attention because of his father’s prominence.

Authorities have been cautious in both private and public statements to avoid connecting the vandalism incidents or attributing them to a single person. In e-mail exchanges with a D.C. Council member, police Cmdr. Michael E. Reese, head of the 2nd District station, said the other vandalism cases remain open. Some residents have said that they have seen the vandal at work and that he sped off in a getaway car driven by someone else.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said Reese told her that detectives had their “eyes on somebody” with ties to the neighborhood. But, Cheh said Reese told her, “we have to catch him red-handed.” The council member, a former prosecutor, said police “explained that proving those other cases may be difficult.”

One resident whose BMW was scratched three times with damage exceeding $8,000 said he now parks three blocks away and retrieves the car each morning for his wife. “We got to the point where we couldn’t even park in front of our own house,” said the man, who did not want to be identified for safety reasons.

He said his insurance company considered each attack separately, each with its own deductible. “I haven’t had it fixed at all,” the man said. “Not until this thing is solved.”

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