SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) – Shreveport police say vandals could face hate crime charges for damaging Jewish headstones in a Shreveport cemetery over the weekend.
"People just don't know the treasure that we have out here," says Steve Smith," who guides historic tours through downtown Shreveport and the Oakland Cemetery. "The main reason I started the tour was to let people know what a treasure we have out here." Smith discovered the desecration Saturday afternoon as he was getting ready for another tour. "I almost got sick," he recalls.
Nine headstones in the Jewish section of the historic cemetery were toppled and broken. "This is the only place that was hit. This was targeted. This has got to be a hate crime, because this is the Jewish section."
"We have to prove that this crime was targeted against these headstones because of their religious symbolism," says Shreveport Police Department Public Information Officer Sgt. Bill Goodin. "Our investigators don't have a lot to go on, Now, we are trying to interview anybody who might have seen anything, we're asking anybody who might know anything to call our Crime Stoppers and I can assure you that somebody out there knows who did this."
If and when the suspects are found and convicted, they face a felony charge of property damage. Penalties enhanced under hate crime laws include up to a $5,000 fine, five years in prison, or both.
Vicki LeBrun lives nearby says she and walks her dog through Oakland Cemetery "just about every day." While she's not convinced it was a hate crime, she does believe it was a crime of opportunity. "I think it's kids going through the cemetery at night. I can't say that it wasn't. But we live two doors up in a historical home, there's an abandoned building on the corner there's another big huge mansion across the street that are rotting down. The city needs to make the owners take care of those places, get lights up so it doesn't look so empty and desolate."
The Oakland Cemetery is owned and maintained by the city, but the grave plots are owned by the families. Established in 1847, it is the final resting place of sixteen of Shreveport's mayors as well as officials from every level of government from the antebellum period, the Confederacy, Reconstruction, and afterward. Most of those buried at the site died around 1873 when an outbreak of yellow fever killed a quarter of Shreveport's residents.
Whatever the cost for repairs and better security, Steve Smith says can't compare to what's being lost every time vandals strike. He says the destroyed headstones might be worth $1,000, but "historically, they are invaluable. So, you know, we're losing our history here."