Tombstone blues

One man in custody after grave-stomping vandalism spree

Smashed in the Cemetery <br>Author and local cemetery expert Doug Keister lifts a piece of broken headstone from the 1800s that had been defaced by vandals over the weekend.

Smashed in the Cemetery
Author and local cemetery expert Doug Keister lifts a piece of broken headstone from the 1800s that had been defaced by vandals over the weekend.

Photo By Tom Angel

Long way around: Five years ago Brusie Funeral Homes and Cemeteries was the subject of a controversial City Council meeting, after the funeral home closed all vehicle entrances save one, to the Chico Cemetery. The closure was undertaken to reduce vandalism but opponents argued the closure forced funeral processions from nearby rival Newton-Bracewell to enter the cemetery at the Mangrove entrance, thereby forcing them to drive all the way around the cemetery.

Friday night, when the moon was almost full, marauding vandals wreaked havoc on the oldest, historic section of the Chico Cemetery. Damage to grave markers was severe and extensive, but there didn’t seem to be a specific target. The only commonality was the location: the area farthest from Mangrove Avenue.

On Sunday, two teenage suspects were taken into custody and charged with felony vandalism for allegedly causing damage to over 250 markers in the cemetery. Avery Vance Williams, 18, was arrested and booked into Butte County Jail. The second suspect, 17, whose name was not released, was taken to Butte County Juvenile Hall.

Williams has admitted to being at the cemetery, police said. Williams was sheduled to be arraigned on Wednesday.

The motivation for targeting the cemetery is unclear; alcohol seemed to have played a role. According to Chico police Watch Commander Linda Dye, the suspects “had been drinking quite a bit.”

Every year in October, cemeteries expect to experience some vandalism from kids moved by the Halloween spirit. A toppled tombstone or two is common in the cemetery business, but this damage went way beyond the usual level of a prank.

According to police, a similar incident happened in Chico a few years ago, but the damage was not as severe, nor was it in the historic portion of the cemetery.

On Monday afternoon, the devastation was apparent. Rows of headstones, large and small, were overturned and cracked. Some lay face down, broken into two or three pieces. Granite slabs, still attached to their concrete bases, were uprooted and tilted at various angles. Headstones, some of them marble and from the late 1800s, were snapped off at the base and lay shattered on the ground.

“I cried when I saw it,” said Dave LaBarbera, family counselor for Brusie Funeral Home and Cemetery. Looking out over the long rows of damage, he lamented that “it looks like a war zone.”

Cemetery Manager Amy Brusie, whose family owns Brusie Funeral Home as well as the cemetery, was deeply saddened by the destruction when she found out about it and said she felt like she “was going to cry.” The grounds crew takes “great pride” in maintaining the appearance of the cemetery, Brusie said, and was devastated. The public is encouraged to view the destruction at the cemetery to get a sense of what happened.

Some of the stones had muddy shoeprints on them. There were at least two different shoeprints at the scene, and one of them looked like the sole of a Converse All-Star.

Brusie said she was “happy that police apprehended the suspects” so quickly. The two young men had “no respect,” she said, and their selfish actions had “victimized” the dead.

Douglas Keister, a Chico-based photographer and author of two books on cemeteries, said this was the worst cemetery vandalism he’d seen in 10 years. While surveying the damage, Keister pointed out the symbolism on some tombstones. Rosebuds, he noted, symbolize life cut short and are found on many of the damaged grave markers belonging to the very young.

The marble of the hand-crafted, 142-year-old Welch family marker would have likely come from Vermont or Italy, “around the horn,” Keister said, referring to Cape Horn. Of the estimated 250 vandalized headstones, Keister figured “half can be reset, one-quarter repaired, and one-quarter will have to be replaced.”

The cemetery is still taking inventory on the damage to determine the best course of action. Repairs are slated to begin next week, starting with the easiest stones to fix. Grave markers that weren’t broken but only pushed over will be righted and reset first. Setting even the smaller stones straight will require at least two men working together, Amy Brusie said.

Some of the cracked stones can be repaired by setting the pieces flat in a bed of cement.

Damage is estimated at several hundred thousand dollars.

The delicate marble stones cannot be repaired by Chico Cemetery and may have to be sent to a company specializing in the repair of such hand-carved pieces. Chico Cemetery has already accepted some donations, and all donations will go directly to the repair of these historic stones. To make a donation, contact the Chico Cemetery at 345-7243.