Cemetery vandalism hits home for local families

Vandals inflicted damage to 39 headstones at the Hilltop Memorial Cemetery recently and the hunt by local police for those responsible continues. (The Enterprise/Jayme Fraser).

NYSSA – Robert Deleon grew alarmed as he heard about the vandal damage at Hilltop Memorial Cemetery west of Nyssa.

He learned the headstone of his mother, Lupe T. DeLeon, had been destroyed.

So were the headstones of his grandfathers, Jose ‘P Deleon Sr. and Pablo Haro.

And of his aunt, Margie Haro.

And his father’s cousin, Richard Para.

Then he learned the memorial bench he and his siblings had put in at their mother’s grave also was destroyed.

In all, headstones for five of seven relatives buried at Hilltop were destroyed.

“For a little while, I thought someone was targeting our family,” said Deleon.

“Who’s mad at our family? I went up there and found out it was not just our family.”

In all, 39 headstones and memorials were damaged or destroyed two weeks ago. The Malheur County Sheriff’s Office is investigating but so far leads have been slim. A reward fund has grown to more than $2,000 in hopes of triggering tips to catch the culprits.

As the hunt for the vandals continues, families are making do as the Memorial Day holiday approaches.

Cemetery officials have put temporary name markers at each grave. Replacing the headstones is going to depend on the private insurance of families who buried loved ones – or the generosity of the community.

By Friday, a special fund set up at Umpqua Bank in the name of the cemetery had collected $1,800.

There is a long way to go to cover the estimated $50,000 cost of restoring all the stone markers.

Deleon said insurers have said they could replace gravestones of his mother and one of his grandfathers – after the family covers the first $1,000.

His sister, Rose Steward, said she has estimates to replace the headstones and bench totaling about $6,000.

Word of the destruction has spread through the state and across the region. Antonio Bicandi, an electrician from Meridian, reacted to a Boise television station’s report. He heard that the gravestone of Zane F. Howe, a World War II veteran from Nyssa who died in 2003, was among those destroyed.

Bicandi turned to a Facebook group in which he participates – MPFU.

He said the group has a heavy representation from military branches and veterans. He put out a call to take on replacing Howe’s tombstone.

“We figured if we focused on that, any additional efforts for the community could focus on civilian headstones,” Bicandi said. “No veteran should ever be without a headstone.”

In a matter of days, he said, the group committed $2,000 – more than enough to replace Howe’s gravestone. Bicandi said he was moved to step up because his own family has World War II veterans and his father served in the military as well. As the help builds and hope returns, cemetery officials are left with a lingering mystery.

One of the destroyed headstones was labeled simply: “Baby Strunk,” who died Feb. 22, 1944. Cemetery officials haven’t located any family and would like to hear from anyone who knows the baby’s story.

Sandy Smallwood of the cemetery district said veterans’ grave will be decorated starting at 9 a.m. Friday and volunteers are welcome.

She expects to see the annual Memorial Day visit to Hilltop by families honoring their buried.

The American Legion plans a service at 11 a.m. Monday.

Steward said she and her family have made the pilgrimage annually and expect to go again Monday.

She said the graves are in the same general location.

“We’ve always wanted to keep the family all together,” she said. “Now, we’re starting to wonder that’s maybe not such a good idea.”

Les Zaitz: [email protected], 541-473-3377.