BUSHNELL — At first, the vandalism looked like an act of appalling but random disrespect.
Early Saturday morning, a worker at Florida National Cemetery near Bushnell discovered grave markers in Section 327 that had been uprooted or knocked over. The next day, crews found 10 more disturbed stones in nearby Section 324, where renovations are currently under way. Both sections are on the southwestern side of the sprawling, 527-acre cemetery.
Then cemetery staffers saw the pattern: Etched in the top of all 13 markers was the Star of David, indicating the deceased were of the Jewish faith.
"We knew we had a problem" beyond random vandalism, said cemetery director Kurt Rotar.
Rotar contacted the Veterans Administration Police on Sunday and the Sumter County Sheriff's Office on Monday. Both agencies are investigating the incident as a hate crime because the markers indicate a clear target, said Lt. Bobby Caruthers, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office.
Hate crimes are characterized by the perpetrator targeting a victim because of race, ethnicity, religion, disability or sexual orientation. Florida's hate crime law mandates increased penalties for convictions of crimes where there is evidence of prejudice.
In this case, for example, the likely charge would be injuring or removing a tomb or monument, a third-degree felony, Caruthers said. The hate crime designation increases the charge to a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000.
Since the crime occurred in a national cemetery, the case could also be prosecuted in federal court, Caruthers said.
The headstones marked the graves of Jewish veterans of World War II and conflicts in Vietnam and Korea, and their spouses, buried in the last six years or so, Rotar said. Most were from the greater Tampa or Orlando areas.
Rotar called the families of the deceased to notify them of the incident.
"We reassured them that the stones were not damaged and the grave sites themselves had not been compromised in any way," he said. "If you walk out there now, you couldn't tell which stones had been pushed over."
It's the first act of vandalism in the cemetery's 24-year history, Rotar said.
The cemetery is bordered by the Withlacoochee State Forest to the west and south and the Sumter Correctional Institution to the north. There is a camera stationed at the cemetery's entrance just west of Interstate 75, but there are plenty of places to gain access to the grounds on foot, bicycle or all-terrain vehicle, Rotar said.
Given the sturdiness of the headstones and how deeply they're rooted in the ground, there was likely more than one person involved, Rotar said.
"It's not easy to topple those," he said.
The incident drew outrage from U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Rich Nugent, who called the news "appalling." Andrew Rosenkranz, Florida regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, condemned the "act of anti-Semitic vandalism."
"The targeting and desecration of Jewish gravestones is despicable, unacceptable, Rosenkranz said, "and the perpetrators of this apparent hate crime should face the full extent of criminal penalties."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.