Was it a hate crime? Or just a crime that included hateful messages?
For Candace Freeman, it was bad enough when her car was stolen from her place of business in Oildale earlier this month.
When her car was recovered in an alley two days later, with only her rearview mirror, spare tire and most of the contents of her gas tank missing, Freeman was actually relieved. But when she climbed into the front seat, she was bombarded with neo-Nazi insignia and white supremacist words and images the thieves had scrawled all over the interior.
Freeman, who happens to be African American, is handling it — on the outside.
“On the inside, I’m freaking out,” she said. "I look at people differently now."
The graffiti included the words "white pride" and the infamous twin SS lightning bolt insignia used by the Nazi SS during World War II. The interior was also tagged with "OPW" for Oildale Peckerwoods, a criminal street gang the Kern County Sheriff's Office describes as a white supremacist group.
And mysteriously, a perpetrator also scrawled the words, "blue team."
"The SS and 'White Pride' might lead me to believe this was targeted," Freeman said of the tags.
That's important. If she was intentionally targeted by the gang, it could be categorized as a hate crime.
But hate crime penalty-enhancement statutes apply only when the target of the crime is chosen based on the victim's actual or perceived race, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or disability.
Angela Monroe, a spokeswoman for the Kern County Sheriff's Office, consulted with sheriff's investigators, who concluded there's no evidence to support the theory that Freeman was targeted because of her race or gender.
"I understand her fear and disgust over this," Monroe said. "But it doesn't rise to the level of a hate crime."
And the "blue team" tag, she said, supports that view.
"There are two groups in Oildale, Red Team and Blue Team — and occasionally White Team used to pop up — who steal cars in the Oildale area, mark them with their gang info, and leave them," Monroe said. "It is a form of competition between these two gangs to see who can steal the most cars, and it has been going on for well over 10 years."
They are associated with or part of OPW.
"If it was marked as blue team, then it most probably was not a hate crime," Monroe said. It's a strong indication that the thieves didn't steal or vandalize Freeman's car because of her race.
Freeman said she understands that. But in the final analysis, she was still targeted by the gang members' hate. It was her car they stole. It was her safety and feelings of security that have been threatened.
Whether or not the perpetrators knew of her at all, when you are African American or Jewish or of Middle Eastern ancestry and someone steals your car and scrawls neo-Nazi and white supremacist imagery all over the interior, you might get the feeling someone doesn't like you.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, an organization founded in 1913 in response to an escalating climate of anti-Semitism and bigotry, "hate crimes merit a priority response because of their special impact on the victim and the victim's community.
"These crimes may effectively intimidate other members of the victim's community," according to the ADL's website, "leaving them feeling isolated, vulnerable, and unprotected by the law."
The deputy who recovered Freeman's vehicle was unable to locate any usable finger prints on it, Monroe said, "and there were no surveillance cameras in the area where it was dropped off, so at this point we have no further investigative leads in this case.
"If she does locate additional evidence related to the vehicle theft, we will be more than happy to contact her and do more investigation."
Freeman has been left sickened and frightened by the crime. She says she can feel the hate and it feels like it's aimed at her.
Nevertheless, she conquered her fears to tell her story to her community.
"I didn't want it to just die," she said.