Vandalism at Jewish cemetery predated reports, superintendent says

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Northeast Philadelphia Police Dective Timothy McIntyre, center, dusts for fingerprints on one of the many headstones that were knocked down, as Dectective Nick McReynolds, left, looks on Sunday afternoon. Vandals struck the Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery at Frankford and Cheltenham Avenues. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

The toppling of about 100 headstones at a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia's Wissinoming section occurred at least five days earlier than the first report to police on Sunday, according to another cemetery's superintendent who visited the site last week. 

Bill Doran, the superintendent of Laurel Hill Cemetery in North Philadelphia, said he was at Mount Carmel Cemetery on the morning of Feb. 21 when he  noticed the vandalism that would go on to make headlines worldwide.

"I didn't raise any red flags, because when I got there, the gate was unlocked and open, so I assumed the people that run it knew about it and didn't want publicity," Doran said.

The incident was reported to authorities and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia around 9:30 a.m. Sunday by a man who went to visit his relatives' graves and noticed the toppled tombstones.

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For 33 years, Doran has worked at Laurel Hill, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1998. He specializes in selling and installing monuments. One of the families he is working with has a relative buried in Mount Carmel and requested that Doran duplicate a headstone from that cemetery.

So on Feb. 21, Doran traveled to Mount Carmel, at Frankford and Cheltenham Avenues, to take pictures and measurements of the tombstone. What he saw shocked him.

"I came back and told my peers I was just in this Jewish cemetery and it was vandalized," he said.

Doran believed the cemetery gates were unlocked every morning and locked again at night, so he assumed the owners were aware of the vandalism. But after word broke Sunday about the toppled stones, he said, he is no longer positive that someone checked on the grounds daily.

The people who run Mount Carmel also own Har Nebo Cemetery & Monuments in Oxford Circle. They have not returned messages left by reporters or concerned families at the business. They also did not return a message left by Doran. The office mailbox is now full.

Authorities said they would investigate Doran's claim.

After more than three decades in the cemetery business, Doran said, he's seen his fair share of tombstone vandalism.

"My personal opinion is, I think it was just kids with ants in their pants because of the warm weather," he said. "The amount of trash in that cemetery because of parties and stuff was unreal."

But no matter what the motive of the vandals was, Doran said, he wants to see them punished. There is a $50,000 reward for information that results in a conviction.

"If you can't let the deceased rest, there's something wrong with you," he said.