County police have charged three teen-agers with ransacking a Mount Airy church, which was defaced with graffiti and blood Sunday night while the youths were apparently on a drinking binge.
The three teens, who are white, also are suspected of vandalizing the Simpson United Methodist Church -- whose 50 members are predominantly black -- ontwo other occasions, prompting police to question whether the incidents were racially motivated.
"You can see in the destruction that this shows pure hatred for the church and, in particular, black folks," said the Rev. Jane W. Jenkins, who described the latest vandalism as the worst of the three incidents. "Blood is everywhere. It's just awful."
In interviews, the teens told detectives that the Hardy Road church was just a "party place," said Detective John A. Newnan.
"They said they had no other place to go locally," Newnan said. "Unless there was some underlying cause they're not telling us about, we have no reason to believe itwas racial or satanic."
However, the county Human Rights Office has been notified, and as standard procedure, the incident is being investigated as a possible racial, religious or ethnic crime.
Churchmembers arrived Monday morning to find beer cans and wine cooler bottles strewn about and walls painted with comments, such as, "Motley Crue was here" and "I love you?" Windows were kicked in, furniture wassmashed and a cross was torn from the wall.
Blood, believed to have come from one teen who intentionally cut himself, was found on thealtar and in several other areas of the church.
Police said the vandals set fire to a Bible and burned candles on the pews. Propane gas was released from the church stove, apparently in an attempt to burn down the building, police said.
The teen-agers also stole a microwave oven, an amplifier and several microphones, with a combined value of about $800, police said.
The three suspects, David Crigger, 19, of Gaithersburg, and two Mount Airy residents, a 16-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl, told police that the vandalism occurred after"they just got drunk and out of control," said Newnan.
Newnan said the youths have been charged with one count of attempted arson and three counts each of malicious destruction of property and breaking and entering.
The teen-agers were arrested at their homes Monday evening after police received a tip from a resident who reported seeingseveral youths drinking in town, police said.
Each also admitted to the other two incidents of church vandalism, which occurred last Thursday and on June 22, police said.
Crigger is being held on $75,000 bond at the Howard County Detention Center. The two other teens were released to their parents.
Jenkins, who has been the pastor ofSimpson's for four years, said church members spent more than 80 hours cleaning up the damage from the first two incidents. The latest probably will cost the church more than $2,000 in repairs, she said.
About 20 teen-agers from the county police explorer scouts, a "big brother" program sponsored by police agencies, have offered to assist in cleaning up the church.
The recent problems are unique in the church's 95-year history, Jenkins said.
"It's very disappointing, especially since it was young people who did this," she said. "It alarms me to think they are capable of this kind of hatred."
In the past, Jenkins said, the church has tried to plan church and community activities for area youths. Part of the church's purpose was to take the youngsters' minds off alcohol and to educate them about the dangers of drug abuse, she said.
Earlier this month, a group of Mount Airy residents lost their chance to open a teen center in town when a shopping center refused to lease part of its space to the project, citing cost concerns.
The Mount Airy Town Council passed a public drinking law Aug. 12 that prohibits people from consuming alcohol on public property. The law was motivated by concerns about drinking in town parks.