The writing is on the wall for graffiti vandals. And it spells jail.
A judge last week sentenced a Buffalo man to six months behind bars for spray-painting graffiti on the granite monument at Gates Circle.
Two other graffiti vandals are expected to return to City Court for not showing up for their community service, and a prosecutor says he will urge a judge to send them to jail, too.
And today, a 22-year-old who signs himself as "Meth" all over the city will face a graffiti prosecution unlike any other pursued in a courtroom here, prosecutors say.
Residents are fed up with the spread of graffiti into virtually every city neighborhood and the suburbs. Business owners spend thousands of dollars cleaning off graffiti, only to see more within weeks, sometimes sooner. And the markings scare residents who don't realize most are not gang-related.
Eric P. Osborne, who is suspected of marring as many as 100 buildings, could feel the brunt of that frustration when he appears at a pretrial hearing.
Prosecutors don't paint a pretty picture of what he faces. District Attorney Frank Clark has ruled out a plea bargain for Osborne.
A felony charge may be added to the graffiti and trespassing charges already lodged against him. Police say they caught him with five cans of spray paint at Ferguson Electric on Ellicott Street on Jan. 30.
Prosecutors also may hire a graffiti recognition expert to inspect "Meth" tags at various locations to determine if Osborne is responsible for them. If prosecutors can link him to the other vandalism, and a judge allows the expert testimony, new charges could be filed.
Community service won't be an option if Osborne is found guilty, said Assistant District Attorney Thomas D. Kubiniec.
"This is a very serious prosecution," Kubiniec said. "This is not child's play. This cannot be explained away by adolescence or anti-establishment thinking. This is downright vandalism. The extent and the amount is mean-spirited and not art."
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials, politicians and residents are lining up to be heard in the case against Osborne. Christopher Fargo, 23, who was arrested with Osborne, faces graffiti charges, too.
>Making an example
Leaders of neighborhood and business groups plan to attend today's hearing. "I was excited. I was elated," Kimberly Galloway said of Osborne's arrest.
Galloway, co-chairwoman North Buffalo Community Group, said she has walked and driven along the routes marked by the Meth tag. "I wanted to catch the guy in the act," said Galloway, who sometimes ventured out at night. "I followed his tags in my car, on foot, and I knew where he was starting and just about ending. But you could never catch him."
Public officials want to see Osborne made an example. "Please take this opportunity to hold these vandals accountable and set a precedent for others who behave in the same manner," Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, said in a letter to the prosecutor.
For years, there was barely a precedent at all for graffiti convictions. Vandals virtually have to be caught in the act, and few are.
When they are, few get a misdemeanor graffiti conviction.
City Court reported more than 51,000 convictions between 1998 and 2002, excluding sealed cases, on everything from disorderly conduct to drunken driving. Of all these convictions, just two specified a graffiti offense. Both defendants were found guilty of possession of graffiti instruments and sentenced to probation.
Others arrested on graffiti charges had their convictions sealed or pleaded guilty to a noncriminal violation. Many vandals received conditional discharges, meaning no punishment for the offender if he stayed out of trouble for a year and followed other instructions, such as counseling.
Prosecutors have sought restitution, but that only works if the vandal can afford it.
Mark A. Buffington, 32, who last week admitted defacing the Gates Circle fountain, rejected a plea bargain to a lesser misdemeanor count because he was unwilling or unable to make restitution. He would have faced three months in jail, at most, under the deal. He was convicted of the higher misdemeanor, and the judge sentenced him to six months. Buffington had prior convictions for trespassing and other offenses.
>Penalties get tougher
Community service can impress first-time offenders and teenagers, but it isn't easy supervising them and training them how to use chemicals or equipment needed to remove graffiti.
"Two years ago, we couldn't even get community service," said James Pavel, a city employee who heads Keep Western New York Beautiful. He has supervised graffiti vandals assigned to community service. "Now, we've turned that corner and are starting to look at jail terms, heavier fines and probation for the same crime that got a conditional discharge two years ago," Pavel said.
Past graffiti cases have been properly handled, taking into account circumstances and victims' input, said Kubiniec, the assistant district attorney.
But the desire for tougher sanctions is growing, he said. The facts will shape how defendants are treated. "If tomorrow a 17-year-old kid gets caught, and he has no prior offenses and he's not a known tagger, he may be treated differently than a 22-year-old art student who has been tearing up neighborhoods," Kubiniec said.
>Graffiti 'a cancer'
To date, the biggest graffiti convictions involved Derek "Merk" Thurlow and Fernando "Lions" Godinez. Last year, they were ordered to pay $1,250 each to a vandalized business and perform 150 hours of community service over the next year.
Both pleaded guilty to attempted graffiti-making, a misdemeanor, and were granted a conditional discharge. Their prosecutions were a step up compared with previous graffiti prosecutions, Kubiniec said.
Osborne's prosecution will be a step up again, he said.
"The level of graffiti has grown exponentially," he said. "This is a cancer spreading through all corners of the city, disregarding all boundaries and having no respect for monuments, playgrounds or even the brand new Grant Street bridge."
Amy Maslek of South Buffalo watched how another city fought graffiti. She and her husband moved to Madison, Wis., in 1992 and returned to Buffalo in 1995.
Madison holds parents responsible for their child's graffiti. "They not only had to go to court with their kids for graffiti crimes but were handed paint brushes to work with the kids to fix what they had tagged," Maslek said.
Madison, like other cities, still struggles with graffiti, but she said she saw graffiti vandalism decline while she lived there. "Funny what happens when parents are held liable, isn't it?" she asked. "People become more apt to pay attention to what Junior is up to on Friday night, so that they aren't spending quality time on Saturday painting bridges with Junior."
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