An 11-foot cross was stolen from a church and set on fire next to the home of a black family, igniting anger and disbelief in a prosperous, mostly white Central California community that hasn't seen a hate crime in nearly a decade.
Police assigned extra patrols to the neighborhood in Arroyo Grande and rewards were offered for information leading to an arrest. Church leaders were urged to mention the family in their prayers.
"I was horrified," said the Rev. Stephanie Raphael, president of the San Luis Obispo Ministerial Association. "We live in a paradise, and I think the first thought was, this can't really be real."
The cross was stolen from a garden at Saint John's Lutheran Church weeks ago and set ablaze Friday in a lot behind the house where the family lived, police Cmdr. John Hough said.
A 19-year-old woman awoke about 12:30 a.m. and saw the flaming cross from her bedroom window. Arriving officers doused burning pieces of wood with a garden hose.
A telephone call to the house was not answered Tuesday.
Police declined to release the names of the family members because the incident was considered a hate crime _ the first since 2002 in the city of 17,000 people in mostly rural San Luis Obispo County, a region of vast farms, picturesque small towns and a state university campus.
More than 30 clergy members signed a letter to the editor of the San Luis Obispo Tribune urging that the crime be taken seriously.
"Any kind of hate crime is not a joke, it's not a prank," Raphael told The Associated Press. "It's designed to intimidate and frighten. We live in a beautiful area but it's only beautiful if every single person feels safe conducting their lives and living here."
Dean Limbo, 54, who attends Saint John's Lutheran Church, said the incident scarred the community and left people searching for answers.
"It was surreal," she said. "The peace and the love in this community, you never would have thought it. It was just horrific, it really was, this poor family terrorized."
FBI agents and investigators from the state Department of Justice and San Luis Obispo County were involved in the arson and hate crime probe. No suspects had been identified and few tips were being received, even though $3,500 in rewards were offered.
There was no evidence that an organized racist group was involved, Hough said.
The 100-pound cross was hollow and made of fir. It was built eight years ago for a local production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" then donated to Saint John, pastor Randy Ouimette said.
It was usually bolted to a base in the garden, but each year it was taken inside the sanctuary during the Lenten season before being moved to a beach two miles away to be decorated with flowers for an Easter sunrise service.
The theft at the church was discovered March 5 but may have occurred weeks earlier, the pastor said.
"They probably lassoed the top and just yanked it down, tied it to a truck, and snapped it at the base," Ouimette said.
Authorities suspected the stolen cross had been used in the hate crime and showed Ouimette the half-charred, dismembered pieces of wood.
He quickly recognized it because its maker had carved "PHIL 4:13" into it, a reference to a passage in the New Testament book of Philippians that says: "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me."
Ouimette was saddened the cross had been used during a hate crime.
"It's such a violation," he said. "You know, the cross originally was an instrument of violence. ... but Christ redeemed it. Through the cross has come forgiveness and peace."
More than 100 people in the congregation signed a giant card of compassion they planned to deliver to the victims with two handmade prayer quilts _ even though they didn't know the family.
"We wanted to bathe this family in prayer and love," the pastor said. "Obviously they're feeling rejection and ... hate."
The church accepted an offer of a 10-foot replacement cross that a nearby church had placed in storage.
Associated Press writer Gillian Flaccus contributed to this report.