In 1991, several hundred local Latino families received an envelope containing a viciously racist rant, and while the perpetrator was never identified, details on the hate crime investigation have now been released.

At the behest of City Councilmember Oscar de la Torre, who was personally victimized by the letter, SMPD released a report on the investigative actions undertaken in the nineties. De la Torre argued, and other council members agreed, that as the case has lay cold for 30 years, affected community members deserve some type of recognition and resolution.

Unfortunately, those searching for clues or answers in the report will not find much to grasp at.

After speaking with ten witnesses, questioning four subjects of interest, and releasing a $25,000 reward for information leading to a conviction, SMPD did not identify any viable suspects. The report states that “the lead investigator exhausted all known and viable leads based on investigative tactics and techniques available in 1991.”

The hate letter was entitled “Samohi Assn. for the Advancement of Conservative White Americans,” espoused a white supremacist ideology, contained a litany of anti-Hispanic slurs and directly attacked two individuals. It was written on SMMUSD letterhead and sent to the families of Latinx students attending Santa Monica High School.

At the time of the incident the LA Times reported that the letter was sent to around 800 families, however SMPD said only four victims were listed in the investigative files, as only four individuals came forward with letters. According to the report, the number of families that received the letters was never determined.

Councilmember de la Torre was upset that SMPD did not attempt to gather more letters to maximize the possibility of finding evidence.

“Why didn’t they say ‘look, let’s make a concerted effort to collect all the unopened letters and see if there is a pattern of fingerprints within those unopened letters?” said de la Torre. “There was a three-part fold on the letter before it was mailed off, so if the perpetrator handled those letters, there would have had to have been a fingerprint inside.”

Ten witnesses were interviewed in the investigation and four subjects of interest were identified. The four letters turned in by victims were analyzed for the presence of fingerprints and compared to fingerprints samples taken from the subjects. Neither the results of this analysis nor the original letters remain on file.

“Given the age of this investigation and the Police Department’s compliance with municipal document retention policies, this is not an unusual circumstance,” states the report. “Furthermore, any crime associated with the mailing of this letter is well beyond the statute of limitations thus barring any opportunity for prosecution on the charges.”

The investigation was overseen by the police captain in charge of the Criminal Investigations Team, who led a 14 member investigative team.

Several SMMUSD personnel cooperated with the investigation and a District Attorney in the Hate Crimes Prosecution Unit was consulted.

De la Torre said he was surprised by how many people were on the team and still only four letters were retrieved. He also expressed frustration that there was no mention of SMPD contacting the FBI in the report and that more efforts were not made to communicate with the Latino community at the time of the investigation. Lastly, he said he would have liked to have seen information on when team members were taken off the case and when the investigation ended.

SMPD’s update said that were such an incident to happen today, the department would have many more investigative tools at its disposal.

“A present-day investigation would automatically involve DNA testing of the letters,” stated the report. “Provided there was a sufficiency of evidence to secure a search warrant to seize computers and/or printers, a forensic analysis of any computers/printers would also be in order.”

All new SMPD officers receive specialized training on hate crime investigation in line with the POST Hate Crimes Model Policy of 2019 framework.

In recent years, Santa Monica has had low rates of hate crimes compared to other parts of Los Angeles. Data from SMPD indicates that there may have been an uptick in hate crimes in 2020—which would mirror trends seen across the county and state—however, the limited sample size prevents firm conclusions from being drawn.

In the first six months of 2019, one hate crime was reported in Santa Monica. Seven hate crimes were reported during the same time window in 2020 and five have been reported so far in 2021.

The investigation report states that “the Police Department unequivocally stands by its understanding that hate crimes have a deleterious impact on the community. Accordingly, the Police Department remains dedicated to thoroughly investigating these crimes, using the full weight of its resources.”

De la Torre said that he was proud to have instigated the writing of the report and is interested in finding policy ways to support historically marginalized communities.

“30 years after arguably the largest hate crime in the city that has been unsolved, I think it (the report) is a step forward, but there’s more work to be done,” said de la Torre. “Maybe justice doesn’t come in this case, but our City Council finds a creative way to bring justice to this community.”

Clara@smdp.com