An Iranian Jewish immigrant has been arrested as a suspect in a string of arson attacks that targeted three synagogues, a church and a Baha'i center, and which had spread fear of hate crimes and even terrorism throughout the San Fernando Valley.
Farshid Tehrani, 40, who apparently suffered from depression, was arrested early Friday by police, which had been tracking him for a day after receiving a tip linking him to the five arson incidents in Encino.
During three successive days last week (May 5-7), incendiary devices, described by some as Molotov cocktails, were hurled at the Baha'i Faith Community Center, the Iranian Synagogue, Da'at Torah Educational Center and Valley Beth Shalom, one of the leading Conservative congregations in Los Angeles.
About 10 days earlier, a similar attack on the First Presbyterian Church of Encino caused $75,000-$100,000 in damage, according to The Los Angeles Times, which had assigned eight reporters to the story. Damages at the other locations were relatively minor and there were no injuries.
Investigation of the attacks was conducted through one of the largest local law enforcement mobilizations in recent history, with more than 150 police, fire department, FBI and other federal investigators working on the case. These included 65 detectives from the anti-terrorism division of the L.A. Police Department.
Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, told The Jewish Journal that his community, as "one of the targets of these attacks, had been extremely concerned that they were hate or terrorism-related."
George Haroonian, president of the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations, said, "It is disturbing that an Iranian Jewish immigrant is believed to be the perpetrator, but I understand that he had psychological problems. You will find this in every community and it tells us that we must try to identify such problems early on."
Haroonian said that there were two major and about eight storefront synagogues patronized predominantly by Iranian Jews in the San Fernando Valley alone. He praised the work of the authorities and local legislators, who had met with community and congregational leaders to advise on security matters.
Pooya Dayanim, president of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee, urged government agencies to channel grants directly to the Iranian Jewish community to enable it to deal more effectively with mental and other health problems.
Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President John Fishel said that the situation is not representative of any particular community but that it is an interpersonal problem.
"It's important when incidents do occur that we are aware," he said, "but also that we don't necessarily make sweeping generalizations that every time something occurs to the Jewish community that it is always related to anti-Semitism or some kind of base prejudice."
Police said there was no evidence linking Tehrani to any terrorist groups or causes, while one official described him to the Times as a firebug with serious personal problems.
"We probably saved a lot of lives in this one," the unnamed official said. "He was heading to something bad."
On Tuesday, the L.A. County district attorney's office charged Tehrani with 12 counts of arson, terrorism and vandalism for attacking five houses of worship in Encino.
During the arraignment in Van Nuys Superior Court, a not guilty plea was entered on Tehrani's behalf. He is being held on $750,000 bail and a preliminary hearing has been scheduled for May 28.
If convicted on all counts, Tehrani could face a maximum state prison term of 22 years.
According to his immediate family, Tehrani came to the United States about 16 years ago and worked hard in his jewelry business in downtown Los Angeles, until a "depressive disorder" forced him to give up most of his work two years ago.
His younger sister, Sheena Tehrani, described her brother, who is unmarried, as "a kind, caring man who just got burned out. There has to be some mistake. He is not that type of person."
Rabbi Moshe Hafuta of the Da'at Torah Educational Center, said Farshid Tehrani had once come to pray with members of the small congregation, which includes Persian, Israeli and American Jews.
Hafuta also told the Times that he had been involved in a dispute over an apartment he rented from Tehrani, and that a blaze, apparently set with lamp fluid, broke out at the apartment in late April.
The Times investigation also reported that the State of California had filed two tax liens against Tehrani, who, in turn, had tried to sue two judges who had ruled against him.
The fears engendered by the arson attacks motivated congregations and people of all faiths to come closer together through meetings and gestures of support.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom noted that when the Molotov cocktail heaved through a sanctuary window at 6:30 a.m. and landed a few feet from the ark, the Hispanic Catholic custodians rushed in to save five Torah scrolls. Schulweis added that the loyalty and altruistic behavior of the five custodians will be recognized in a gathering of the synagogue's congregation and board of directors.
"I think we have learned a deep lesson: not to allow hatred to embitter our souls. While we must be vigilant, we must seek out the rescuers and those who love life," he said.
On Thursday night, May 8, worshipers, including various elected officials and religious leaders of many faiths, gathered at St. Cyril's Catholic Church in Encino to show their solidarity.
"What was impressive was the kinship of fear and the resolution to be for each other," Schulweis said. "I've been to many interfaith gatherings where there's a very noble rhetoric expressed, but never a greater degree of urgency and passion. The lesson derived is that hate is indiscriminate and in order to counter one has to have an ecumenical embrace of love and concern."
Ironically, at the same time (May 5-7) that the hate crimes were being committed in Encino, a conference was being held at USC in the name of religious solidarity. Over the three days, nearly 200 clergy, activists, academics, non-profit workers and lay people from all faiths attended "Beyond Violence: Religious Sources of Social Transformation," a three-day conference intended to "find ways for the religions of the world to work together for peace and justice." In response to the irony, the Rev. James L. Heft, president and founding director of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, said "Our conference was called 'Beyond Violence,' but we were not so naive to think that we would be able to remove all violence. Anytime violence is used it is destructive of human dignity.... People commit acts of violence out of frustration, ignorance, malice and hatred. Whatever the reasons, it must be denounced and opposed."
Amanda Susskind, regional director of the Southwest Regional office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), called the arson incidents "alerts."
"It's certainly a time to refresh your vigilance in terms of security at your institution," Susskind said, noting that the ADL has scheduled a community forum on security for institutions in the ecumenical community on June 2. "It's like when there's an earthquake and afterward you kind of evaluate what your earthquake preparedness is. It's a good reminder to [exercise] safe practices within the community."
Staff Writer Rachel Brand contributed to this report.