SAN JOSE -- It's a grassroots campaign to find out who's poisoning the roots of their grass.
All along serene Moreland Way -- where some residents have lived since the West San Jose neighborhood sprang up in the early 1970s -- someone has been scarring their lawns with an unknown chemical that turns whatever it touches into barren blight.
Tony Athan has lived at the end of the street for 14 years. What used to be nearly 1,500 square feet of lawn space is an amalgam of brown and orange from the work of the yet-to-be-identified saboteur.
"You can't fix it," Athan said. "I'm not going to replant it, all that work going to nothing. Not until something happens."
The "something" Athan and his dozens of neighbors would like is answers. To that end, they have banded together with a full-court press for tips that could lead to the capture of a culprit believed to have killed swatches of lawns at more than 30 homes in the area.
Led in part by Lisa Riggs, another Moreland Way resident of nearly 14 years, the last neighborhood watch meeting became a de facto strategy session to raise awareness. They pooled a $1,000 reward and posted fliers. A website was created. They contacted the media.
That latter was propelled by resident Suzanne Johnson, who said she contacted a relative working at a local television station, who in turn alerted reporters.
Moreland Way resident, Frank Maggi, a San Jose native and marketing specialist who made his money in Hollywood, helped the group coin "lawn tagging" to gain more publicity.
The outcome: "lawn tagging" is readily searchable on Google and for a brief spell last week trended on social media.
But there are still no suspects.
"We've received a lot of great feedback. But we haven't received leads," said Riggs, the neighborhood watch leader.
Thanks to the past week's publicity, San Jose police are aware of the problem. Residents have been mindful of how police understaffing has limited patrols and the investigation of quality-of-life crimes, and the lawn taggings push right up against that threshold.
Before the media barrage, only one resident had actually filed a report with police, said Officer Albert Morales.
That might be because only recently did residents believe they had enough dots to connect. The consensus in the neighborhood is that lawns began dying around Halloween 2012 with another instance a year later. Because of that timing and the relatively minimal damage -- a smattering of lawns had straight lines burned into the grass -- many dismissed it as a youth-fueled prank.
Then within the past couple of months, the taggings grew in frequency and severity.
This much is agreed on: Whoever did it had to have some sort of multi-gallon sprayer to be able to strike upward of 30 homes up and down Moreland Way as a well as a smattering of homes on surrounding streets. And because whatever chemical used takes up to two weeks to start showing its effects, pinpointing exactly when the sprayer struck is a guessing game at best.
Athan, who has installed home surveillance cameras hoping to catch a glimpse of the vandals, hopes to narrow that guessing game by sending out a soil sample to be analyzed for the chemical, which makes reseeding ineffective and instead requires homeowners to excavate a sizable depth of contaminated dirt and re-sod.
The chemical could be an industrial-grade herbicide, said Joe DiTomaso, a weed specialist with the University of California Cooperative Extension. He listed possibilities such as tebuthiurion, commonly known as spike herbicide, or bromacil, compounds used by Caltrans to render soil barren in places where dry grass would be a fire hazard.
Compounds of such high strength typically aren't available for ordinary consumers to purchase at retail garden and home-improvement stores, DiTomaso said. In some cases, buyers are required to possess specialized knowledge and show their qualifications.
Not only is it a whodunit, it's a why-dun-it. Compounding residents' frustration is the fact there seems to be no calling card or broader rationale for why their street has been targeted.
"There's no real message on it," said Rodger Ryan, who has lived on Moreland Way for 40 years. "I can't think of any gain a person would have."
Theories are plentiful. Environmental activists protesting lawn upkeep in times of serious drought? Someone with a neighborhood vendetta? Those Halloween pranksters raising the stakes?
Ryan said the problem goes far beyond landscaping. If unchecked, he says, the lawn tagger could become emboldened and escalate to other crimes, like vandalizing or burglarizing their homes.
"The worst part is you don't know what the second act is," he said. "It's not over."
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.
Residents of Moreland Way in West San Jose have posted a $1,000 reward for information on who is scarring their lawns with an unknown chemical. Tips and questions can be sent to email@example.com.