NEWPORT, R.I. --
Police say the night began with a small party and a campfire in the Common Burial Ground in Newport, one of Rhode Island's oldest cemeteries. A cemetery administrator places the party just behind a monolith marking the grave of 19th-century U.S. Navy hero Oliver Hazard Perry.
At some point, police believe, three men peeled off from the festivities and wended their way, likely over the course of hours, through the adjoining and equally historic Island Cemetery.
The next morning, close to 300 grave markers, many well over a century old, lay in the grass, knocked off their plinths or uprooted completely. Among the casualties were the headstones of at least three members of New York's storied Astor family - the grave of Jacqueline Kennedy's mother, longtime Newport resident Janet Lee Auchincloss, was spared. Were it not for a small army of volunteers that turned out Saturday to help right most of the fallen markers, the cost of restoration to the private cemetery would have approached $125,000.
Last month's vandalism has shaken Newport, whose proximity to American history is a key to its identity. The city boasts a multitude of colonial-era buildings - some, like the country's oldest active synagogue and a 17th-century tavern, still in use - and is perhaps best known for its Gilded Age mansions, where the wealthy elite once summered. And while many ask what could possibly have motivated the destruction, some are searching for ways to prevent future desecration.
"The community has been outraged by it," said Mayor Stephen Waluk, whose great-grandfather and great-grandmother's Island Cemetery graves escaped damage. "How could someone desecrate a cemetery? Beyond a physical act of violence toward a person or an animal, it's one of the worst things you can do."
Nevertheless, it's not entirely uncommon. In May, at least two similar crimes made headlines in other Northeastern states. Police in Massachusetts arrested a teenager on charges of toppling 209 gravestones in Pittsfield, Mass., and five teenagers were charged with damaging more than 70 headstones in a cemetery in New York's Mohawk Valley.
Newport is itself no stranger to cemetery vandalism, said Keith Stokes, a native of the city and executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation. In the 1990s, a number of Newport's municipal cemeteries had chronic problems with homeless people camping out and kids drinking in them, he said.
The vandalism that comes along with that is difficult to head off, Stokes said, in part because it's hard to know how to balance public access to graveyards, especially historic ones, and the need to preserve them.
Newport found that middle ground, he said, improving lighting and policing in municipal graveyards and making residents aware of the need to help maintain them against vandalism and other damage - an effort Stokes compared to a neighborhood watch program.
"The good thing that can come out of this tragic event is that it will get more people aware of the fragile nature of these historical cemeteries," he said. "We need to be more proactive and all take ownership of them."
Stokes, whose family has lived in Newport since the 18th century, has many relatives buried in the cemetery, but their graves were not disturbed.
Others have looked toward deterrence.
Legislation pending in Rhode Island's General Assembly, prompted by a number of smaller desecrations in other parts of Rhode Island, would raise fines associated with grave desecration and add a restitution requirement. The bill was introduced prior to the vandalism in Island Cemetery, but one of its sponsors, Rep. Raymond Gallison, said he hopes the Island Cemetery destruction will prompt legislators to strengthen the bill. Similar legislation passed in Massachusetts last year, inspired by a major act of cemetery vandalism in Kingston in late 2009 that left nearly 100 headstones toppled or damaged.