MOORHEAD — A Moorhead man charged in connection with the weekend vandalism of a local mosque told investigators that he spray-painted racist and anti-Islam graffiti as a joke and had hoped to provoke a reaction from the community and media.
Benjamin Stewart Enderle, 22, appeared Thursday, April 29, in Clay County District Court on felony charges of harassment and criminal damage to property. Both charges allege Enderle committed the crimes because of bias, including race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
The charges filed in Clay County District Court allege Enderle spray-painted the Moorhead Fargo Islamic Community Center at 2215 12th Ave. S. in Moorhead. The mosque was found Sunday with racist messages spray-painted on it, including “Death to Islam” and a racial slur covering a row of windows.
Surveillance footage showed a lone masked suspect approaching the mosque at 11:37 p.m. Saturday, a criminal complaint said.
Hundreds of community members from various religions came together to clean the building on Monday.
Enderle was arrested Tuesday after a Walmart loss prevention officer looked into red spray paint sales at the retail chain's Dilworth, Minn., location, according to court documents. Video footage at the Walmart showed a man matching the description of the suspect buying spray paint at about 11:30 a.m. Saturday, the complaint said.
Police traced a receipt and a vehicle leaving the Walmart around that time to Enderle, according to the complaint.
Enderle said spray-painting the mosque was a joke, but he said he doesn't "hate" Muslims, the complaint said. He said he did it to get a reaction from the community and media, court documents alleged.
“I regretted doing it right after I did it,” Enderle said in court.
The harassment charge carries a maximum punishment of five years in prison. The charge typically is listed as a gross misdemeanor, according to Minnesota statute.
Since it involves an allegation of bias, it has been elevated to a felony charge with an increased penalty, Chief Assistant County Attorney Pamela Foss said.
"These charges were the only ones found to be applicable to this set of facts," she said.
Minnesota law doesn't label any offenses as hate crimes, Foss added.
Clay County prosecutor Michael Leeser asked Judge Jade Rosenfeldt to set unconditional bond at $50,000. Leeser acknowledged the allegations are low level, but the nature of the crime was serious and hurtful to the Islamic Center.
“The offense here is so shocking to the conscience, to the public,” Leeser said.
Enderle said this was his first alleged offense. He has lived in the Fargo-Moorhead area for two years, but he grew up in Dickinson, N.D., he said.
Rosenfeldt set unconditional bond at $40,000, or a $20,000 bond with conditions. If he pays cash, he would only have to post $2,000.
Enderle, who is being held at the Clay County Jail, did not qualify for a public defender, nor had he hired an attorney as of Thursday morning.
The FBI is investigating the case. It's not known whether Enderle could face charges in federal court.
Two federal hate crime offenses — damaging religious property and interfering with a federally protected activity — could apply to Enderle's case, said Tim Purdon, who previously served as a U.S. attorney in North Dakota.
"I would be surprised if federal charges weren't brought in a case like this," he said.
It takes time to build a federal case, possibly weeks, Purdon said. Bringing charges that Purdon suggested could be delayed further since they need approval from U.S. Department of Justice officials in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota said it could not comment on an open investigation. It did share a link that detailed hate crime laws, including the ones Purdon mentioned.
The Muslim community has already forgiven Enderle, said Cani Adan, a Muslim and chairperson of the Moorhead Human Relations Commission. They’re not worried about whether or not the charges fit the crime, he said.
“I understand when people are young, a lot of crazy things happen," Adan said. "We are praying for him, so that Allah will guide him."
Prosecution is up to the court, Adan said, adding, "if it is our decision, we will make him free, today, right now, and say you need to learn right here."
Forum reporter C.S. Hagen and WDAY reporter Matt Henson contributed to this report.