Published July 30, 2013
WASHINGTON – A woman charged with defacing the Washington National Cathedral had a soda can of green paint with her when she was arrested, and she has been linked to at least four other incidents of vandalism, including at the Lincoln Memorial, according to prosecutors and court documents.
Jia M. Tian, 58, appeared alongside a Mandarin translator on Tuesday in D.C. Superior Court, where a judge ordered her held pending a hearing later this week. Police had previously identified her as Jiamei Tian.
Tian was arrested Monday at the cathedral, where she is accused of using green paint to deface an organ and decorative woodwork in two separate chapels. She's been charged with destroying private property, a crime that carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
The cathedral has said the damage to its chapels, including to a gilded wood altarpiece, will cost thousands of dollars to fix.
Authorities believe the green paint vandalism was part of a pattern of similar acts. Green paint was discovered splattered onto the Lincoln Memorial early Friday morning, and symbols were later found painted in green on a statue outside the Smithsonian headquarters on the National Mall.
The woman, who has a Chinese passport, arrived in Washington a few days ago and was traveling on an expired visa, prosecutors said. Police said she had no fixed address but that she told officers she lived in Los Angeles. She refused to give her phone number, email address or home address, police said, and a language barrier complicated initial efforts to interview her.
Prosecutors asked the judge to keep Tian locked up, calling her a flight risk and a danger to the community. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Chambers said there was no way to guarantee her presence at future court appearances without jailing her.
"While that danger to the community is not violent, it is nonetheless serious," he said.
Tian was arrested inside the cathedral's Children's Chapel on Monday afternoon, shortly after the still-wet green paint was discovered there. When a police officer approached her, she walked away and placed the soda can with green paint inside one of three bags that were sitting on chairs in the chapel, documents show. She also had green paint on her clothing, shoes and body, authorities say.
She was wearing a multicolored sock on her right arm, and a similar sock was found in a trash can in a bathroom at the cathedral on top of a can of green paint, according to the documents. The bags placed in the chapel also had cans of green paint in them, police said.
Tian is also suspected of vandalizing a statue of Martin Luther on Thomas Circle in downtown Washington, which was also hit with green paint, prosecutors say.
Following her arrest, a witness contacted police and reported that the woman had been seen attending a service at a church less than a block from Thomas Circle, according to court documents. The witness reported that the woman was carrying three bags with her. After she left, the witness found that a pipe organ in the church had been splattered with white paint, urine and feces, police say.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said Tuesday on a news talk show on NewsChannel 8 that the incidents all appear to be connected. She said Tian has potential "mental health issues" and it's still not clear what inspired the vandalism.
"What the motive is for the incidents, we don't really know," she said. "I guess that will all start to unfold as we go through the courts."
A lawyer for Tian argued that her client could be appropriately dealt with by immigration authorities instead of going to jail, but Chambers disagreed.
"We have her here now," he said. "We want her to answer for these alleged offenses."
Cleanup crews have been working for the past few days to remove the paint from the Lincoln Memorial. An estimated $15,000 in repair work has already begun at the Episcopal cathedral, which serves as the nation's spiritual home and has hosted state funerals and inaugural prayer services.