Vandals leave Charleston reference at Florida church, prompt hate crime probe

Because the vandals referenced Charleston, the graffiti is being investigated as a hate crime, police say.

Story highlights

  • In the latest attack, vandals throw eggs inside, deface property and set off fire extinguishers
  • Swastikas and a noose have been scrawled on wall, van in past attacks on same Florida church

(CNN)Ominous words left behind by vandals who broke into a predominantly black church in Central Florida this week are striking a nerve in the community and drawing the attention of the FBI.

It's the third time in five months the New Shiloh Christian Center in Melbourne, Florida, has been targeted by vandals. Past acts include graffiti with swastikas, cryptic messages and a spray-painted noose on a church van.
In the latest incident Sunday, a pickup truck that had been left in a church garage with its keys inside was moved to a flooded loading dock, and the words "SS Charleston 2" -- perhaps a reference to a ship -- were scrawled on the truck's fender, said Cmdr. Dan Lynch of the Melbourne Police Department.
    Because of the Charleston reference, police are investigating this as a potential hate crime, added Deputy Chief Vincent Pryce.
    Charleston, South Carolina, is where a racially motivated attack took the lives of nine black church parishioners last month. Since the fatal shootings, a number of black churches across the South have gone up in flames, and some of the incidents are being investigated as hate crimes.
    "We are going to keep pushing forward," New Shiloh bishop Jacquelyn Gordon said, adding that she believes this is a scare tactic to unnerve her congregants.
    In March, someone spray-painted a noose on the church's van.
    Gordon recalled racial strife in the church's neighborhood, but that was 25 to 30 years ago, she said. She finds it hard to believe the attitudes have not changed in this town of 78,000 about an hour's drive southeast of Orlando. According to the most recent census in 2010, more than 80% of the city's residents are white, and blacks make up around 10% of the population.
    In February, the church shed was intentionally set on fire, with swastikas drawn on the walls. A month later, at the church's second location, two church vans were spray-painted with a message that read, "What is the $ of your soul?" alongside a noose and other graffiti.
    In this most recent act Sunday, the vandals broke into the church, threw eggs inside, defaced property and set off fire extinguishers, police said. Authorities were able to get footprints from the dust left by residue from the fire extinguisher, which led them to believe there were multiple suspects.
    Someone left swastikas on a church wall after setting a shed on fire in February.
    Police are looking to gather surveillance video of the area. Gordon said the church did not have cameras covering the entire 125,000-square-foot facility. The church's security alarm malfunctioned and did not go off, police said.
    The church is considering having security personnel patrol the premises 24-7, Gordon said.
    Every time the church tries to rebuild, Gordon said, there is another setback. The church has not estimated the amount of damage from the most recent incident.
    Police are trying to determine if the acts of vandalism are related. Previously, the crimes committed in February and March were deemed criminal mischief and only the latest incident is being investigated as a potential hate crime.
    The Melbourne Police Department is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the capture of those responsible.
    Melbourne police are meeting with the FBI on Thursday for assistance in the investigation, Lynch said.