Suspect sentenced on hate crime charge for vandalizing ‘Back the Blue’ sign in Escalante

2020 file photo of police vehicles at the scene of a single-vehicle crash on Interstate 15 near Exit 40, Washington County, Utah, Nov. 2, 2020 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News/ Cedar City News

ST. GEORGE — A case in Garfield County has come full circle following a report that a sign was vandalized during a period of time when the area was experiencing a hike in graffiti reports – many of which included negative statements toward law enforcement.

Bryce Canyon by Pixabay, St. George News

The case stems from an incident reported in August involving the vandalized sign and a customer who was threatened at a Canyon Country gas station in Escalante.

According to store employees, two vehicles pulled up to the gas pumps, and two women went into the store while a male passenger walked around the outside of the building. According to charging documents filed with the courts, when the man encountered a “Back the Blue” sign, he spray-painted it pink.

A customer who witnessed the incident confronted the suspect, later identified as 32-year-old Joseph Taft Dawson of Sandy, Utah. The customer grabbed the sign and “wiped the paint from the sign onto the suspect’s head,” the officer noted in the statement.

Once the women exited the store, the trio drove away and police were called.

An attempt to locate broadcast was sent out to officers in Garfield County to be on the lookout for the two vehicles. A deputy working patrol spotted the vehicles on state Route 12 at the Escalante River trailhead near mile marker 73.

When Dawson was located, he told officers that when he pulled up to the gas station and noticed the sign, he spray painted over the word “blue” and replaced it with the word “bisexual.”

Dawson also confirmed the account of the customer who took the sign from him and rubbed it on his head, but he denied confronting the customer, telling officers he left immediately after the incident since the customer “could have beat the sh— out of him,” the officer recounted in the statement.

The suspect also told deputies that he acted alone. He then gave a “long explanation” as to why he defaced the sign – one the deputy stated was unclear. Dawson was then transported to the Garfield County Jail on misdemeanor graffiti and possession of marijuana and paraphernalia charges for the THC wax and other items allegedly found inside of the suspect’s Jetta.

Garfield County Sheriff Danny Perkins told St. George News that when this particular report came in over the summer, it was during a several-month period when the Sheriff’s Office received numerous reports of graffiti  throughout the county — actions that were having a devastating impact on the state’s forests, monuments and other formations located throughout the region, including in Bryce Canyon.

To that end, Perkins said,  anyone caught destroying or marking any property will face charges.

“You come into my county and destroy our treasures – whether it’s a bridge, a monument or anything else – you will be arrested and charged,” he said. “That’s it.”

Perkins also mentioned that many of the cases involved derogatory statements made toward law enforcement, which he said is troubling because the messages are not focused on one officer or a single interaction. Instead, they target every officer working in law enforcement, no matter how well they do their job, which has had a negative impact on the deputies that serve under him.

In one instance, the Hells Backbone bridge, which is lined with metal specially treated to blend in with the landscape was marked with “all cops are bastards,” Perkins said, adding that removing it took an entire day and multiple man hours by both the U.S. Forest Service and the Sheriff’s Office.

Hells Backbone bridge between Boulder Mountain and the Escalante River with metal specially treated to blend into landscape, Garfield County, Utah, March 3, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Dave Clark, St. George News

In the Dawson case, Perkins said the incident was forwarded to the Utah Attorney General’s Office to be reviewed as a possible hate crime, due to the fact that the original sign supported an entire occupation and the word spray painted on it related to sexual orientation. This enhanced the charge in Dawson’s case to a class A misdemeanor.

Since the arrest, Perkins said, the defendant has made great efforts to settle the case and was “very well represented” by counsel. During Friday’s hearing held in 6th District Court in Panguitch, the defendant pleaded guilty to the graffiti charge while all other charges were dismissed under the terms of a plea agreement.

Dawson was sentenced to serve two days in county jail, was placed on 12-months bench probation and fined $500. He was also ordered to write a letter of apology to the store.

Perkins reviewed the letter written by Dawson and said it was heartfelt and sincere and called it a “very good letter.” He also said the defendant has had a great attitude about making things right, which is a good thing.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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