Mark Johnson, the grounds superintendent at Sunset Hill Cemetery in Glen Carbon, Ill., came to work early Saturday to wrap up preparations for an annual Memorial Day event. It’s the busiest day of the year for the cemetery, he said. Dozens of volunteers help erect more than 1,300 full-sized American flags to honor every veteran buried there. There is a balloon release and a ceremony.
But when Johnson arrived that morning, the work would only just be getting started: He found black swastikas spray-painted on nearly 200 headstones.
“It’s very heartbreaking, because guys have put in countless hours trying to prepare everything for our one big day, Memorial Day,” Johnson told Fox 2 hours after the vandalism was discovered. “We were coming in this morning just to put the final touches on it,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking for the families. It’s heartbreaking for us.”
With less than 48 hours before the ceremony, Johnson and about a dozen groundskeepers and volunteers got to work, power-washing the desecrated graves, plus two private mausoleums, the nondenominational cemetery’s office and an angel statue.
Some volunteers brought food to the workers, Sunset Hill’s family services manager told the Associated Press, describing it as “a big hug from the community.” Family members whose loved ones are buried at the cemetery began showing up, wondering whether the grave markers for their relatives were among those vandalized. One woman told Fox 2 that she cried at the mere thought of it.
“I hadn’t cried about my grandpa in I don’t know how long,” Michelle Browning told the reporter, welling up again.
By the end of the day, Johnson said the workers had removed 95 percent of the swastikas. And by the end of the day, the suspected vandal was arrested.
Police in Glen Carbon and Edwardsville, Ill., said the same vandal spray-painted swastikas on nine homes and several cars in the nearby subdivision of Sunset Hill Memorial Estates. A homeowner’s security camera captured footage of the vandal that the Edwardsville Police Department released to the public, asking for help identifying him.
A 34-year-old man was arrested within hours, according to the Edwardsville Police Department, which did not release his name. Glen Carbon police expect that he will be charged Tuesday with institutional vandalism and possibly a hate crime, according to the Edwardsville Intelligencer.
On Monday, the annual ceremony went on just as it always had. One of the organizers, Bob Herr, told Fox 2 that normally 75 people help hoist the more than 1,300 flags.
This year, he said, more than 175 people volunteered.