December 12, 2019

Jewish student in County targeted > 2 Westfield teens charged in incident

PRESQUE ISLE — For the second time in less than a year, threats have been sprawled on a Presque Isle building against local members of the Jewish faith.

The latest incident, discovered earlier this week, was directed at a local Jewish high school student.

The alleged crime includes an assault with a knife and a threat to burn the student painted on the outside of a school building. The case has been referred to the Attorney General’s Office for investigation as a hate crime, police said Thursday.

Last year, swastikas and the words “burn Jews” were drawn on the synagogue of the Aroostook Hebrew Community in Presque Isle. Two juveniles face charges of criminal mischief for the act. They also face civil charges from the Attorney General’s Office.

In the latest event, the Jewish student’s name was written on the outside wall of Cunningham Elementary School in Presque Isle and the student was identified as a Jew.

“Let’s burn em,” the threat also said, according to Presque Isle police Detective James Nelson.

The defacement also included a Nazi swastika and a satanic star, which is a star with a circle around it, Nelson said.

Two 15-year-old males from Westfield have been charged with criminal mischief in the incident. One of the suspects also has been charged with aggravated assault, a felony, in connection with the knifing of the student a few weeks ago, Nelson said.

That suspect, who had been on probation at the time, has been sent to the Maine Youth Center in South Portland as he waits for a court appearance, according to the detective. The other suspect is being dealt with locally through the juvenile system.

In addition, they have been suspended from Presque Isle High School, along with two other juveniles who were accused of harassing the student. The two other juveniles probably won’t be charged by police, Nelson said.

Efforts to reach SAD 1 Superintendent Gehrig Johnson and high school Principal Frank Keenan were unsuccessful Thursday.

Steve Wessler, hate crime investigator at the Attorney General’s Office, did not return phone calls Thursday.

According to Nelson, the graffiti were discovered Monday on the outside of the elementary school. Through his investigation, Nelson determined that the alleged harassment has been ongoing since last December.

In addition, the Jewish student was cut with a knife several weeks ago over a weekend while some students were playing basketball on the elementary school grounds. Nelson said the cut was superficial.

Officials couldn’t say Thursday whether the latest event was an act of an organized group or a trend in northern Maine.

It may be that there is more reporting of such acts, Nelson said. The County’s largest city also has become home to more minorities in recent years, the detective observed.

“I don’t know,” said Carrie Linthicum, assistant district attorney in Presque Isle, regarding whether the behavior is part of a trend. “We’ve have never heard anything like this before. We don’t have any information that anything [organized] is going on.”

Ray Gribitz, spiritual leader of the Aroostook Hebrew Community, a local congregation, said the community has to start dealing with this issue.

“This stuff is serious,” he said.

Gribitz continues to be involved in the investigation and prosecution of the two teen-agers who allegedly defaced the Presque Isle synagogue. To suggest that these two juveniles were not aware what they were doing, as earlier mentioned by investigators, is to “legitimize” the act, he said.

“We, as a community, have to seriously deal with what children are being taught and told,” Gribitz said.

If a suggestion comes from a pulpit, either in a synagogue or a church, that one group is good and another is bad, it doesn’t take much to upset the balance in children, Gribitz said.

“Somehow we can’t fold in the face of this,” said the spiritual leader, adding that he planned to testify at hearings for the two charged in the synagogue’s defacement.

Those two teen-agers are scheduled to appear next month in Maine District Court in Presque Isle on the criminal charges and in Aroostook County Superior Court in Caribou on the attorney general’s civil complaint.

Nelson said that he plans to recommend to the school officials that representatives of the attorney general come to the district to present a program on hate crimes and how to spot potential trouble.

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