Gloria Aguirre’s 16-year-old son, Benito, was killed last year, shot to death on a Sunday evening in the parking lot of Tenaya Middle School in Merced.
She often visits her son’s grave at the District Cemetery in Merced, perhaps seeking some measure of comfort being as close to her son as possible. But whatever solace she can achieve was shaken recently when she learned Benito’s tombstone had been spray-painted black.
“I was so mad,” Gloria Aguirre told the Sun-Star. “My son is gone. Just let him rest.”
The family doesn’t know who painted the headstone and it’s even unclear whether it was done maliciously.
Cemetery officials noted some of the orange graffiti underneath Benito’s gravestone in the grass. It read “Luv u.” A larger message was scribbled three headstones away under the grave of Benito’s father, who shares the same name.
It read, “HAPPY B-day Benito” and “Luv u. Bro.”
Aguirre spent much of that recent evening cleaning her son’s headstone with whatever materials she could find in her car.
“I scrubbed until my arms got tired,” Aguirre said, noting that some items around Benito’s grave also have been stolen. “I don’t know who it is. But they need to let him rest and stop messing with his stuff.”
Cemetery officials said finding graffiti on graveyard headstones is not uncommon. Benito’s grave graffiti is an example of an overall problem with vandalism and theft on the grounds, a problem that is getting worse.
Jimmy Frye, manager at the District Cemetery in Merced, said that while it’s ultimately the family’s responsibility to maintain a headstone, there have been issues with teenagers and young adults drinking and gathering around the graves of fallen friends.
“Sometimes, it’s party central on graves,” Frye said.
By the time Benito’s family notified the cemetery of the graffiti on Tuesday, it had been cleaned. Only remnants of black paint on the sides of the headstone were left.
Benito’s aunt Lupe Herland said that while the graffiti wasn’t permanently damaging, it was upsetting and the family wants it to stop.
“To me, it’s desecrating the grounds,” Frye said.
The problem is more apparent near parts of the cemetery with newer tombstones for people who have died more recently, particularly if that death involves some type of gang-related violence, Frye said.
People often loiter around the graves on Saturdays, when cemetery staff have the day off, Frye said.
In addition to drinking alcohol, which is prohibited on cemetery grounds, such visitors sometimes leave marijuana leaves and buds for cemetery staff to find.
“If you think about it, kids come here too,” Frye said.
Sometimes people leave bottles of alcohol near gravestones as a tribute to loved ones, and that has attracted adults, underage kids and others looking for free alcohol and other items and belongings left on graves.
I scrubbed until my arms got tired. I don’t know who it is. But they need to let him rest and stop messing with his stuff.
Gloria Aguirre, Benito Aguirre’s mother
Herland said lights that were installed at her nephew’s grave also have been stolen.
The family may consider urging the cemetery to install cameras at the site.
That’s something Frye has considered along with other options, such as hiring a security guard.
“You can memorialize at home,” Frye said, “or in a way it doesn’t interfere with others.”
Merced Police Capt. Bimley West said vandalism is a crime, and it should be reported.
Anyone with information is asked to contact the Merced Police Department at 209-385-6905. Tips are confidential and callers may remain anonymous.