WELLSVILLE - Police Chief Joe Scarabino was visibly upset.
"It's a despicable act," he said. "I just can't understand for the life of me what would possess a person to do such a thing. It's just sickening."
Many Wellsville residents would likely share Scarabino's assessment of the mass vandalism of gravestones that was discovered by Wellsville Police officers at Spring Hill Cemetery the night of Dec. 27. A tour through the cemetery now reveals numerous damaged headstones - some toppled over, others broken into pieces - throughout the graveyard.
The extent of the damage to Spring Hill Cemetery, which was the scene of a mass grave vandalism incident the night of Dec. 27, is still being cataloged by village officials. (Photo by Richard Sberna)
Cemetery superintendent Mike Lombardozzi has been cataloging the damage row by row in each section of the cemetery since Tuesday. He said that, by the end of work on Friday, he had covered more than 60 percent of the cemetery's 78 acres, and documented 150 damaged gravestones. Casual observation has revealed "at least another 90" damaged stones that have yet to be counted, he said.
Damage extends into every section, with no apparent pattern in the choice of victim. "Whatever they felt they could tip over," Lombardozzi said. With some of the larger monumental stones weighing more than two tons, this would have been no easy task.
Replacing the very badly damaged examples could be even more difficult. "People can't afford to buy stones like this anymore," he said, referring to some broken gravestones dating back to the mid-1800s as "irreplaceable."
Those would include the large, ornate headstones of William Wells, founder of the village for which it is named, and his first and second wives, Ann Clark and Mary Crowl, both of whom preceded him in death.
After the names have been copied off of the damaged gravestones, Lombardozzi will attempt to contact any surviving family members to inform them of the damages. In some cases, he said this process will include studying the cemetery log books and contacting the funeral homes that handled the burial arrangements so that family members no longer in the area may be reached.
Lombardozzi estimates that 85 percent of the toppled headstones at Spring Hill will require repairs beyond just being hoisted back into place. He suspects that, beyond the stones that have obviously broken into pieces, there are many more with hairline cracks or fractures that may come apart when they are lifted. Even the stones that aren't broken will require two to three hours of work each to put back into place.
Village administrator Thom Edgell said the melting snow has made the ground too soft and water-logged to begin any repair work, particularly on the larger stones that will require heavy equipment to right them. At this point, headstones are only being moved if they have fallen face-down and cannot be read. Substantial repair will have to wait until this spring.
"It's unfortunate that the stones have to be down at all, but sometimes, it's better to leave things like that until it dries up and warms up," Edgell said.
One of the accused vandals, Jacob Lowther, 19, of East Liverpool, appeared in Municipal Court on Tuesday and was bound over to the Columbiana County grand jury. A pair of juvenile suspects are also being investigated in connection with the crime.