NEWPORT, R.I. – Police say the night began with a small party and a campfire in the Common Burial Ground in Newport, one of Rhode Island's oldest cemeteries. A cemetery administrator places the party just behind a monolith marking the grave of 19th-century U.S. Navy hero Oliver Hazard Perry.
At some point, police believe, three men peeled off from the festivities and wended their way, likely over the course of hours, through the adjoining and equally historic Island Cemetery.
The next morning, close to 300 grave markers, many well over a century old, lay in the grass, knocked off their plinths or uprooted completely. Among the casualties were the headstones of at least three members of New York's storied Astor family — the grave of Jacqueline Kennedy's mother, longtime Newport resident Janet Lee Auchincloss, was spared. Were it not for a small army of volunteers that turned out Saturday to help right most of the fallen markers, the cost of restoration to the private cemetery would have approached $125,000.
Last month's vandalism has shaken Newport, whose proximity to American history is a key to its identity. The city boasts a multitude of colonial-era buildings — some, like the country's oldest active synagogue and a 17th-century tavern, still in use — and is perhaps best known for its Gilded Age mansions, where the wealthy elite once summered. And while many ask what could possibly have motivated the destruction, some are searching for ways to prevent future desecration.
"The community has been outraged by it," said Mayor Stephen Waluk, whose great-grandfather and great-grandmother's Island Cemetery graves escaped damage. "How could someone desecrate a cemetery? Beyond a physical act of violence toward a person or an animal, it's one of the worst things you can do."
Nevertheless, it's not entirely uncommon. In May, at least two similar crimes made headlines in other Northeastern states. Police in Massachusetts arrested a teenager on charges of toppling 209 gravestones in Pittsfield, Mass., and five teenagers were charged with damaging more than 70 headstones in a cemetery in New York's Mohawk Valley.
Newport is itself no stranger to cemetery vandalism, said Keith Stokes, a native of the city and executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation. In the 1990s, a number of Newport's municipal cemeteries had chronic problems with homeless people camping out and kids drinking in them, he said.
The vandalism that comes along with that is difficult to head off, Stokes said, in part because it's hard to know how to balance public access to graveyards, especially historic ones, and the need to preserve them.
Newport found that middle ground, he said, improving lighting and policing in municipal graveyards and making residents aware of the need to help maintain them against vandalism and other damage — an effort Stokes compared to a neighborhood watch program.
"The good thing that can come out of this tragic event is that it will get more people aware of the fragile nature of these historical cemeteries," he said. "We need to be more proactive and all take ownership of them."
Stokes, whose family has lived in Newport since the 18th century, has many relatives buried in the cemetery, but their graves were not disturbed.
Others have looked toward deterrence.
Legislation pending in Rhode Island's General Assembly, prompted by a number of smaller desecrations in other parts of Rhode Island, would raise fines associated with grave desecration and add a restitution requirement. The bill was introduced prior to the vandalism in Island Cemetery, but one of its sponsors, Rep. Raymond Gallison, said he hopes the Island Cemetery destruction will prompt legislators to strengthen the bill. Similar legislation passed in Massachusetts last year, inspired by a major act of cemetery vandalism in Kingston in late 2009 that left nearly 100 headstones toppled or damaged.
Waluk, meanwhile, says part of the problem in Newport lies with a homeless shelter three blocks south of the Island Cemetery, some of whose clients he says hang around the neighborhood, drinking and causing trouble. Waluk is working with the police chief to step up foot patrols in the area as the weather warms, he said.
The men Newport police have charged with the Island Cemetery desecration, Ramon Fulvi, Andrew Fowler and Richard Mounts, are originally from out of state and gave the shelter as their primary residence.
It's unclear what motived the crime, police Lt. William Fitzgerald said.
Attorneys for the men declined to comment . Fowler, 20, and Mounts, 36, remain in custody, and Fulvi, 23, did not respond to attempts to reach him directly and through acquaintances.
The men had been camping out in the Common Burial Ground, an older cemetery adjacent to Island Cemetery, but didn't vandalize it, said Michael Henlyshyn, president of the board of trustees for Island Cemetery.
"You don't damage your home," Henlyshyn said. "A lot of bums stay there. You find all kinds of refuse and junk."
On Saturday, empty liquor bottles, as well as bedding and pillows hidden under a bush, could be found in the area behind the Oliver Hazard Perry monolith, where Henlyshyn said the men had stayed .
Henlyshyn said he was surprised people in the houses surrounding the cemetery didn't hear anything.
Seventy-five volunteers, including Newport's rugby team and workers from grave-placement companies that donated heavy machinery to the task, arrived Saturday morning to rows and clusters of knocked-down headstones spanning the graveyard, which is about the length of four football fields and contains more than 15,000 graves. They spent four hours raising the majority of them, leaving only those so badly damaged they require expert repairs.
"Stuff like this makes me upset," said Dave Jackson — one of about 15 Newport firefighters helping out Saturday — as he joined four fellow firefighters to raise the Astor headstones. "This is a way to get out your anger."
As for people whose deceased relatives' graves were damaged, "they've all been pretty respectful," Henlyshyn said. "Though one woman started screaming at me, 'How could you let this happen?'"
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