After swastika incidents, Steamboat police chief worries about local youth identifying with supremacist ideology

After investigating a swastika that was burned into a picnic table near the high school late last month, Steamboat Springs police have turned over information from their investigation to the District Attorney's office, but the DA's office says it lacks sufficient evidence to prosecute the case.
Steamboat Springs Police Department/Courtesy photo

Steamboat police believe they know who burned a large swastika into a picnic bench at Memorial Park late last month, and a rash of similar incidents have left local officials concerned about a wider trend involving a contingent of local high school students who subscribe to supremacist ideology.

According to Steamboat Springs Police Chief Mark Beckett, the department submitted a criminal mischief charge to the District Attorney earlier this week in relation to the Memorial Park incident, which he said happened in the after-school hours of Aug. 30 and involved a male Steamboat Springs High School student.

Beckett said detectives were able to identify the student “within a couple of days” before working through the process of collecting witness statements and contacting parents.

Routt County District Attorney Matt Karzen’s office confirmed it received the police report of the juvenile suspected of committing a “bias motivated crime and criminal mischief.” In a statement, however, Karzen said the DA’s office would “decline to file a juvenile petition or offer diversion based on the lack of admissible evidence that (the) suspect was the person who committed the crime in question.”

“As reflected in the reports, there is no admissible evidence that the suspect burned the swastika into the park bench, only an anonymous tip … that he did it,” the statement reads.

In an email, Karzen explained that his office could not press charges based on the anonymous tip.

“We need firsthand testimony from an identified perceiving witness,” he added.

Recognizing the incident as “horrifying and sad,” Karzen said, “covering for people who perpetrate this kind of ignorance and hate may be more comfortable for some, but that’s not the kind of behavior we should expect from our community members, and I am hopeful moving forward that witnesses to this kind of behavior will step up and do the right thing.”

Beckett said he is deeply troubled over the incident and others that have occurred in recent weeks.

“There is actually a legitimate group of youth in our community who are identifying with supremacist ideology, specifically neo-Nazi and skinheads,” he said.

A week after a swastika was discovered burned into a picnic bench at Memorial Park, Steamboat police responded to similar vandalism found nearby in the tunnel that goes under Fish Creek Falls Road.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

In an interview Thursday, the police chief said additional hate-related vandalism cases and other investigations have left his department concerned with a wider trend involving an “element of youth in our community who are at the high school who have a white supremacist ideology.”

Soon after the incident at Memorial Park, police responded to the nearby pedestrian tunnel that goes underneath Fish Creek Falls Road where graffiti depicted a swastika, the N-word and the name of a high school teacher — along with the teacher’s phone number — according to Beckett. Officers determined that the teacher had spoken to students about the Memorial Park incident during the prior week, “so we suspect it is related,” Beckett said.

There are no suspects in the second case, but police are offering a $100 reward to anyone with information that leads to an arrest, Beckett said, adding that should the case move forward, it could involve felony hate-crime charges because the act of vandalism involves a specific victim, the teacher.

Police responded to yet another incident after a student at the high school discovered a swastika drawn in dirt on his car. According to Beckett, the student quickly erased the symbol before reporting it to school officials, who subsequently alerted police.

There are currently no suspects in that case either.

“I don’t even know that we necessarily have a crime on that one,” Beckett said. “There was no damage to the vehicle and criminal mischief requires some sort of damage. It is just further concerning behavior that we are seeing.”

Beckett said he is both surprised and disappointed to see the frequency of hate-based vandalism and incidents in Steamboat Springs. At first, he said, he believed the incidents had more to do with young people seeking attention, but he no longer believes that is the sole motivation.

“I recently had a video shared with me of some young ladies, two of whom are currently students at the high school, and in the video posted on social media that got to me … these young ladies had swastikas tattooed on them,” Beckett said. “With that comes a greater concern for me because when we first started seeing those things, we were really thinking that it was just kids that were trying to get attention. I do, unfortunately, believe now that there is — hopefully a very small element — but there is an element of youth in our community who are at the high school who have a white supremacist ideology.”

Before being named Steamboat’s police chief last month, Beckett worked in Arizona where his primary focus concerned gang-related activity, including investigating white supremacist groups, skinheads and neo-Nazis, among dozens of other groups.

Through conversations with school officials and community leaders, Beckett said he has found community members, including himself, to be “deeply troubled” by the incidents.

Calculating the numbers of individuals who were killed as the result of Nazi policies is a difficult task, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, but wartime reports estimate at least 6 million Jews were killed in Nazi death camps during World War II.

As Beckett pointed out, however, many people today, including youth, have “lost sight of the context of the Holocaust” because Nazi ideology also targets members of the LGBTQ+ community, minorities, people living with disabilities and others.

“For those who use this ideology casually, for those who don’t use it casually and for those who use it because they believe in it, I will tell you that history has shown that this type of behavior is not tolerated by society and it will not be tolerated here,” Beckett said. “For those who express a supremacist ideology of hate, it won’t be tolerated in Steamboat Springs; we will prosecute those cases, we will investigate those cases and we take them extremely seriously. There is not a place for that here in our community.”

Rabbi Kolby Morris-Dahary of Har Mishpacha, the Jewish congregation of Steamboat Springs, spoke on behalf of the Jewish community in an interview Thursday, saying, “I can say that we are deeply disturbed that the issues we have seen are getting worse, not better.”

Through the Steamboat Team to disrupt Antisemitism and Discrimination, or STAND, Morris-Dahary said she and other partners, including the police chief, are “working tirelessly to address the issue.” The rabbi said the group has attempted to find cooperation with the Steamboat Springs School District on the incidents, “which unfortunately we do not have.”

“Clearly there is an issue that needs to be addressed,” she said.

Laura Milius, a spokesperson for the Steamboat Springs School District, said Thursday that the district “strongly condemns all antisemitic behavior and expressions, and it is a priority of the district to educate our students against such actions.”

Milius said the district has “been active with STAND since its inception,” and that high school staff are “trained in the use of restorative practices, which are techniques used to strengthen relationships between individuals as well as social connections within communities.”

Additionally, Milius said students are taught “about hate crimes and hate groups,” and the district uses resources provided by the American Psychological Association “to explore bigotry and work to stop it.”

“Every community member should feel safe and welcome,” Milius said. “It takes collective action to stand up to these behaviors.”

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