TAMPA — At first, deputies thought the crude epithets spray painted on at least 115 houses in the Brandon area early Sunday were the work of gang members. Neighbors blamed troublesome teens.
But the three who were arrested Monday — one age 21, the other two 17 — don't have arrest records. Those who knew two of the suspects describe them as hardworking and polite. They can't figure out why they would do this.
The damage — which includes racial slurs and swastikas spray-painted on houses in Valrico, Seffner and Brandon — is estimated at $100 per count. The two 17-year-olds were charged as juveniles; their names aren't being released. Aaron Dennis Green, 21, of Lithia, was charged with 87 counts of misdemeanor criminal mischief as an adult.
The three admitted to spray-painting the homes, saying they wanted to make the news, sheriff's officials said. But one of the 17-year-olds had already made the news recently — for doing good work at school.
The boy was a leader in the electric car racing club at Brandon High School. He won several races. The club's adviser, Vic Nieves, said he is talented.
The student came to school on Tuesday, Nieves said, and was despondent and remorseful. Because the spray-painting was the talk of the school, Nieves took time at the start of each class to explain the charges. It's not a joke, he told the students.
"Hopefully, he'll learn from this," Nieves said. "Whatever the consequences are, hopefully down the road he can get things straightened out."
On Tuesday, Green's co-workers discussed the news. Green's neighbor, Carl Smith, couldn't believe his quiet, church-going neighbor was involved.
"I'm shocked," Smith said.
Rick Bernaldo, 47, who went to church with Green, said the crimes seemed uncharacteristic. "I'm just really dumbfounded by the whole thing," he said.
On Tuesday, Green faced a judge for the first time. From Orient Road Jail, he appeared in Hillsborough Circuit Court via closed-circuit television on 87 counts of misdemeanor criminal mischief.
"Looks like you confessed to committing all this damage to people's property," Judge Walter Heinrich said. The judge ordered him to have no contact with the co-defendants.
"If they're friends of yours, they're now ex-friends of yours," Heinrich said. He set bail at $21,750.
Times news researcher John Martin and staff writers Alexandra Zayas and Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com.