In the annals of stupid and pointless acts, here’s a case to top the list.
Last month marked the long-awaited opening of the new veterans cemetery near Redding _ a decades-long labor of love for north-state veterans and their families, weary of long drives to national cemeteries in Oregon or Central California.
It is also a first. The new Northern California Veterans Cemetery is the only state-owned and -operated veterans cemetery in California, a financial arrangement crafted by the federal government to complement its system of national cemeteries.
Little wonder locals were proud.
Yet unbelievably, the beautiful cemetery nestled in the rolling hillside was vandalized five days after its Nov. 11 dedication, an affair that drew Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other dignitaries to the site 10 miles southwest of Redding, near Igo.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 16, unknown yahoos (who had probably secured themselves some hooch) crashed through the cemetery’s iron gates and plowed in, mowing down trees and spinning doughnuts.
This is no small offense in the Redding area, where veterans and local politicians had braved years of bruising political fights to win the cemetery.
Burials will begin next week, but the vandalism case remains open. It is not, however, forgotten or forgiven.
“I was just dumbfounded and sickened,” said Glenn Miller, an Army veteran who worked tirelessly to raise $200,000 in local money to cover the cemetery’s water bill.
“I can’t get my head around people who would do that kind of stuff.”
Honestly, who can? The vandal or vandals, with the collective IQ of a leaf blower, apparently left a calling card. Investigators found a California license plate at the scene that belonged to a 1992 Ford Bronco, stolen in October from a Redding car lot.
While investigators believe they found the men who had possession of the stolen vehicle, they haven’t been able to tie them to the cemetery idiocy.
But Shasta County District Attorney Jerry Benito has a theory: kids.
“I honestly think this sounds so much like a juvenile crime,” said the veteran prosecutor, stressing that the California Highway Patrol is continuing its investigation.
Sad to say, but that’s the way these cases usually turn out.
Michael Nacincik, a spokesman for the National Cemetery Administration, said vandalism in veterans cemeteries tends to be about young people, drugs and alcohol and too much idle time.
In October, vandals TP’ed Finns Point National Cemetery in New Jersey just 10 days after the military cemetery had been spray-painted, he said.
In March, a 700-pound limestone marker was ripped out from the Kentucky Veterans Cemetery West, a state-operated cemetery like Redding’s.
Over the years, flags have vanished, chairs have been torn from foundations, memorial walls have been defaced. In a 1997 case that got international attention, vandals sprayed hate graffiti in red paint at seven Oahu cemeteries, including the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl. The case has never been solved.
The federal government doesn’t keep statistics on vandalism in veterans cemeteries, but Nacincik believes it’s rare _ perhaps two to three cases a year.
Stephen Jorgensen has seen enough. The new head of the Northern California Veterans Cemetery was director of Riverside National Cemetery _ the nation’s largest _ when 700 bronze grave markers were stolen in 1996. The culprit, who was caught, was selling them at metal recycling centers.
“You would think any cemetery would be sacred, but more than any other, you would think a veterans cemetery would be,” said Jorgensen, who is moving into his new offices and preparing for next week’s burials.
After last month’s incident, a Redding business donated surveillance cameras to the new cemetery.
District Attorney Benito thinks the reward should be boosted above the current $1,500 to entice someone to talk. And veteran Miller is happy to oblige, setting out again to raise money.
Because folks are hopping mad.
Benito, who’s been hearing a lot from veterans, tells them the culprits _ when caught _ should be given a choice:
“They can throw themselves on the mercy of the court, take their chances with the judge,” he said.
“Or we can put them in a room with 12 veterans.”