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Ray Nelson wipes off graffiti from his 1979 Chevrolet truck on the corner of Pier Avenue and 18th Street on Monday morning. Several cars were hit by vandals, who are believed to be from a Venice gang, police said. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SUNSET PARK — Residents of a quiet block here were shocked Monday morning to discover 11 vehicles and several fences and signs covered with graffiti that police said was likely the work of a Venice gang.

The vandals apparently targeted the 1700 block of Pier Avenue, leaving police and residents of the normally peaceful neighborhood confused about a possible motive.

The vandals burglarized one car and attempted to burglarize another during the incident, which occurred late Sunday night or early Monday, police said. There were no witnesses to the crimes and no one has been arrested.

“It’s the first time anything like this has happened around here,” said Daren Hiltunen, who on Monday was trying to paint over the name of a gang that had been scrawled on his property’s fence.

“If it’s gang related it’s stupid because nobody in this neighborhood or street is in a gang,” said a woman who lives on Pier Avenue and who asked not to be named because her property was vandalized.

Another resident, who also asked to remain anonymous, said: “It’s a nice, nice neighborhood, really quiet.”

Members of the Santa Monica Police Department’s graffiti abatement team were sent to document the vandalism on Monday but police did not release an estimate of the total damages. Several residents, though, said they were able clean the paint off their cars at an auto detailing business.

“The biggest thing is trying to figure why that block,” said Sgt. Jay Trisler, an SMPD spokesman. “It’s common for gang members or crews to tag areas but this one I can’t put my finger on.”

While it appeared the car burglary was related to the vandalism, Trisler said the extent of graffiti on the block showed burglary was not the only motive.

“This is something different. This is something malicious,” Trisler said.

He said the investigation is ongoing and will involve cooperation with the Los Angeles Police Department. He said nothing so far indicates that a gang member has moved into the Sunset Park neighborhood or that the incident was targeted at a single person or residence on the block.

Police did not say what had been taken from the burglarized car.

Gnome bashing spurs vandalism report

In a separate incident, vandals allegedly damaged a paper mache gnome that an atheist group set up in Palisades Park as a counterpoint to numerous religious themed dioramas on display there for the holidays.

Created by a member of Los Angeles-based Atheists United and dubbed “Charlie the Gnome” after Charles Darwin, the sculpture was intended to be a playful way to celebrate the season, said Bobbie Kirkhart, the atheist group’s president. The gnome was fashioned to look like Darwin and has its own Facebook page.

The gnome was damaged sometime before Dec. 23 and has since been repaired.

Vandalism, Kirkhart said, is “something that unfortunately atheists have come to accept.”

Last December the atheists put up a sign in Palisades Park that read: “Reason’s Greetings.” It was promptly stolen despite being anchored in concrete. This year’s gnome also bore that slogan, as well as the group’s name.

“There are a lot of people who are otherwise good and law abiding who believe they’re doing a good thing when they commit a crime against us,” Kirkhart said.

While she said Atheists United usually doesn’t report such relatively minor acts of vandalism, this year the group decided to file a report with the SMPD.

She said she recently became troubled that many acts of intimidation against atheists aren’t tallied as hate crimes while similar acts against religious groups get more attention. She said she hopes by reporting crimes against atheists more people will make a point of rejecting acts of intolerance against people who don’t believe in God.

“I think that most people are as upset as I am when they realize what this is an attack on is the First Amendment. This is an attack on the right to free expression,” she said.

While Trisler acknowledged the incident had been recorded as an act of vandalism he said a complete crime report had not been generated and the incident would not be recorded as a hate crime.

News of the attack was shared among attendees at Atheists United’s Winter Solstice celebration over the weekend, where most considered it an “ordinary irritation,” Kirkhart said.

nict@smdp.com