Talk in this picturesque town lately has been about a decidedly unattractive topic — racism.

Sheriff's deputies and area residents say a small group of young, white men is bringing its racial points of view to the center of this mountain community, issuing ethnic slurs, death threats and committing one beating.

"I think it's a small percentage that is causing all the problems," sheriff's Sgt. Mario Sulay said, adding that hate crimes are committed occasionally throughout the county. He urged victims to report such crimes.

The recent talk in Boulder Creek has centered on two events.

On Friday, a racial slur was used against a man. He also was called "foreigner," and his car windshield was struck, deputies said.

Two weeks before, a group of Latino workers was confronted in the middle of Highway 9 at night; witnesses say one of the men was beaten and that one white perpetrator carried an ax, but did not use it.

In both incidents, at least one man shouted he was going to "take back the town," deputies said. Deputies are investigating whether the same men were involved.

Several business owners say Latino workers are increasingly the target of harassment.

Robert West, owner of Verrerie Goods gallery in Boulder Creek, said he has been threatened in front of his store by a kid with a "shaved head," and said racism is a problem in town.

"I'd like to think education is the answer," he said.

On Tuesday, felony charges were filed against two white men arrested Friday in connection with that day's events: Richard Negherbon, 24, of Felton, and Miles Kelly, 21, of Boulder Creek, prosecutors said. Negherbon allegedly had a loaded gun, knives and clubs engraved with swastikas in his Jeep. Kelly allegedly used a racial epithet and threatened to kill the motorist after striking the windshield.

Deputies are investigating whether the two suspects are part of a larger group.

Tuesday, more than 100 Boulder Creek residents gathered to discuss racism at a meeting called by Supervisor Mark Stone.

One resident told Sheriff Steve Robbins he and his friends would avenge racially motivated behavior if deputies did not; others invoked the memory of Rosa Parks and appealed to people to prevent violence.

"Take your seat at the table of civility," urged Bill Gutzwiller of Boulder Creek.

"If we walk by ... and do nothing we are saying that is OK. It's not OK."

Several spoke of racism in the area going back decades and bemoaned longstanding concerns about how long it takes deputies to reach the county's northernmost town.

Fear of reporting crime was another concern, due to language and other barriers, one member of the San Lorenzo Valley Community Equity Committee said. But she and others said victims must first know that deputies will respond in time to help when they are called.

Sheriff Robbins said bilingual deputies would get the word out that it is safe to report such crimes, and he vowed to do all he could to work with residents to solve the problem. Community policing has been successful in other areas, he said, admitting response times are not fast enough due in part to too few deputies spread over too large an area.

Some ideas floated at Tuesday's meeting included neighborhood watch groups, putting signs in businesses identifying them as "safe places" and "unity badges" that could be worn to promote peace.

Discussion about the issue is expected to continue at an Equity Committee meeting 3 p.m. Nov. 29 at San Lorenzo Valley High School, which is open to the public, and at a Boulder Creek Business Association meeting at 7 p.m. tonight at the IOOF Lodge on Highway 9 and Forest Street.

Several people expressed hope that the problem would be addressed after Tuesday's large turnout, including the Rev. Keith Johnson, a black minister at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Ben Lomond.

"In my heart of hearts I know that if we refuse to pass it on then we will win," he said.

For information on the Equity Committee, call Roberta McPherson at 338-0815 or Joan Frey, 335-4425, Ext. 266.

Contact Cathy Smith at csmith@santacruzsentinel.com.