July 17, 2014 at 10:45 am

Laura Berman

Charges for Grosse Pointe Woods teens for graffiti draw rash of attention

Mackenzie Snitgen, left, Esabella Meteer and Mary Harder are charged with destruction of property. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

When the graffiti girls popped up on my computer screen, I wasn’t sure whether I was looking at mug shots or a promotion for the new “Girls of Grosse Pointe North” show.

It’s possible that both are true. Three teenagers from Grosse Pointe Woods are charged with a felony, after Rock Ventures security equipment apparently caught them spray-painting pink XOs, random obscenities and “Welcome to Detroit” on downtown buildings that share alley space with buildings owned by Dan Gilbert and partners.

In a city where many crimes go unreported and where the media covers only a slim percentage of murders, the police and the media are highly responsive to the details of this case, if for different reasons.

But the upshot is that Mackenzie Snitgen, Esabella Meteer and Mary Harder were arraigned Tuesday in the kind of media splash that’s typically reserved for crimes against children and cougar sightings. But graffiti? No.

Some of the fascination could be explained by the novelty of suburban girls with wavy tresses getting charged with Detroit mayhem.

Some is the surprise that nice girls from Grosse Pointe might do bad things in Detroit — and get charged with a crime.

And there’s the insight into the Gilbert empire at work. First, the demonstration of techno-prowess that allowed Rock Ventures to video, and later rewind to the appropriate place, apparently catching the graffiti artists in the act. And finally, Detroit’s downtown business czar had the determination to solicit employees to identify the alleged culprits — and the clout to get the police and prosecutor to follow through.

Asked if he could remember any other Detroit graffiti cases, Meteer’s lawyer Eric Goze, a longtime Detroit defense lawyer, said he dimly remembered the case of a graffiti artist who painted turtles and was prosecuted.

In fact, the turtle artist was never prosecuted.

Earlier this year, Larry Mongo, the proprietor of Cafe D’Mongo, apprehended three would-be graffiti artists on his Capitol Park-area roof. They got away before the police arrived, and he says the police refused to take the camera and bag one left behind. Ultimately, Channel 7 aired the story.

“It’s really the failure of the city,” said Mongo, who feels a bit sorry for the three accused girls.

Mongo says “99 percent of the kids, suburban and from the city, are good ... but until now, Detroit hasn’t done anything to stop the few bad kids there are.”

The Michigan Department of Transportation spent half a million dollars cleaning up Detroit bridges and other sites in recent months. Graffiti isn’t murder, but it costs us.

Gilbert has made it clear he wants restitution, not jail time for the three teens. But his decision to find the culprits echoes Rudy Guiliani’s 1998 comments about prosecuting small crime.

“Obviously murder and graffiti are two vastly different crimes,” he said. “But they are part of the same continuum, and a climate that tolerates one is more likely to tolerate the other.”

Bankruptcy and the will to change the city’s culture are converging on the surprised, bemused, distressed faces of three suburban poster girls presumably caught with paint on their hands.

lberman@detroitnews.com