Four people have been arrested in connection with the painting of swastikas and other graffiti on several county churches, and two of them were also charged in the theft of two assault rifles from a Leesburg gun shop.
Erin Whitcomb, 20, and Leroy Fryer, 22, both of Leesburg, were arrested and charged this week with painting swastikas on a Leesburg area church. Whitcomb is also charged with conspiracy to deface a second church.
In addition, two Ashburn youths, both 17, were arrested Nov. 8. Each is charged with breaking and entering and grand larceny in the assault rifle thefts, and with defacing houses of worship. Police did not release their names because the suspects are juveniles.
Authorities said they have released few details about the cases because the crimes remain under investigation and an additional arrest is pending. The charging documents shed no light on a possible connection among the four defendants or their possible motives.
The string of vandalisms began in early July, when swastikas and other symbols were sprayed with black paint on the walls and windows of the Church of the Nazarene on Roxbury Hill, outside Leesburg, said Loudoun sheriff's investigator Bobbie Ochsman. Graffiti were also painted on a church van.
In early August, vandals struck the Faith Hope Evangelist Church on Gum Springs Road in the Chantilly area, police said. On Aug. 15, several road signs along Evergreen Mills Road were defaced. On Sept. 25, graffiti were found on the Second Shiloh Primitive Baptist Church, also in the Chantilly area, police said. The Worship Center Assembly of God Church on Gleedsville Road in Leesburg was targeted later that month.
Ochsman said investigators developed a "sense of urgency" about solving the rash of crimes when sheriff's investigators working with Leesburg police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms linked the cases to a Sept. 13 burglary at Loudoun Guns on Industrial Court in Leesburg.
The two assault rifles stolen from the shop were found Friday by a Sheriff's Office dive team that scoured the Goose Creek Reservoir, police said.
Both teenagers were taken to the Loudoun County Juvenile Detention Center. Whitcomb and Fryer have been released on bond.
A pastor at the Leesburg Church of the Nazarene declined to comment about the vandalism, saying he thinks publicity about the events would incite others to commit similar crimes. Officials at the other churches could not be reached.
The Rev. Stephen M. Johnson--pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Leesburg, whose church on Gleedsville Road was not among those targeted--said he thinks county residents need to be educated about hate crimes. Johnson was among about 25 people who attended a forum on hate crimes held last week in the county. The meeting was sponsored by Mainstream Loudoun, a civic group that supports religious freedom.
"I think it's very important for the public to be aware of the terribly destructive impact that bigotry, hatred and decrimination have in a community," Johnson said. "If you deal with it now, perhaps we can avoid the escalation into something far more serious: physical violence."
Mainstream Loudoun President Elaine Williamson said the group decided to learn more about hate crimes in Loudoun after learning of a national vigil on tolerance.
"I think it's really important for people to start talking about this," Williamson said. "No community can be immune from hate and prejudice. Our county is changing; it's becoming more diverse."
Sheriff's investigators said the vandalism drew sympathetic reponses from some residents. At Faith Hope Evangelist Church, an anonymous passerby painted over some of the graffiti.
At Second Shiloh, a woman left a note at church: "I was very saddened this week . . . when I saw what happened to your church. Yesterday our congregation all prayed that you would keep faith despite being the victim of a horrible hate crime. If there is anything I could do to help you, our family would be more than happy to help paint or clean or whatever."