Deaf resource center in Vancouver vandalized again

Justin Smith-Riggs, 20, faces a number of charges

Vandalism inside the Southwest Washington Resource Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, October 8, 2017 (Courtesy: Terese Rognmo)
Vandalism inside the Southwest Washington Resource Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, October 8, 2017 (Courtesy: Terese Rognmo)

VANCOUVER, Wash. (KOIN) — A resource center for the hard of hearing was broken into and vandalized overnight Saturday and a 20-year-old local resident faces a variety of charges.

For the second time in less than a month, police responded to the Southwest Washington Resource Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing around 2:40 a.m. after an alarm was triggered.

When officers arrived, the probable cause document said, they spotted someone “”actively breaking into the building wearing a full face mask, gloves, had a hammer in his hand and within ten feet of an undiscovered fire.”

The suspect ran away and didn’t comply with police orders to stop. But he was soon captured and police arrested Justin Smith-Riggs.

GoFundMe for SWRCDHH

Smith-Riggs, authorities said, had a black airsoft pistol, an aloe-vera bottle and a lighter in his pockets when he was arrested. He told police “there was a fire at the building and he was just trying to put it out.”

After he was arrested and read his Miranda rights, the probable cause document shows he told police a number of things: the aloe vera bottle contained gasoline that he got from his grandparents house nearby, that he thought the building was abandoned, that he broke out a window, squirted gasoline and lit a small fire “to get an adrenaline rush.”

He also allegedly said he reached inside, threw curtains, papers and a binder on the fire, then tried to break a second window when he heard the police and tried to get away.

He’s being charged with burglary, 2nd-degree arson, malicious mischief and obstructing public servant. There is no word yet on whether Smith-Riggs is suspected of being responsible for the earlier incidents.

Vandalism and arson hurts budget, morale

“That really hurts our morale,” said the center’s director, Terese Rognmo. “Where is there a sense of respect for who we are as a people, for the services that we provide? I don’t understand it.”

Rognmo said the vandalism and arson will severely hurt their budget.

“We don’t get any funding except what the state is able to give us, and it doesn’t cover any sort of damages such as this,” she told KOIN 6 News. “It pays for case management services and things like that.”

She said “deaf people are misunderstood and not respected” and she’s mystified how anyone could “callously engage in this kind of destruction.”

The first time it happened, she said, was graffiti on the outside of the building. Then the office was broken into and a young boy threw a stone through a window.

It’s unclear exactly how much damage was caused Saturday, but back in September, doors, video phones and computer monitors were broken, the tech room was destroyed and chairs were slashed.

After the Sept. 18 vandalism, the center started a fundraising campaign in hopes of raising enough money to replace what was destroyed.

Rognmo is genuinely appreciative of the support from the community. Volunteers have come by to help with clean-up and other tasks.

And then there’s people like Dave Dunlap of Lake Oswego. He donated a computer to the center after seeing a post about the vandalism on Reddit.

“I had a computer that I wasn’t using that I thought would be good for them, so I brought it out to them,” Dunlap told KOIN 6 News.

He said he doesn’t understand how anyone could vandalize this kind of resource center, either.

“I don’t know. I just feel like we could sort of overwhelm them with positive, you know? A little bit of negative and a whole bunch of positive.”

Terese Rognmo said the Southwest Washington Resource Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing wants to be a partner in the community.

The resource center provides resources for more than 125 people in Clark, Cowlitz, Pacific, Skamania, Thurston, Yakima and Tri-Cities counties and it’s the only deaf resource center in the Vancouver area.

“We want you to know who we are and what we’re about,” she said. “We’re a resource to each one of you out there.”

KOIN 6 News reporter Jennifer Dowling contributed to this report.