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Cemetery still marred by hate

Bees dart among flowers at Port Blakely Cemetery, while a hawk circles high above in the July sun.

Toppled gravestones, though, mar the scene, bearing witness still to last summer’s vandalism.

It was last July that a painted swastika was discovered near the cemetery entrance, with two gravestones overturned in the Jewish section. In mid-August, vandals damaged 70 grave sites.

A year later, Bainbridge police admit that their investigation of the crimes is stalled. While police questioned “persons of interest” from Kitsap and Seattle – with Bainbridge youths the majority of those interviewed – there have been no arrests.

“Although we felt confident that we were talking to people who, directly or indirectly, had knowledge of the crimes, there was nothing as definitive as a confession or someone willing to be a witness,” Bainbridge Police Detective Scott Anderson said. “The groups of people who are responsible for this are not cooperative with police, or intimidated by police.”

The conclusion that the first vandalism incident was a hate crime, while the second was random, has not changed throughout the investigation, Anderson says.

The desecration occurred in a year that saw a spate of hate graffiti at the high school and in front of the Filipino-American Hall.

Members of the Jewish community received hate mail, and island churches were defaced.

The suspected author of the hate mail was apprehended in Issaquah on other charges. And a year later, hate vandalism is down, while general graffiti is up.

“The impulse now seems to be more ‘art’ than ‘hate,’” Anderson said.

Since January, police say, there have only been two reported hate incidents – a spray-painted swastika at the high school, and several swastikas smeared in berry juice in front of the home of an islander with what police describe as a “Jewish-sounding name.”

Anderson says the decline in known incidents may be misleading, and that some hate graffiti may go unreported as community sensitivity wanes.

Slow work

The anniversary of the cemetery desecration finds restoration ongoing. The work is frustratingly slow, cemetery board members say, with fewer than a third of the damaged stones repaired despite the outpouring of support following the destruction.

An anti-hate rally in Winslow last August attracted significant media attention. Ardel Turkheimer, long-term treasurer for the cemetery board noted that the group received financial help as well.

“It was just so moving and so unexpected, the support we got,” Turkheimer said. “We received donations from all over the country from people with a connection to Bainbridge.”

Some cemetery members enclosed an extra check with their annual dues. Eagle Harbor Congregational Church donated offerings, and one couple even handed over their tax rebate.

Over the next several months, four work parties were held to clean up the grounds. Volunteers were trained by the Washington State Cemetery Association in grave conservation methods, including such arcana as dress code for sitting on gravestones.

“I learned not to wear blue jeans with rivets,” cemetery board member Lydia Claesson said, “because the metal corrodes the stone.”

Rotarians were especially helpful, cemetery board members say, as were teens from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But work was slowed by the passing of two key cemetery supporters. Lost were Suyeo Noritaki, who had maintained cemetery records since the 1950s, and Poulsbo stonemason John Iverson, who had often done expensive work for free or reduced rates.

Repairs are costly, with the tab for fixing three shattered stones about $450. But the more pressing issue, Turkheimer says, is recruiting more volunteer workers; with fewer than a third of the graves repaired, the board needs some “enthusiastic, strong people.”

Several of the heaviest stones weigh several thousand pounds and will have to be righted with hoists and trucks when all the other work is done.

“When I think ‘Why don’t we have it all done?’ I remember that we still have to keep the cemetery running,” Turkheimer said.

Besides weeding and lawn work, upkeep may even entail hauling away garbage; in several incidents over the last two weeks, buckets of paint and thinner, piles of scrap lumber from a construction site, and a dozen bags of household garbage were found piled in front of the cemetery gate.

“We hadn’t had anything like that happen since some old sofas were dumped two years ago,” Turkheimer said. “But last week, I filled my husband’s pick-up (with garbage).”

Before Memorial Day, Turkheimer cleaned the cemetery grounds and adjacent woods with the help of a troop of Boy Scouts.

“The boys were really moved to see the graves overturned, to see the damage. All the boys see this and go ‘Wow, this is awful. I would never do anything like that.’

“If you get them when they’re 10 or 12, they might not do it when they’re 18 and drunk.”

Provenance

Another restoration dilemma has been determining the headstones’ provenance, especially in the case of older grave sites.

When a family can’t be located and the stone is replaced without permission, there are sometimes repercussions.

“After the vandalism in 1997, when we replaced 20 stones, I got letters from some families who were upset that we had done that,” said Turkheimer, whose son Sammy was laid to rest there. “But we have the responsibility to make the cemetery safe – and toppled stones present a potential danger.

“But I understand, because how would I feel if someone changed Sammy’s stone without my permission?”

Turkheimer says that maintaining the cemetery, restoring the damaged graves, and helping the newly bereaved is a way to honor loved ones buried there.

“All of us on the board have some connection to the cemetery – a child, a parent a sibling,” she said. “I stood out there while Sue Noritaki helped me find a place for Sammy. Now I stand out there with someone else who’s just lost someone.

“I just keep on, because when someone meets you out there and walks you through the process, you are cradled by that love.”

*****

Headstone help

A work party at Port Blakely Cemetery is scheduled for Sept. 14. Call 842-1893 for more information.

A $10,000 reward is still offered for the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators of last year’s vandalism. Anyone with information should call 842-5211.

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