Moments before D.C. police found Jiamei Tian hiding in a bathroom stall at Washington National Cathedral, a family of tourists had spotted her in a back pew of the Children’s Chapel guarding two bags and muttering softly in a foreign language.
Tian’s unsettling behavior continued Tuesday, when the 58-year-old Chinese national made her first appearance in D.C. Superior Court to face charges in connection with a string of vandalism in which churches and tourist attractions across the city were spattered with green paint.
Tian refused to cooperate with the D.C. police department’s Asian Liaison Unit, according to officials at her court appearance. She wouldn’t say where she stayed in the District. She told police that she had lived in Los Angeles, but prosecutors said they could find no evidence of that. She speaks little or no English. Her visa to visit the United States expired three days ago.
As authorities investigate crimes that marred the Lincoln Memorial, a statue of the Smithsonian’s first secretary and sanctuaries in two churches — one with a toxic mixture of paint, urine and feces — it may be as challenging to understand who Tian is as it will be to determine a motive for the vandalism. D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said Tuesday that the suspect may have “mental health issues.”
D.C. Magistrate Judge Lori Parker ordered Tian to remain in jail until her next hearing Friday; so far, she faces a single charge of defacing property for that incident at the National Cathedral, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
Tian appeared in court in shackles and wearing a white jail jumpsuit. She was accompanied by a Mandarin interpreter and a female marshal, who at one point pulled her backward when she became agitated while speaking.
“She’s a danger to the community,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Chambers told the court, because of “numerous attacks on treasured landmarks.”
Tian’s public defender, Nancy Glass, described her as a “tourist in this country.” But the prosecutor shot back that her purpose in the District was to “deface landmarks.”
Lanier, during her monthly segment on NewsChannel 8, made the most definitive remarks yet linking the crimes, which occurred at the Lincoln Memorial, the statue of Joseph Henry on the Mall, the statue of Martin Luther at Thomas Circle and the organ at the adjacent Luther Place Memorial Church, and in two chapels at National Cathedral.
Damage estimates are still coming in: $3,000 in one cathedral chapel and $15,000 in another — with tricky work to repair a paint-splattered reredos, or altarpiece, covered with gold leaf. According to court documents, the gold leaf must be removed to make the repair, but that could cause additional damage.
Lanier said D.C. police and U.S. Park Police are “looking at this as possibly being linked. They certainly seem to be.”
While the judge said Tian had been in the District only two days, some of the vandalism may have occurred before the weekend, and she reportedly was approached by homeless advocates over the winter. Even her name became a source of confusion. District police released two different spellings after her arrest Monday. Prosecutors offered a third version in court documents Tuesday, but it was later determined that the police’s second spelling matches her Chinese passport.
A homeless advocate whose staff has met her described her as secretive and a zealous guardian of her identity. For a time, she reportedly slept on a bench in a small park two blocks from the White House, keeping her belongings in a laundry bag, though that too could not be confirmed.
Paula Vander Stelt was visiting the National Cathedral on Monday afternoon with her husband and three children, having just come from touring the Lincoln Memorial, where they saw the green paint and were assured by their guide that a suspect would soon be caught.
Stelt, who is visiting from Idaho, said she saw Tian, wearing a hat, go into the Children’s Chapel and sit near her bags, “mumbling something. We thought she was acting peculiar but we didn’t know what was going on.”
After about 10 minutes, an usher told people to leave, including Tian. Stelt said she snapped a few quick pictures with her iPhone, but didn’t realize until she got back to her hotel that she had captured some of the green paint on camera. At the time, she had no idea of the vandalism. Police cleared the church but said Tian went to the basement and hid in a bathroom next to the Bethlehem Chapel, which had also been damaged with paint.
Police said in court documents they found Tian hiding in a stall of the women’s bathroom, with green paint on her shoes and a can of green paint in a nearby trash can, covered with a sock. She was also holding a soda can full of green paint.
The first incident might have occurred before the Lincoln Memorial was targeted early Friday. The administrator of the Luther Place Memorial Church, on Thomas Circle, said staff found paint on the statue outside last Wednesday, but dismissed it as a prank.
Police said in court documents that a witness identified Tian as being in the Thomas Circle church Sunday. Parish administrator Jack Reiffer said Tian attended morning services, after which the pastor and congregants gathered in a side room for coffee. A few hours later, Reiffer said green paint and feces were found on the organ.
“She’s somebody we know,” Reiffer said. “She’s homeless, but it’s somebody we recognized.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.