“Hollyweed” No Joke To Authorities

The sign on New Year’s Day. Photo: Andy Chase.

The New Year’s Day transformation of the Hollywood Sign to read “Hollyweed” is still making waves amongst city authorities as they try to determine exactly how a local artist slipped past hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of surveillance equipment monitored by the Los Angeles Police Dept. (LAPD) to breach the perimeter of the sign and get close to a city communication tower used by first responders in the event of a disaster, all without being apprehended.

Zachary Cole Fernandez, 30, the artist responsible for the prank, voluntarily surrendered to authorities January 9th.

He was arrested, booked for misdemeanor trespassing, and released. According to spokesperson Frank Mateljan, the Los Angeles City Attorney is still deciding whether to formally charge Fernandez.

To many across the world, the incident appeared to be a harmless prank.

However, Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu, whose district encompasses both the sign and its surrounding neighborhoods, said he viewed it as a serious incident and is advocating for Fernandez to be prosecuted.

“Pranks of this nature deplete the resources of our valuable public safety personnel, in both responding to the prank and in responding to the increased crowds and copycat attempts that these incidents generate,” Ryu said in a statement.

Uncertainty over security surrounding the sign is a hot button issue in Ryu’s district, where crowds of sign seeking tourists have created, in recent years, public safety concerns for many of the residents living in the sign’s shadow.

Further, some fear that their neighborhoods could become the target of a terrorist attack because of their proximity to both the Hollywood Sign and the communication tower, used by city and county agencies to talk to one another in the case of a major disaster.

“They were lucky on New Years Eve, that all the person did up there was change the sign and not blow it up,” said Sarajane Schwarz, a 40-year resident of Beachwood Canyon. “It was a major security breach that has huge implications.”

Other Beachwood Residents, however, enjoyed the prank.

“I just thought [it] was fabulous and laughed. A lot of people in the neighborhood just though it was great,” said another long-time resident who asked to remain anonymous. “We have to laugh at ourselves and enjoy these things. Nobody was hurt.”

Still, the LAPD appears to be taking the prank seriously.

“In my opinion, the sign as well as the towers are critical infrastructure,” said Manny Sanchez, a LAPD senior lead officer in Hollywood.

The Hollywood Sign Trust, a private organization responsible for maintaining the sign and purchasing its surveillance systems, also views the prank as a serious incident.

“That morning, the neighborhoods exceeded their capacity with ‘lookey loos’ trying to take pictures of ‘HOLLYWEED,’” said Chris Baumgart, chair of the organization’s board of trustees.

“The people and their cars could have prevented an emergency vehicle getting to one of the residents in [a] time of need,” Baumgart said. “In that context, what may have seemed on the surface as a humorous prank was selfishly not thought through by the ‘prankster’ in terms of unintended consequences.”

Since then, the Sign Trust has had numerous meeting with Council District 4, the LAPD and other involved organizations about how the incident occurred and how to prevent something like it from happening again in the future.

Right now, these groups are working to determine where the weak link occurred in the security chain, and are considering everything from the unusually rainy weather on the day of the incident to potential software issues with the security system and human error.

While much is still in question, the Sign Trust does know the on-site cameras were working.

“The prankster did not evade the surveillance system,” Baumgart said, “as there was extensive footage of the individual.”

The Sign’s high tech surveillance system has cost over $700,000 to build since 1993.

The current generation of the system includes numerous security cameras monitoring the sign, as well as a more limited number of motion sensors and infrared cameras targeted towards specific areas. The feeds from this surveillance system are monitored by LAPD officers nearby and in downtown Los Angeles.

“After this event, it is clear that we will be investing more in ‘high tech’ solutions in the weeks to come,” Baumgart said.

This investment will not likely come from public funds.

While the city does pay for LAPD officers to monitor the sign’s surveillance cameras and can grant money to the Sign Trust for specific projects, the Hollywood Sign Trust is traditionally responsible for purchasing the hardware and software that makes up the sign’s surveillance system.

The organization is funded by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which holds the lucrative trademark rights to the Hollywood Sign’s image and receives royalties when the sign appears in television shows, movies and other media.

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