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One man late Thursday night sprayed three hateful words on the garage door of a northwest Santa Rosa family.

Sunday afternoon, a clean-up crew of more than 50 people appalled by the display of racism, showed up to wipe away the graffiti and show Fijian immigrants Di and Bentley Chong Wan that one guy with a spray can doesn’t speak for them.

Residents of the older subdivision near Coffey Park streamed into the cul-de-sac where the Wans have rented a home for the last year bearing covered dishes, small bouquets of flowers and supportive signs reading, “Only Love Prevails Here” and “Keep Hate out of Santa Rosa.”

“I am so overwhelmed by the support of my neighbors,” said Di Chong Wan, surveying the turnout from a camp chair on the sidewalk. “Something good always comes out of small bad things. Love overrides everything.”

Helen Tucker, who lives a few streets over, had walked past Di Wan in Coffey Park Saturday and approached her after noticing she’d been crying.

“If it happens somewhere else it’s hard to do anything about it. But I can do this and it feels really good,” said Tucker, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years. For the potluck she looked up Fijian recipes and made a traditional banana cake.

Di Wan’s husband Bentley, 50, said it hit him “like a brick wall” when he came home Friday morning after working all night — both he and his wife are in-home caregivers — to discover someone had scrawled “I hate n.....s”’ in large black letters on his garage door.

“It shocked us. We’ve seen stories like this in the news and now it’s happening to us,” he said. “I didn’t know what I should do, or if I should do anything at all. I brushed it off a little bit. But finally it dawned on me that this is unacceptable.”

One of the Wans’ five sons who was home at the time, spotted the hate tag and called Santa Rosa Police.

The Wans have a small security camera outside their home and captured footage of the perpetrator, which they gave to police. In the meantime, Bentley Wan decided to take matters into his own hands. He said he determined that the vandal was a 28-year-old man who had been visiting the son of a neighbor.

The Wans tracked down the man, who does not live in the neighborhood, and invited him to come over and talk. He showed up Saturday night, Bentley Wan said, and spent about 90 minutes talking with his family. He told them he lashed out after he found his car, parked near the Wan home, vandalized. He wound up apologizing.

The Wans declined to identify the man.

“I was trying to understand why he did it,” said Bentley Wan, who was a teacher of math and economics in Fiji. “Was he coerced? What did he mean? I concluded he was just a young, drunken man who was mad and wanted to vent his anger and frustration. I don’t know why he chose the word he did.”

Santa Rosa police said the incident is under investigation. They were unaware the Wans had identified and met with the perpetrator.

Sgt. Marcus Sprague, who supervises the property crimes unit, said Sunday the recording submitted by the Wans “lacked sufficient quality to make a positive identification.” He said the case remains under investigation and detectives today will interview potential witnesses and review the tape “and see if there is anything else we can do.”

Ultimately, it will be up to the Wans to press charges if a suspect is identified, he said.

Sprague said there is no apparent rash of hate graffiti in the Wans’ neighborhood.

Graffiti is typically a misdemeanor. But it can rise to a felony if there is a suspicion that it is related to a hate crime, Sprague said.

The Wans immigrated from Fiji eight years ago and chose to settle in Santa Rosa at the urging of friends.

“They told me the weather is beautiful,” Bentley Wan said. “The people are beautiful. It has all the comforts of the city but it doesn’t feel like a big city. It’s homey. I came here and found it’s the absolute truth.”

Despite the words left on his garage, his faith in community remains unshaken thanks to the support from acquaintances and complete strangers.

“Thank you. The only word that comes to mind is that we’re overwhelmed by your love and care,” he told the gathering, after several took up rags and solvent and wiped off the words in a display of solidarity. Since it was discovered Friday, the graffiti was concealed behind a banner hung by neighbor Pamela Van Halsema. A teacher and librarian at Kenilworth Junior High, she organized the block party believing there is safety in numbers and if people know one another, they will be more likely to support each other.

Van Helsema said she has long worried about a rising and vocal hate rhetoric in the country that came to a head at a white nationalist’s rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Aug. 12. The gathering turned violent, leaving one counter-protester dead and 34 people injured. Two Virginia State Police officers in a helicopter monitoring the rally also died when it crashed.

Van Helsema printed out flyers and knocked on doors around the neighborhood. The reaction was mixed.

“I had one person say, ‘Well, maybe somebody doesn’t like them.’ And another literally cried when I told them what happened,” she said.

She has attended several meetings of Santa Rosa Standing Together, a grass roots group aimed at breaking community social and racial barriers. She learned the first step to understanding is getting to know one another. Bringing people together in her own neighborhood seemed to a good place to start.

“Sharing a meal together is one of the best levelers in the whole world. Often what you bring reflects a little bit of who you are,” said Van Helsema, whose two daughters saw the graffiti Friday morning while walking the dog. Daughter Talia Mulder, 17, knocked on the Wans’ door and offered to paint their garage.

Betsy Sanville, a nurse from Forestville, brought several heart signs on stakes saying “Love Lives Here” and “Be Kind” to place in the Wans’ yard. Di Wan is a caregiver for her 91-year-old mother.

“She’s just a big-hearted and warm-hearted woman who makes my mom feel safe and brings lightness to her home with a sense of humor and tender loving care,” she said.

“I’m surprised how sad this makes me feel. And some of that is not knowing what to do about it, not knowing how I can make the most difference to change people’s thoughts.”

Bentley Wan said he doesn’t feel like pressing charges. That, he said, would “smear” the man’s name.

“The last thing we want is for him to lose his job or be destroyed,” Bentley Wan said. “That would destroy what this whole process is trying to restore. I was taught not to bear a grudge and not to carry hatred. You can’t live your life carrying excess baggage. It will just slow you down.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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