Vandals destroy headstones at rural cemetery outside Nyssa

A grave marker sits damaged in the Hilltop Memorial Cemetery near Nyssa Thursday. Vandals struck the cemetery Wednesday night and police are investigating. (The Enterprise/Jayme Fraser)

NYSSA – As many as 50 headstones were shattered, toppled or crushed at Nyssa’s Hilltop Memorial Cemetery Wednesday night.

The destroyed headstones were discovered at about 11 a.m. Thursday by Cody Packer, the cemetery sexton.

Vandals used sledgehammers or other tools to damage the headstones and memorial benches in the historic rural cemetery, situated west of Nyssa along a secluded stretch of Alberta Avenue. Several houses stand within a short distance of the cemetery.

There is no fence around the cemetery, which has an estimated 2,500 graves.

Idalia Stam, who lives near the cemetery, said in a Facebook post Thursday that there is often late activity at the cemetery.

“We live up by the cemetery road and there are cars always going up there at all times of the night,” wrote Stam.

As word spread Thursday of the damage, people from around the region drove over to determine whether their loved one’s graves was among those destroyed. By late afternoon, more than 30 cars were parked at the burial ground.

Susan Vanderwiel’s gut churned when she received a text from her daughter about the damage. She and her husband, John, drove straight up the hill and parked on the road near the site where her parents, Dorothy and Orson Leavvitt, are buried. The Nyssa woman walked up to the shattered pieces of a bench her mother bought before she died in 2002.

“Ah, man. I was hoping it wouldn’t be us,” Vanderwiel said, looking down at the chunks of concrete and dust that that covered a metal nameplate. “Wow. It looks like they just took a baseball bat to it.”

Her husband said that wouldn’t have been enough to do such damage.

“It had to have been a big hammer,” he said.

John Vanderwiel ruled out that someone drove over the hollowed grounds.

“There’s no track marks,” he said, pointing to the freshly mowed lawn.

Luckily, for Susan Vanderwiel, the vandals didn’t destroy her parents’ headstone, which has their photo carved into it along with images of their dogs and cats.

Ray Rau, Nyssa police chief, suspected a sledgehammer was used to destroy the dozens of stone markers. Rau said police believe three to four people were involved in the vandalism and the cemetery suffered at least $20,000 in damage.

“Anyone with any information, please contact your local law enforcement. We’d like to hold these people accountable. Someone knows the people who did this,” said Rau.

Rau said his department will coordinate with the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office to beef up patrols in the area.

“We are taking steps to secure the back side of it,” said Rau.

Messages left Thursday afternoon with the sheriff’s office, which is investigating, weren’t returned.

Sandy Smallwood is the secretary of the Hilltop Memorial Cemetery District, the special government entity that runs the cemetery. She said that while the district keeps records regarding where a person is buried, there is no documentation on the headstones.

 “If you are a family member, please contact us,” said Smallwood.

Packer said he the cemetery’s insurance is expected to cover the damage, including replacing the headstones.

“This is the first time we’ve filed,” said Packer.

Packer said anyone with a damaged headstone should call him at 541-216-8248 to coordinate information for replacement markers when the insurance money comes through.

Smallwood said the cemetery remains open if families want to assess any graves. Orange or green landscaping flags marked those that have been cracked, crushed or knocked over.

She said the cemetery was created in the late 1920s and was taken over by the district in the mid-1990s.

UPDATE: On Friday night, Packer provided a list of the gravesites and their damage to the Enterprise. It is published here.

Susan Vanderwiel wipes her eye while her husband John (center) points at the memorial bench destroyed by vandals Wednesday night. Her mother, Dorothy Leavvitt, had picked out the bench before her death in 2002. She also bought the black headstone seen in this photo and several neighboring plots for her children.

Reporter John L. Braese: [email protected], 541-473-3377. Photos by Reporter Jayme Fraser.