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Vandals strike two cemeteries

RIVERVIEW — A 9-year-old girl died five months ago. Monday morning, her grandparents took a pink bouquet to the Serenity Meadows cemetery in her memory.

When the couple arrived, they couldn't believe what they saw.

"This is a disgrace," said Jose Cohen, the grandfather.

Vandals had upset dozens of grave sites throughout the Riverview cemetery late Sunday or early Monday, toppling tombstones and destroying personalized memorials just hours before a planned Memorial Day service.

It had been five months to the day since 9-year-old Zhonea Josey died from a complication of leukemia. Stuffed animals left by friends were tossed into the dirt; plaster statues were shattered. A doll left by Zhonea's 6-year-old sister was in nearby bushes.

"I don't know how bad in your head you can be to do something like this," the grandfather said.

On Monday night, the Hills­borough County Sheriff's Office arrested a 14-year-old Riverview boy and a 15-year-old Tampa boy. The Times is not naming them because of their ages.

Sheriff's spokesman J.D. Callaway said the teens told detectives they vandalized the cemetery for fun.

They were taken to the Juvenile Assessment Center. The two face felony charges of criminal mischief and damaging a tomb or gravestone. Vandalizing a grave is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Earlier in the day, investigators had brushed gravestones for fingerprints and examined surveillance video.

The Sheriff's Office said the damage was widespread: The deputies counted 35 disturbed headstones — 27 at Serenity Meadows and eight at the adjacent Hackney cemetery.

The destruction happened just hours before Serenity Meadows' annual Memorial Day service. Mike Wick, general manager of Serenity Meadows cemetery and funeral home, said he and other staff members spent much of Sunday evening setting up tents and chairs. They left about 10:30 p.m.

They returned at 6:30 a.m. Monday to a heart-wrenching sight: the overturned grave markers, shattered angel and cherub statues, and crushed flowers.

"It's unbelievable," Wick said, surveying the damage at the Providence Road cemetery. "It's devastating."

Debris was scattered on sidewalks and thrown into a fountain. About 100 chairs for the Memorial Day event were strewn into a pile.

No human remains were desecrated. Flags placed on veterans' graves were untouched.

The targets seemed random, Wick said. They included graves of children, but also those of the elderly, and headstones large and small.

The average cost of a gravestone is $5,000, Wick said, and most can probably be repaired. The cemetery is not liable. Family members may be able to recover damages through home­owners' insurance policies, he said.

Much of the damage was in a back section of the cemetery, away from the Memorial Day ceremony. Wick and his staff hurried to re-set the chairs and get ready for the 10 a.m. event that drew about 500 people. About 1,000 people are buried at Serenity Meadows.

As word of the vandalism spread, those who have loved ones buried at Serenity Meadows trickled in to clean up.

Barbara Roush shook her head as she placed a purple silk rose on her daughter's grave. Kimberly Jean Roush — Kim J. to her friends — died of cancer on Feb. 21, 1999, at age 23.

Roush has visited Kimberly's grave every day since, and always brings a purple rose. Other relatives had placed statues and Precious Moments figures — Kimberly's favorite — around the grave. The vandals threw most of the figurines onto a nearby sidewalk, shattering them.

Times researchers Carolyn Edds, John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jan Wesner can be reached at jwesner@sptimes.com or 813-661-2439.

Vandals strike two cemeteries 05/26/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 30, 2008 12:05pm]
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