Skill with a spray can became his calling card

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Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Graffiti Taskforce Detective Daniel Sullivan measures graffiti by Daniel Montano in an alley on Melwood Avenue in Oakland.
By Moustafa Ayad
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The city walls speak to Detective Daniel Sullivan. They tell tales of the current and former rivalries between feuding crews, gangland thugs and rising showboats. The stories that are told across the city's walls are scrawled in the script of the street -- graffiti.

"The walls talk loudly," said Detective Sullivan, one of three officers who make up the city's Graffiti Taskforce.

With a cast of characters such as "Raels," "Move," "Joker" and "Ghostface," perhaps none of the players has captured more attention from jealous "taggers," concerned community groups and law enforcement than the self-penned, brown-eyed artist down with the "Jive Young Kids" crew -- Daniel Montano.

He was and still is "MFONE," a moniker and persona that over time found itself on 87 sites in Lawrenceville, Schenley Farms, East Liberty, Bloomfield and Shadyside. Last year, in another graffiti case, Mr. Montano admitted MFONE was his tag. It has evolved over time as his skill with a spray can became his calling card. Investigators in the Graffiti Taskforce came to know him as "Mad Fly One" and "Mad Fresh One."

The tracking of the elusive 21-year-old Colombian-American from Highland Park took more than 100 hours of police work , involved numerous tips by citizens and culminated on St. Patrick's Day when Mr. Montano was arrested.

If it is narcissism that drives graffiti vandals, then it was that same motivation that did in Mr. Montano.

Inside a black Dickies messenger bag, Mr. Montano turned over evidence much more valuable than the five spray paint cans stuffed inside. He handed investigators the makings of a case that will likely go down as the largest graffiti bust in U.S. history, a case that could cost Mr. Montano $560,764.50 in damages.

Hidden in the small bag police found a video camera and a digital camera that documented and detailed the extent of Mr. Montano's damage to some of Pittsburgh's buildings and underpasses. The 80 minutes of video that show Mr. Montano applying elaborate script to large portions of walls and underneath overpasses, at one point even holding a spray can with one hand and videotaping with the other, will be the strongest evidence in the case against him.

Officers also obtained Mr. Montano's U.S. passport, limiting his ability to leave the country. Mr. Montano represented himself at his arraignment hearing and successfully requested a continuation. He then left Pittsburgh for his second home in San Francisco.

"The case is overwhelming," said Detective Sullivan, the lead investigator on the Montano case. "It is probably the biggest case ever prosecuted because of the sheer amount of evidence of guilt."

Only 50 percent of graffiti is reported in Pittsburgh. For years, the city was considered a blank slate for many in U.S. graffiti community. Enforcement was considered weak and the abundance of vacant warehouses and cramped hidden alleyways -- many of them in the Strip District -- offered a canvas for many miscreants wielding a spray can.

Two years ago, under the pressure from Councilmen William Peduto and Alan Hertzberg, the city outfitted the police department with a computerized graffiti database that itemized graffiti by the business vandalized, address, tag name, neighborhood and police zone.

For every instance of graffiti, officers now respond with a digital camera. They take measurements, take note of the neighborhood, evaluate the paints used and try to decipher the code of the intricate and signature penmanship of individual taggers. Those characteristics -- color, length, neighborhood and artist -- are then filed with the incident picture into the database.

Taskforce officers use the computerized system as a key, unlocking mysteries such as the link between a tagger named "Brown Eyes" and Mr. Montano. (Hint: They are the same person. It was Mr. Montano's "e's" that gave it away.)

"Tagging is a mind-set within a certain subgroup of 20-something white males," said Mr. Peduto. "To them they are expressing a part of a culture, but what they don't understand is that it hurts people. If you meet the frightened grandmother whose garage you're tagging and see it is not a victimless crime, then maybe that mind-set will begin to change."

Proactive law enforcement and a rapid city cleanup response unit were seen as the most effective methods of combating the effect of graffiti vandalism. By actively searching and removing graffiti while the paint is still fresh -- the city's Public Works Department's Graffiti Busters handle cleanups -- much of the allure of scrawling a tag across a wall is siphoned away.

"The success is getting rid of graffiti quickly," said Mr. Hertzberg, who is now Allegheny County Common Pleas judge. "The battle is very much psychological; these people go by and enjoy seeing their name. You can't lose the psychological part of the battle by allowing the graffiti to stay."

But enforcement and cleanup are only two parts of an equation that requires the most essential piece of the puzzle: prosecution.

People familiar with Mr. Montano's case are often angered by what they perceive as the light sentences he has received in the past. When he was arrested last year for three graffiti sites, he spent five days in jail, was fined $1,001 and received no probation. Police and community action groups were livid that police were only able to charge him with three locales, considering one group had documented 81 locations tagged with Mr. Montano's work.

"Part of it is definitely the judicial system," said Lt. Philip Dacy, whose Zone 5 East Liberty station officers helped nab Mr. Montano. Mr. Montano once taunted the zone officers when he tagged a vacant gas station on Negley Avenue two blocks from the station. The tag is a prominent display. Mr. Montano used at least four different colors for the work and it stretches the length of a wall.

"The judges sometimes just don't seem to be responsive to their comminutes," Lt. Dacy said. "This kid thinks he is the future Rembrandt. It's an ego thing where they think their artistic talents outweigh the rights of other people."

However, Mr. Montano may have escaped full prosecution for the last time. Under zero-tolerance orders from police force brass and city council members, officers are combing their files, documenting new tags unnoticed until recently to use as evidence against him.

On a recent night, Mr. Sullivan drove around with several snapshots recovered from Mr. Montano's digital camera with the intention of locating previously unreported "MFONE" tags. The result of the detective's work added three new charges to a list in his police report already 14 pages long.

During a routine patrol through the dark parking lots of the South Side, a call for graffiti in Mt. Washington blared across the police scanner. Mr. Sullivan, who was working the night shift, drove hurriedly to a residence at 300 Bigham St., where a pristine white fence had been vandalized.

Calvin Perry, 73, greeted Mr. Sullivan outside his home holding a flashlight. Someone with permanent marker had tagged something nonsensical across Mr. Perry's $5,000 fence.

As Mr. Sullivan measured the markings and documented the vandalism, Mr. Perry turned to ask what the detective could do to the people who had ruined his white fence.

"You can't just break their legs?" Mr. Perry asked.

"No, sorry sir, we can't," Mr. Sullivan responded.

"That's OK, just send them to me when you catch them," Mr. Perry added. "I might be old, but I can take care of them."

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Daniel Montano stands outside City Court after a canceled hearing in 2005.
Click photo for larger image.

Moustafa Ayad can be reached at mayad@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1731.


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