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Family fights bigotry in neighborhood

For nearly a year, the Jewish family has found anti-Semitic vandalism around their Ridge Manor home.

[Times photo: Maurice Rivenbark]
Larry MacNaughton stands near his kit car, a 1929 Mercedes replica, which was vandalized with anti-Semitic signs recently.

By JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 27, 2001


RIDGE MANOR -- When most of the neighborhood twinkled with Christmas lights in December, the MacNaughtons decided to join in the holiday spirit.

Larry MacNaughton strung blue and gold lights in the shape of an 8-foot-wide menorah, complete with the Star of David, on the front of their house on Orchid Parkway. It glowed for all to see.

Two months later, it's still up. And the family has no immediate plans to take it down.

"It's a badge of honor," said Josette MacNaughton, admiring her husband's handiwork. "It's making a statement: I'm not afraid. I'm not hiding I'm Jewish. I never have, and I'm not starting now."

Some might not be so bold after what the MacNaughtons have been through. In the past year, according to sheriff's records and the family, they have been taunted with slurs, had their garage broken into and their vehicles vandalized. Just over the weekend, MacNaughton went to his garage and discovered swastikas painted over his old kit car.

"This is on a level I've never experienced before," Mrs. MacNaughton said with a shake of her head. "I've lived in small towns before, where I was (practically) the only Jew, but I've never faced this."

It all began last spring, when the MacNaughtons found white "goo" in their mailbox and broken eggs in their Chevy Suburban, which also had a swastika written on a piece of paper left inside the vehicle. MacNaughton's kit car, a 1929 Mercedes replica, also had its lights smashed and top slashed. They reported it to the Sheriff's Office, but officials never developed any suspects.

Soon after, Mrs. MacNaughton said a neighbor complained about their barking dogs and called her a "damned kike." Another neighbor also asked them about a wire fence around their house -- calling it a "hog fence good for keeping you hog Jews in." The MacNaughtons refuse to identify who they claim these neighbors are, citing legal concerns.

Then in September, MacNaughton's kit car was broken into again while in the garage. This time, the windshield, console and mirrors were broken, and oil had been poured over the seats, a report said.

Because a brand new bike next to the car in the garage was left untouched, MacNaughton began to suspect the vandalism was not "just kids."

Kids would at least have ripped off the bike, he reasoned.

Deputies returned and interviewed several neighbors, but all denied any involvement, sheriff's spokeswoman Deanna Dammer said.

During this year and last, the MacNaughtons have also been the target of numerous complaints by neighbors and anonymous people reporting that the family had barking dogs that were mistreated, an overgrown lawn and a smelly septic system. In response, the MacNaughtons installed a new septic system and mowed their lawn. But officials have never substantiated any complaints about their animals.

"We have never found that their animals were mistreated or mis-cared for," Animal Services Director Jim Varn said. "In fact, they had one dog with cancer that is seeing a specialist. They spend a lot of money on it."

And the barking dogs?

"Sounds like they have a reason to bark," Varn said.

Finally, when Mrs. MacNaughton found swastikas on her Suburban on Feb. 10 -- and more on the next morning -- the family decided enough was enough. They resolved to go to a Ridge Manor town meeting and confront the problem there, for better or for worse.

"I've been trying to ignore it and hoped it would go away. We would just like to live and let live," said MacNaughton, a software engineer at a Tampa company. "But my daughter is afraid to walk the dog at night. I shudder to think that is this is the attitude around here. What would happen if I had an office party here and invited my boss, who is black?"

And so the MacNaughtons went to the town meeting and told their story, uneasy about the reaction.

Anne Buckingham was appalled.

"I've been around here forever and nothing like this has ever happened," she told a reporter last week.

Some women approached the family at the meeting and expressed sadness over the harassment.

"They said, 'This is exactly what our husbands fought (in World War II) to stop,' " MacNaughton recalled.

