Illinois - Mark Johnson, the grounds superintendent at Sunset Hill Cemetery, came to work early Saturday to wrap up remaining preparations for the cemetery's annual Memorial Day event. It's the busiest day of the year for the Glen Carbon, Illinois, cemetery, Johnson said. Dozens of volunteers help erect more than 1 300 full-sized American flags to honour every veteran buried there. They have a balloon release, a ceremony.
But when Johnson arrived that morning the work would only just be getting started: He found swastikas spray-painted in black 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. "We were coming in this morning just to put the final touches on it, and we came in and seen all this damage. It's heartbreaking for the families. It's heartbreaking for us."
Hundred headstones were painted with swastikas at a Sunset Hill Memorial Estates Cemetery in Glen Carbon https://t.co/9BegwFUU3Z
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 were buried at the cemetery began showing up, wondering if the grave marker for a relative was among those vandalised. One woman told Fox 2 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.
Glen Carbon and Edwardsville, Illinois, police 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 happened to capture footage of the vandal that the Edwardsville Police Department released to the public, asking for help identifying him.
A 34-year-old suspect was arrested within hours, according to the Edwardsville Police Department, which did not release the name of the man in custody. Glen Carbon police expect he will be charged with institutional vandalism and possibly a hate crime Tuesday, 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.