Cemetery vandalism cases pose challenges for owners, municipalities

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August 27, 2011
— It was a night of destruction that one local teen told friends he was too intoxicated to clearly remember. But it left the city footing $2,500 in repairs and ended in the desecration of headstones of some of the city’s earliest residents.

In the late hours of May 25, two 16-year-old boys—one a Milton resident and one from Janesville—pushed, shoved and tackled dozens of gravestones at the city-owned Milton Cemetery, which is along Highway 26 on the city’s north side, officials say.

They ultimately toppled about 40 newer granite markers and smashed at least a dozen older marble stones, some which date back to the mid-1800s, according to the Milton Police Department.

One of the teens even went into a football stance so he could gather more power to attack the stones, according to a police report.

It all happened just a few days before Memorial Day, while the teens reportedly were intoxicated on a mixture of the over-the-counter cold medicine and Four Loko, an alcoholic energy drink, police reported.

Milton police charged the boys in the vandalism a few days later based on a tip from other juveniles who knew the two. They’ve faced amended charges in Rock County Court of felony criminal damage to a cemetery.

As for the damage, it could have been worse. The city’s public works department has already re-set all of the newer marble stones vandalized—most of which were toppled but not broken. The city is pursuing $2,500 in restitution for that work.

One of the boys has already been found guilty of the charges in Rock County Court and is being forced to pay $1,250—half the restitution cost, according to court records.

The other boy entered a denial plea, but he is now considering an offer by the Rock County District Attorney’s Office to settle in the case as early as next month, according to court records.

Back to normal

Meanwhile, things are getting back to normal at the Milton Cemetery. City Administrator Jerry Schuetz said most of the dozen or so older stones reportedly smashed in the vandalism have been cleaned up, and those that aren’t repaired are now in city storage.

Yet the city’s insurance won’t pay to repair those stones because they technically belong to the families who own the burial plots and are not the city’s responsibility. Some of those stones haven’t been claimed, possibly because their owners are no longer around or are still unaware of the vandalism.

Schuetz said the city has published lists of the damaged stones, some of which could cost $4,000 to $8,000 to replace, according to Milton police reports.

Private donations—the city’s police and fire departments have raised $2,000 so far—could pay for further repairs, Schuetz said.

But he indicated that the city has no firm estimates on total damages to the older gravestones, and the city has no immediate plans to pay for further repairs linked to vandalism at the cemetery.

Craig Gramke, who owns Gramke Monument Works in Janesville, said he recently repaired an old marble headstone from Milton Cemetery believed to have been snapped off by vandals.

Gramke said it was in one piece and just needed to be reset. He did the work for free for the woman who brought it in to him.

“It wasn’t her fault that it happened,” he said.

Gramke said repairs are often far more time-consuming and costly than that.

“When you come into the cemetery and half the gravestones are taking a nap, it takes a while,” he said.

A fix?

It’s a conundrum that mostly escapes public attention except during the initial days after large-scale cemetery vandalism. In many cases, cemetery vandalism can be prosecuted as a felony crime, but the amount of restitution that municipalities or private cemetery owners either seek or eventually win often can fall short of the total cost of damages.

That can leave the future of old, busted headstones up to fundraisers and volunteers.

David Brenner, vice-president of the Wisconsin Cemetery and Cremation Association, a state cemetery trade association, said his group wants to strengthen laws on cemetery vandalism.

Brenner, who manages a city-owned cemetery in Waukesha, said members of his group and other cemetery associations are reviewing state cemetery laws and plan to lobby to shore up legal language that in some cases 100 years old.

Some of the laws aren’t related to vandalism, but Brenner said it’s one area where the law is weak. Cemetery vandals can be prosecuted for felony crimes, but Brenner said his group would like to see other acts at cemeteries, such as theft or damage to flower arrangements, also be considered felonies.

Brenner said the group also plans to look at penalties for cemetery damage. He said he’d like to see the courts have the power to couple paid restitution with stiffer community service hours for cemetery vandals.

“I’m in favor of people making it right. Not just a slap on the hand,” Brenner said. “Make them work 500 hours for free at that cemetery.”

Brenner said that could offset the high cost of repairs to headstones, and it would serve as a deterrent to other would-be vandals.

“We’d like to put some teeth behind the law with some of these acts. The whole concept that the dead have no rights is not true,” said Brenner.

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