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Anger, shock over cross burning in Calif community

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The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 23, 2011; 3:16 AM

LOS ANGELES -- Anger and shock have penetrated a prosperous, mostly white Central California community where an 11-foot cross was stolen from a church and set on fire next to the home of a black family.

"I was horrified," said the Rev. Stephanie Raphael, president of the San Luis Obispo Ministerial Association. "We live in a paradise, and I think the first thought was, this can't really be real."

Police assigned extra patrols to the neighborhood in Arroyo Grande - a city that hasn't seen a hate crime in nearly a decade - and rewards were offered for information leading to an arrest.

The cross was stolen from a garden at Saint John's Lutheran Church weeks ago and set ablaze Friday in a lot behind the house where the family lived, police Cmdr. John Hough said.

A 19-year-old woman saw the flaming cross from her bedroom window. Officers doused burning pieces of wood with a garden hose.

A telephone call to the house was not answered Tuesday.

Police declined to release the names of the family because the incident was considered a hate crime - the first since 2002 in the city of 17,000 in mostly rural San Luis Obispo County, a region of vast farms, picturesque towns and a state university campus.

More than 30 clergy members signed a letter to the editor of the San Luis Obispo Tribune urging that the crime be taken seriously.

"Any kind of hate crime is not a joke, it's not a prank," Raphael told The Associated Press. "It's designed to intimidate and frighten. We live in a beautiful area, but it's only beautiful if every single person feels safe conducting their lives and living here."

Dean Limbo, 54, who attends the church from which the cross was stolen, said the incident has scarred the community.

"It was surreal," she said. "The peace and the love in this community, you never would have thought it. It was just horrific, it really was, this poor family terrorized."

FBI agents and investigators from the county and the state Department of Justice were involved in the arson and hate-crime probe. Police said $3,500 in rewards were offered.

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© 2011 The Associated Press

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