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Ruling on racist vandalism at Nantucket's African Meeting House leaves unanswered questions

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We reported this week that a Superior Court judge ruled that a Nantucket man violated the civil rights of two residents by painting racist graffiti on the doors of the historic African Meeting House on Nantucket in 2018.

26-year-old Dylan Ponce must stay away from the the Meeting House and to have no contact with the plaintiffs in the case, Jim Barros and Rose Marie Samuels.

The incident shocked island residents when it happened, and the Cape and Islands District Attorney's office opened an investigation. But four years later, no criminal charges have been filed, and questions linger about why.

CAI's Kathryn Eident talked about the timeline of events is Jason Graziadei of the Nantucket Current for a review of what happened, and questions that remain.

Eident Good morning, Jason. Thanks for joining us.

Graziadei Good morning. Thanks for having me.

Eident So let's first start with the timeline of what happened in 2018 at the African Meeting House.

Graziadei Yeah. As you mentioned, this was four years ago during the off-season. That morning of March 11th, in 2018, the historic African Meeting House on the island it was discovered early that morning to have been vandalized with racist graffiti, a racist term spray-painted on the door, a phallic symbol on the wall, on the front facade of the building. And as you said, just very shocking to the community. It was that building, as the judge noted recently, and those words, it was it was a shock to the community and hurtful and left people, you know, just really upset and traumatized by it, I would say.

Eident So there was a lot of shock and people were upset, of course. And there are pictures that have been in different news outlets of what the front of the Meeting House looked like. It was black spray paint, so you couldn't miss it. How did police respond and other officials with investigations?

Graziadei Yeah, well, first I would say that the community came together, right away at the African Meeting House and within, I would say, probably 24 hours it was cleaned off and the front façade was fixed.

But obviously, that led to an investigation right away as a hate crime. And Nantucket police began investigating, going over, talking to neighbors, knocking on doors, trying to find home security camera footage of anything that could lead them to a suspect. So the investigation on the local end began right away.

But about six months later, they provided an update at a select board meeting. The detective sergeant went to the meeting and basically said that they had exhausted all of the leads at that point. They had interviewed numerous people. They'd looked into all the sort of hearsay information because obviously this was a source of a ton of rumor and conjecture around the island of who might have done it. So six months later, they basically said they had come to a dead end.

Eident Hmm. And that is kind of amazing. I mean, as you said, there's lots of rumors are still I think lots of different theories out there. And it's such a small community. It was the off-season. So, you know, I think that's also what raises more questions now that we've arrived at this civil case. Two Nantucket residents I mentioned, they did file a civil case, Jim Barros and Rosemarie Samuels. And that judge did make a ruling this week. Why the civil lawsuit?

Graziadei The civil lawsuit occurred, as you know, out of I believe, out of their frustration with the lack of criminal action on the part of the police and the district attorney [who were] unable to bring charges against the suspect.

Now, there was grand jury activity. One person on the island was indicted on obstruction of justice, misleading an investigation, excuse me. But, another individual was not indicted.

And so I think Jim Barros and Rose Marie [Samuels] were obviously deeply offended and shocked and hurt by what happened and that this was their way of sort of pursuing justice in this case and trying to find answers and trying to get to the bottom of what happened and hold someone responsible.

It was also a reaction to the select board meeting in which they went in and asked for answers. This was on the two-year anniversary back in March 2020. They went to the select board and started to address them about sort of lack of progress in the investigation and that meeting, you can go watch it on YouTube, but there was a lot of back and forth. They felt as if they were mistreated and shut down and that their right to speak was violated. So, part of the civil suit was against the town, against the select board. And the other part ended up getting severed in the case and was the decision that was just made was identifying the person you mentioned that the at the outset here, Dylan Ponce, as the person responsible for the act against the African Meeting House.

Eident Right. And Dylan himself did not speak during this trial. He invoked his right to not incriminate himself there. Question about the town of Nantucket: Is that part of the case been settled or are we still waiting for resolution there?

Graziadei No, that that part of the case is still pending in superior court. So the judge, I believe, two years ago, sort of split the case into two, the part in which they initially identified an unknown person as, you know, being responsible and violating their civil rights was identified and as Dylan Ponce later so that so the case was split.

Eident So the case was split. Just briefly, we only have about 10 seconds. What was reaction like to the ruling this week in the civil trial there? The civil case.

Graziadei I think the biggest reaction was sort of is that people were saying, you know, that what the judge ruled was, you know, basically an injunction against Ponce requiring that he not violate their civil rights in the future. Stay away order, stay away from the African Meeting House. So, I think the major reaction was, "Is that all this person gets?"

I think people look at that not realizing, you know, necessarily that this was a civil case. That that he wasn't going to have sort of criminal penalties against him and that this was sort of the maximum that could have been done in this circumstance, not the maximum, you know, could have pursued some monetary penalties. But, you know, that wasn't going to be sort of the penalty that maybe people thought was corresponded with what hate crime might get.

Eident Okay, Jason, there's still questions. You know, it sounds like this is definitely unresolved and it sounds like not everyone is satisfied. But thank you so much for coming on. Jason Graziadei of the Nantucket Current put this story together, it came out in dribs and drabs and happened four years ago, and there's still questions out there. Thanks a lot.

Graziadei Thanks for having me.

This conversation was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

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Kathryn Eident is an award-winning journalist and hosts WCAI's Morning Edition. She began producing stories for WCAI in 2008 as a Boston University graduate student reporting from the Statehouse. Since then, Kathryn’s work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times, Studio 360, Scientific American, and Cape and Plymouth Business Magazine.