ST. GEORGE – An investigation into several graffiti incidents believed to be connected to a California gang led to the arrest of an 18-year-old St. George man Thursday.
“Over the last few weeks we noticed graffiti … from the west side to the east side of St. George,” said Sgt. Johnny Heppler, who supervises the St. George Police Department’s Fraudulent Identity and Securities Threats unit.
As instances of graffiti can be gang-related, the FIST unit, which monitors possible gang activity as one of its roles, began investigating the matter.
Graffiti popping up around the city was determined to be associated with the Varrio Brown Familia gang out of Santa Clarita, California. Based on that information, Heppler said, detectives were able to narrow the field of suspects to local individuals known to have ties to the gang.
Police were also given surveillance footage and photos of potential suspects from a gas station on south Bluff Street that had been tagged. Police believe one of the people identified in the footage and photos was Riley Joseph Guerrero.
According to a probable cause statement filed in support of Guerrero’s arrest, other places that had been tagged with the alleged gang-related graffiti were the residence where Guerrero was staying and the Dixie High School LDS seminary building.
Police caught up with Guerrero and detained him for questioning. He was made aware of his Miranda Rights and then denied being involved in the graffiti acts. Instead, he said, someone else he had a beef with was trying to set him up.
“Riley denied he did the graffiti,” one of the detectives interviewing Guerrero said in the statement. “He said it was someone else. I asked him if he claimed Varrio Brown Familia, Riley said he use to, but got out of the game a few months ago.”
Officers took Guerrero to the police station for further questioning. He was shown photos of places tagged with graffiti and said he wasn’t involved. On one of the graffiti photos, there was a reference to a nickname police learned Guerrero used. After being shown the photo, Guerrero told police he was the one who tagged that particular spot at the Dixie High School seminary, but he said he was not responsible for the rest, according to the probable cause statement.
“He didn’t admit to doing all of it,” Heppler said, adding that police believe the style and lettering Guerrero used at the seminary building matched other recent graffiti incidents.
Guerrero was taken into custody Thursday and booked into the Washington County Purgatory Correctional Facility. He was originally charged with nine felony graffiti counts; though, as of Saturday, those were replaced with a single second-degree felony count for graffiti violations exceeding $5,000, according to court documents.
Guerrero has also been charged with two third-degree felonies for the possession of a dangerous weapon – he had a knife on his person when initially interviewed by police – and possession of methamphetamine.
In addition to criminal charges, Heppler said, graffiti vandals are hit with restitution costs related to removing the spray paint.
It costs the City of St. George $10 to clean a square foot of graffiti, and that cost is passed on to the accused tagger to be paid back.
“It gets expensive,” Heppler said. “It makes you wish you used a marker instead of spray paint.”
Incidents of graffiti are on the decline in St. George and tend to happen in spurts, he said.
Another recent rash of graffiti incidents took place in St. George in December, when a 22-year-old man went on a tagging spree in the Dixie Downs area.
Persons arrested or charged are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law or as otherwise decided by a trier-of-fact.
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