It was a crime spree that galled the community.
On the night of Jan. 4, 2013, a pair of prolific graffiti artists blazed down Central Avenue in Columbia Heights, tagging about a dozen businesses and vehicles with spray paint. Then, they used the city’s new $3 million walking bridge as their canvas. Within hours, photos of the fresh graffiti showed up online on the photo-sharing site Flickr.
Urban graffiti has become so commonplace that sometimes it’s not even reported to police. But this case wouldn’t be ignored.
Columbia Heights Police Chief Scott Nadeau assigned one of his top investigators, who worked the case for nearly a year, using subpoenas, computer forensics and legwork.
Last week, Anoka County prosecutors charged the second of two people in the case. Dustin (Rush) James Jack, 24, of South St. Paul, faces one count of felony criminal property damage. According to authorities, police found more than 11,000 images of graffiti on his iPhone — all time-, date- and geo-stamped at locations across the Twin Cities.
His alleged partner, a 17-year-old Fridley boy, had been charged earlier and pleaded guilty in March in juvenile court.
“It’s a sickening feeling,” City Manager Walter Fehst said of the graffiti spree. “You spend money trying to build your city, make people proud out it. The fact they want to deface it for their own vanity angers everybody. Everyone is affected by it.”
Chief Nadeau said community response in the suburb of 20,000 was swift. He got multiple calls after the January 2013 episode, with the graffiti to the new walking bridge striking a particular nerve, he said.
The bridge, built largely with federal stimulus money, spans Central Avenue at 49th Avenue NE. and is blocks from four public schools, providing passage for hundreds of students each day.
“It’s symbolic. It’s the bridge kids use to come to and from school. It challenged people’s sense of safety and security,” Nadeau said. “People were looking at me: What are you going to do, chief?”
Investigating quality of life crimes is part of the chief’s broader efforts to connect with the community. The department has launched nearly a dozen community-police partnerships including having officers serve as Big Brother and Big Sisters, coffee dates with residents and pushing patrol officers out of squad cars and into the community. The department won the 2012 International Association of Chiefs of Police Community Policing Award for cities under 20,000.
So investigator Greg Sinn, used to working robbery, assault and financial fraud, was assigned to the case.
One of his first inquiries: Google.
The paint had barely dried and images of the graffiti already could be found online. On the same Flickr account, police found what appeared to be paid work by a graphic artist in a convenience store window.
Sinn subpoenaed Internet service providers and gleaned possible clues from the photos.
Sinn also learned about graffiti culture. He found common touches that suggested the taggers were marking their territory.
Armed with a search warrant, officers searched Jack’s home — a tidy rambler with no graffiti in sight. They said they found spray paint cans and supplies inside and in his minivan, as well as the iPhone with the 11,000 images of graffiti and videos of tags in progress in cities including Minneapolis, St. Paul, South St. Paul and West St. Paul. They said they also found the suspect at home with paint on his hand and on his shoes.
“Some of the work is amazing, but I don’t want it on my property,” Sinn said.
The suspect denied being the graffiti artist, telling investigators he was just someone with an interest who documented other people’s work, according to police. .
Jack could not be reached for comment Tuesday. He will make a court appearance later this spring.
Authorities said the teenager who pleaded guilty admitted to police that he knew he’d crossed a line tagging the pedestrian bridge.
“He felt bad about doing the walking bridge. He said he watched it being built and it was so beautiful,” Nadeau said.
Columbia Heights police put out a crime alert to other agencies. So far, only Metro Police has contacted them.
All the graffiti in Columbia Heights has now been covered up. In many places, though, one can still see traces.
“It’s never really fixed,” Sinn said.
For his efforts, Sinn was named the city’s 2013 employee of the year. He says he easily put in more than 100 hours of investigation into the case.
“Absolutely, it was worth it,” Nadeau said.