VALDOSTA -- The Tai Chi group members who use the Unitarian Universalist Church's East Park Avenue facility were shocked at what they found when they arrived for a Thursday afternoon workout. The 5-year-old building had been wrecked inside and out by vandals, said Al Boyce, church minister.

The Valdosta Police Department was notified of the vandalism at about 5:25 p.m., and crime scene technicians were called to the scene, Sgt Steve Owens said.

Lars Leader, a Valdosta State University professor, was one of the church board members called to check out the damage. "We arrived about the time the police arrived," he said. "We found the church in a terrible state. We did not know what to think, why this occurred ..."

Someone had destroyed every window in the church, and every room was ransacked, Owens said. Candles and even a fire extinguisher had been used as projectiles to break windows.

The offenders also spray-painted the inside and outside of the building.

Inside, broken glass covered the floor. Pictures from photo albums and paper littered the floor along with books, many of which had been ripped apart. Inside the kitchen, dishes and cups lay broken and food stuffs were scattered about the floor. Boyce said the offenders had placed metal objects inside the microwave oven trying to get them to spark, he said.

Walls in almost every room were spray-painted with the number '6.' On the entrance of one hallway on the right, the word "branded" had been spray-painted. Also, a bathroom sink had been pulled out of the wall.

Boyce said one of the investigators at the scene believed the offender was tall due to the height of the graffiti on the wall.

"The vandalism was not directed toward tearing the place up," Leader said. "It was more directed toward destroying what was important to the congregation -- artwork, ceramics, other things in the sanctuary. The piano was overturned. The pedestal for the candles was thrown straight through a window and landed outside."

Church members scheduled a time Friday evening to clean up the mess.

"We're in shock that anyone could do this to a church," Boyce said. "It's beyond belief."

The vandalism took place some time between 7 p.m. Tuesday when Boyce left the church and 5 p.m. Thursday when the Tai Chi group arrived, the police report said.

"We've found no particular group or person responsible for the crime," Owens said. "The case is still under investigation."

Leader speculated Friday about possible motives for the vandalism. The Unitarian Universalist Church nationwide is active in social issues. Locally, the church backed the anti-war movement, even offering use of its facilities for the South Georgia Coalition for Peace meetings. Leader and Boyce are members of the coalition's steering committee.

"It's not only our suspicion that this is more than a random act of vandalism," Leader said.

The church intends to conduct a service on Sunday. Leader hopes the community beyond the Unitarian congregation will get involved.

"We don't believe this incident is representative of the South Georgia area, and we think some kind of community gathering would demonstrate that this is certainly not something that's representative of the community," he said.

Anyone with information about the vandalism of the Unitarian Universalist Church is urged to call the Crime Tip Line at (229) 293-3145.

City Editor Heath Griner contributed to this story.

To contact reporter Rip Prine, please call 244-3400, ext. 237.

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