They did. But to the officers' surprise, many of the teens protested when they learned that the three Fremont residents could face prison sentences of up to seven years.
The attack, discovered on Monday morning, took place either late Sunday night or early Monday morning.
Arrested late Tuesday and charged with one count each of a hate-crime vandalism to a synagogue, a hate-crime vandalism to a school and conspiracy were Justin Keith Lampe, 19; Ryan Keith Weese, 19; and Spencer Dale Holladay, 18.
They were held on $45,000 bail and arraigned Wednesday in Fremont Superior Court.
Officers told the youths, who had gathered at the Fremont congregation for an Anti-Defamation League workshop called "Confronting Anti-Semitism," that the men would more likely serve 3-1/2 years for the crime, if convicted.
But one participant asked, "What will serving time in prison do for them? These guys need education and they're not going to get it by staring at a prison wall."
That response took Jessica Ravitz, the ADL's assistant regional director, by surprise.
"I expected, 'Let them rot in prison. Who cares?'" she said. "They were so compassionate and thoughtful." The discussion, which began by venting feelings of fear and anger, turned to alternative sentencing and rehabilitation.
It is unlikely that such feelings of goodwill are mutual, police say.
Detectives believe Lampe, Weese and Holladay spray-painted a swastika, underscored with "Jews die," on the outer walls of the Reform synagogue in such gargantuan magnitude that it could be seen by motorists on a nearby thoroughfare.
Tipped off by a neighbor who passed the building around 7:30 a.m. Monday, police found classroom doors, windows and the sanctuary walls littered with swastikas, profanities and graphic anti-Semitic slurs, Fremont Police Sgt. Robert Nelson said.
Fremont's Washington High School was similarly defaced.
"It was pretty awful," Nelson said, hinting that they must have relished the job. "These guys took a long time to do what they did."
They went at it long enough to catch the attention of two witnesses, who later described the men to investigators.
The Fremont Police Department put five detectives on the case. A key link was made by Rick Jones, the school resource officer, who recalled that all three had espoused neo-Nazi views when they attended Washington High.
A Tuesday afternoon interview with the suspects led police to search their homes, where investigators found hate literature, copies of Hitler's "Mein Kampf," sneakers festooned with red swastikas and Confederate flags — and a newspaper clipping about the synagogue incident.
"In their minds, they scored," Nelson said of the news coverage.
"We are so incredibly impressed with the Fremont Police Department," said Ravitz. "They just swooped right down."
The Reform synagogue has been the target of vandals four times in the past year. But never had the message of hate been so clear.
"This is a very upscale neighborhood, probably the nicest neighborhood in a very nice town," said temple administrator Mike Mitzmacher, who said he was badly shaken.
But Jonathan Bernstein, director of the ADL's Central Pacific region, said skinhead groups germinate in just that kind of middle-class to upscale area.
"I heard this neo-Nazi leader once say when he goes recruiting, he looks for 'broken toys' — kids whose families have the cars, the nice house, all the stuff but no affection," Bernstein said. "They get a sense of power and a sense of being needed from belonging to his group."
The synagogue has weathered damaging attacks, including rocks having been hurled through sanctuary windows. And once, vandals jammed a rubber hose through a school window and flooded the nursery.
Bernstein said he is advising the multitude of callers asking how they can help to first communicate to the victims that they are not alone.
"You could have a Sunday school class write a letter, or have a speaker come to your school or community group to speak about the issue," he said.
Meanwhile, Temple Beth Torah has used video surveillance cameras before and will install them again.
But even the "multipronged approach — stronger laws, community response, police response and surveillance of hate groups" — can't spin an air-tight cocoon, Bernstein said.
Six neo-Nazis, spearheaded by Archer Frey of the anti-Semitic America's Promise Ministries, turned out to protest when Bernstein joined a panel discussion on hate crime in Sacramento last week that included top law-enforcement officials from state, local and federal agencies.
"So these security issues come up even when leaders of all the major law-enforcement agencies are present," Bernstein said.