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Independence police make arrest in graffiti case

INDEPENDENCE -- As one transient teen has just learned, it doesn't pay to spray.The Independence Police Department arrested Austen Priest, 18, on June 24 in connection with more than a dozen cases of graffiti across town and more than 200 in Salem and Keizer.Priest, "A Bomb" as he's known in the graffiti community, vandalized street signs, residential property, Independence Cinema and numerous other places over the course of several months dating back to October 2012.Police received a tip on the identity of the serial tagger after the arrest of several juveniles on 18 counts of graffiti June 3."This `A Bomb' guy and this other group painted over each other's stuff for a while," Independence Police Chief Vern Wells said. "My understanding is, they met one night and agreed to a truce. From that point on they didn't cover over each other's stuff."Priest was arraigned June 25 on 16 counts of second degree criminal mischief. He is being held at the Polk County Jail on $120,000 bail.The investigation led police to Priest's mother, who lives in Independence and was aware of his activities, on June 18.After speaking with Priest's mother, Officer Dallas Cole, the lead investigator for Independence Police, contacted the Keizer Police Department and learned of multiple cases linked to Priest.Cole made attempts to contact Priest for questioning, and on June 24 Priest turned himself in at the Independence Police Department."It was one of those cases that had to stop sooner or later, we put a lot of time into it," Wells said. "We thought he was doing a lot of damage in our town, then we talked to Salem and Keizer and realized how small in comparison to the damage he had done in these other communities."Priest's "tags" varied in size from a piece of paper to much larger wall-sized spreads.During the investigation, police learned Priest was associated with two "tagging crews," the Portland-based Aerosol Vandal Squad and Salem-based Aerosol Strike Force.One source also told investigators that Priest was known to "tag" in the Portland and Beaverton areas."This really isn't gang graffiti. People are worried about the fact that gangs are everywhere," Wells said. "This has nothing to do with what we would normally consider gangs. They consider themselves artists, I guess."The legal process is just beginning for Priest, who was also charged with similar counts as a juvenile. The full investigation is not yet complete and Polk County District Attorney Aaron Felton doesn't have a full report."It's still very early in the prosecution," Felton said. "The next step is a pretrial hearing. We'll work with his lawyer to see if he's willing to admit to these and take responsibility or whether we're going to have to have a trial."

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