A 19-year-old member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was being held yesterday after being charged in connection with the spray-painting of a swastika and the word "Nazis" at the synagogue in Pikesville.
Matthew Ian Saunders, whose family worships at the temple, and two other young Jewish men - Daniel Alexander Diaz, 19, and a 17-year-old who was not identified by police - were charged with two counts of destruction of property and damaging the property of a religious entity.
The charges involve spraying offensive graffiti early Sunday on a sign at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation on Park Heights Avenue and at another Pikesville institution, Beth Tfiloh Congregation High School on Old Court Road.
Saunders and Diaz were ordered held in lieu of $50,000 bail at the Baltimore County Detention Center, while the youngest of the trio was released to the custody of his parents, police said.
Cpl. Michael Hill, a Baltimore County police spokesman, said the matter was not being treated as a hate crime because "we don't know the motivation." In any event, he said, under Maryland law a person cannot be charged with committing a hate crime per se, but must be charged with carrying out an act such as damaging religious property, which is covered by the hate-crimes statute.
Another police spokesman, Bill Toohey, said the Pikesville incidents were not motivated by hate. After questioning the suspects, investigators determined that the sites were "not targeted because they were synagogues," he said. "It wasn't directed at the institution or because of hostility to that belief."
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, who introduced the hate-crimes statute in 1988, said, "You don't need to establish a religious animus to prove that someone damaged a property owned by a religious institution."
Because of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the offices at the high school and synagogue were closed yesterday and no one could be reached for comment.
That all three accused men are Jewish "makes it all the more problematic," said Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "The initial concern is that you're dealing with a hate group or a terrorist incident. Thankfully, it's not that, but this is of great concern, not only as an issue of law enforcement but it's an issue in these individuals' backgrounds."
Abramson, who spoke with the Saunders' rabbi to confirm that the family worships at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, raised the possibility that, as he put it, the young men might be "self-hating Jews."
The arrests came after a police officer remembered seeing a Dodge Neon carrying three people leave the parking lot of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation at 3 a.m. Sunday while he was responding to an unrelated matter. Later, when the vandalism report came in, detectives in Pikesville used the tag number to trace the vehicle's ownership, which led to the arrests Tuesday of the three young men.