Police pursue clues on cemetery vandalism

Nearly 40 headstones were damaged or destroyed at the Hilltop Memorial Cemetery last week near Nyssa. Police are searching for the vandals responsible for the crime. (The Enterprise/Jayme Fraser)

NYSSA – The vandalism at the Hilltop Memorial Cemetery in Nyssa last week has stunned the community.

In the early morning hours of Wednesday, May 2, 39 final resting places were damaged. Some headstones were destroyed, left on the ground in chunks and dust. Others were toppled. Memorial benches were shattered. Cemetery Sexton Cody Packer discovered the damage Thursday morning.

“I was going to so some spraying that morning and found it,” Packer said.

Since then, Packer, normally a guy seen mowing the lawn and keeping up with the trimming, has spent his days on the phone.

“I have received over one hundred calls a day from family checking on their loved ones,” he said.

Even while talking about the damage, Packer was interrupted twice in 10 minutes with calls from families.

On Saturday, the cemetery was a busy place as families, many with out-of-state plates on cars, parked and walked over to a particular grave. A green flag on a wire stand signified graves that were damaged.

Authorities believe vandals used sledgehammers or other tools during the darkness of the late hour. There is no fence around the cemetery, situated on Alberta Avenue west of Nyssa. The magnitude of the destruction touched many. A Facebook gallery by the Malheur Enterprise of the destruction had 60,000 views as of Tuesday. Susan Vanderwiel’s gut churned when she received a text last week 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.

“I don’t know who they are, but to, in so many aspects in our lives, we have things that we cherish,” said Susan. “And when a total stranger has no regard for other people’s property, even if it is up here in a public place, they should respect it. To just walk around and willy nilly choose something they want to destroy, you know the same goes in our properties down in town. We have people walk in and steal stuff just right of our property.”

Vanderwiel and her siblings planned to return earlier this week to redecorate for Their mother’s birthday.

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.

Justyn Hopkins and Lucero Estrada, both of Nyssa, walked up and down each row of headstones, searching. A friend from Nampa had heard his aunt’s memorial bench was among those shattered, but he was at work so he asked Hopkins to check on his grandfather’s grave.

“My great grandma is out here somewhere, too, so we want to make sure she’s OK,” Hopkins said.

“There’s so many that were damaged. It’s crazy. We’re just looking, trying to find it. It’s looking like there’s over 50 of them damaged,” Estrada said. “I just can’t believe somebody would be so disrespectful to do this, to do anything like this. It’s horrible.”

A few rows away, Mary Ann Eavenson’s check-up was more efficient. She pointed from the cemetery’s dirt road as he directed her son, Scotyln Eavenson, to the markers of family or friends. Years ago, she worked on the lawn crew for the cemetery, so she knew exactly where each loved one is buried.

Eavenson was one of the lucky ones. Gravesites she and her son checked were undamaged. Knowing the history of the cemetery, Eavenson also checked on markers dear to her heart.

“Thank God they didn’t get that one,” she said, pointing to the grave of Melissa Kessler, a young girl who committed suicide.

“I found out about it on Facebook and I immediately came here,” said Terri Delgado. “I live in Homedale and came to see because my parents are over here. They’re at the edge, so I thought for sure they were going to get hit. The ones on the edge, you know. I was so sick to my stomach just thinking about it.”

The investigation into the incident, continues according to Malheur County Undersheriff Travis Johnson.

“This is a big deal and we are putting a great deal of effort into the investigation,” Johnson said Monday.

The cemetery was founded in 1883, according to state officials. The cemetery is overseen by a board of directors and is a special district for taxing purposes.

Over the years, residents recall vandalism, but never to the magnitude seen this time.

“Around 10 or 20 years ago, there some teenagers from the school, but it was not this bad,” said Vanderwiel. Packer said the cemetery’s insurer surveyed the damage on Friday. In addition, Memorial Monument had taken stock of the damage to estimate repair costs.

Packer said anyone with questions should call him at 541-216-8248. Three Rivers Crime Stoppers is offering a reward of $1,000 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the vandalism.