Despite the support, the MacNaughtons have been hit again. On Saturday morning, MacNaughton said he found more damage: swastikas and the word Jew written on his Mercedes replica.

Marie Rutzen, who lives around the corner from the MacNaughtons, said she hopes the vandalism is just bored teenagers. She said she has seen swastikas painted on the basketball courts at Ridge Manor Park before and was told kids were the culprit.

"Otherwise, it's just old people living around here, so I can't imagine who would hobble out and do that," she said.

But not everyone is so sympathetic.

Edward Meyer, who lives across the street from the family, said he suspects Mrs. MacNaughton is behind the vandalism. He said a large group of neighbors has complained about her animals and unkempt home, and he thinks she is trying to drum up sympathy.

"I'm 192-percent sure that's she's trying to create a situation where she has an excuse to keep her dogs out," said Meyer, 65, who said he has resorted to taping the MacNaughtons' dogs to prove they bark at all hours.

Meyer added that he thinks Mrs. MacNaughton is trying to get even with him for complaining to code enforcement by implying that he and others are anti-Jewish. Both he and neighbor Donald McHenry, 65, say that's hogwash.

"We're all retirees. We have better things to do than go over there and bother them," McHenry said. "Until the town meeting, I didn't even know she was Jewish."

McHenry and Meyer might not put much stock in the MacNaughton's grievances, but someone else has: David Bar-Lev of the Jewish Defense League.

Bar-Lev, chairman of the league's Tampa office, said his group is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the vandal or vandals.

He is organizing random patrols of the neighborhood and called the acts against the MacNaughtons one of the most serious hate crimes against Jews he has seen in the Tampa Bay area in the past year.

"We just don't tolerate this kind of stuff," Bar-Lev said. "This is going to stop one way or another."

Sheila Friedman, administrator of Temple Beth David Jewish Center in Spring Hill, agreed that the MacNaughton's case is highly unusual. During the more than 10 years Friedman has lived in the county, the only anti-Jewish sentiment she has heard has been in the form of white supremacist literature being put in mailboxes and on lawns in Spring Hill.

"It's very uncommon. I haven't heard about anything like this in a long, long time," she said. "I'm saddened by it. It's not pleasant any time you have an ethnic or religious group that is being attacked or persecuted."

Local statistics also reflect the rarity of hate crimes in the county. The Hernando Sheriff's Office reported only one hate crime in 1999, when someone called a man by a Hispanic slur. In 2000, a Pinellas County man was arrested at the Dunes Golf Club at Seville after he harassed a group of black golfers, asked management why they let black people play on the course and then tried to run over a player with his golf cart.

One of the more notable anti-Jewish incidents in the Tampa Bay area occurred in 1996, when the West Pasco Jewish Community Center in Port Richey was desecrated with feces, spray-painted with swastikas, iron crosses, other Aryan symbols and slogans of white power in blue and red. In 1997, vandals painted anti-Jewish epithets on the side of a grocery store on the Hernando-Pasco county line.

Statewide numbers show 307 hate crimes were reported in Florida in 1999, with about half based on race and 15 percent based on religion. Nationwide, almost 7,900 hate crimes were reported in 1999, with slightly more than 1,100 of them being anti-Jewish.

The statistical rarity of what is happening to the MacNaughtons is of little comfort to the family, however. The couple's daughter, 14-year-old Erin, says she still has trouble understanding why all this is happening. It is her first taste of prejudice.

"It's just really frustrating," she said. "You don't expect it in this day and age."

So what does the family plan to do next?

Worried that things will only escalate if the vandals are not caught, the MacNaughtons have bought surveillance equipment and is installing it around the house.

It is a concession that Mrs. MacNaughton didn't want to make.

"What can I do? A year ago, when this all started, my husband said he wanted to put up surveillance cameras and I said, 'I don't want to live in a place that needs surveillance cameras.' " she said. "Now, I've said to go ahead. We're going to stay and put up a fight. I won't be driven out."

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