Man admits toppling more than 100 headstones in St. Louis Jewish cemetery

Despite 2017 vandalism occurring during wave of anti-Semitic incidents, Alzado Harris not suspected of a hate crime

People walk through toppled graves at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Missouri, on February 21, 2017. (Robert Cohen /St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)
People walk through toppled graves at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Missouri, on February 21, 2017. (Robert Cohen /St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

A US man from suburban St. Louis has been arrested for toppling more than 100 headstones at a local Jewish cemetery more than a year ago.

Alzado Harris, 34, was arrested on Tuesday after police matched DNA found in a jacket left at the scene of the February 2017 vandalism to Harris, who has a prior criminal history. After his arrest at his home, Harris confessed to the vandalism at the Chesed Shel Emeth Jewish cemetery, the St. Louis Dispatch reported.

Harris faces up to seven years in prison on the charge of one count of institutional vandalism. He is not charged with a bias or hate crime.

“There is no evidence to indicate the incident was racially, ethnically or religiously motivated,” University City police said in a statement. According to the police statement, Harris said that “he acted alone, was angry over a personal matter and was under the influence of drugs when he committed the offense.”

The attack came as Jewish community centers and other Jewish institutions around the United States were receiving dozens of bomb threats — later ascribed to an Israeli-American teen from Ashkelon. St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch said during a news conference on Wednesday that the crime “was not good timing on his (Harris’) part,” but that the fact that the cemetery Harris vandalized was Jewish seems to be coincidental.

US Vice President Mike Pence visits a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis following an act of vandalism at the site. (YouTube screenshot)

In the wake of the attack, Missouri’s Jewish governor, Eric Greitens, volunteered with members of his staff to help clean and repair the damage to the cemetery, and US Vice President Mike Pence visited the cemetery, picking up a rake to help with cleanup efforts.

Two Muslim activists, Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi, launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise $20,000 for repairs, which ultimately raised over $162,000. In addition to paying for repairs and improvements at the St. Louis cemetery, the funds went to help pay to repair damage to a Philadelphia-area Jewish cemetery vandalized days after the St. Louis attack, to help the downtown Chicago Loop Synagogue repair anti-Semitic vandalism and to restore a neglected and vandalized Jewish cemetery in Colorado.

Workers placing headstones back on their bases at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in the St. Louis area. (James Griesedieck)

The Anti-Defamation League said Wednesday in a statement: “While it won’t be prosecuted as a hate crime, there is no question that at the time it certainly felt hateful to the Jewish community, both in St. Louis and far beyond. While we waited on the investigation, some seriously impressive community building and interfaith expressions of support came from all over the world, including crowdfunding by the Muslim community and engagement with interfaith friends in St. Louis and globally; they understood the emotional impact, especially for the families who experienced damage to the headstones of their loved ones.”

The cemetery was repaired and rededicated in August.

On Wednesday, the Chesed Shel Emeth Society, which runs the cemetery, in a post on Facebook thanked the University City Police “for handling our case with care and attention.”

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