Tucson police arrested a 16-year-old Monday on suspicion of spray-painting graffiti on saguaros and boulders at Saguaro National Park East.
In addition to the May incident of vandalism, the teen is a suspect in at least 140 incidents of graffiti throughout the city, said Officer Abel Urzua of the Tucson Police Department.
The teen faces two counts of felony vandalism, said Urzua, a graffiti-abatement officer.
In mid-May, 11 saguaros were among 41 objects - including rocks, posts, signs and other cacti - defaced with graffiti along the Douglas Spring Trail. Many of them had the moniker "SOMA" sprayed on them.
The National Park Service has spent thousands of dollars to clean up the graffiti and investigate the incident, and staffers are still trying to figure out the best way to clean the saguaros, said Andy Fisher, spokeswoman for Saguaro National Park.
Tucson police became involved after Urzua saw photos of the park graffiti and recognized it from a database of tags the department maintains. The moniker SOMA has been painted on city property in at least 140 locations since October 2010, according to a database maintained by Graffiti Protective Coatings, the company contracted by the city to clean up vandalism in Tucson. It has cost the city about $3,600 to clean up SOMA tags, Urzua said.
The teen told police SOMA stands for Society of Mexican-Americans, said Sgt. Chris Widmer, a TPD spokesman.
A joint investigation by a special agent with the National Park Service and Urzua led them to the teen.
"Yesterday we met up with the family and the suspect," Urzua said. "He owned up to it. He admitted to doing the tagging at Saguaro National Park. He didn't give a reason why."
During the interview, Urzua asked the teen about the SOMA graffiti in the city and showed him photos taken by the cleanup crews.
"He admitted to almost every single photo except two or three," Urzua said.
He now faces two counts of felony vandalism - one for the Saguaro Park graffiti, the other for one incident of graffiti in the city.
Even though vandalizing a national park is a federal offense, "we are going to let the state and TPD take the lead on the prosecution," Fisher said.
She declined to provide the name of the teen, citing Park Service policy against releasing "information about juveniles involved in law-enforcement incidents."
Less than two weeks after the May graffiti incident, along the same trail park officials found a saguaro and two barrel cacti that were hacked, with their tops sheared off, and a palo verde with several branches chopped off.
After the Park Service released surveillance photos of the suspects taken along the trail, two men, Beau Campbell and Colton Salazar, turned themselves in. The pair face federal charges.
Did you know
After this vandalism was found, park officials used a commercial cleaning product called Elephant Snot to see if it was effective and safe in removing graffiti from cactus. The park is monitoring the cleaned cacti to see if there are any harmful effects.
Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4191.