A 20-year-old Whigham man was arrested Thursday, Dec. 11 in connection with damage done to the cemetery of Salem Baptist Church near Climax the previous weekend.
William Andrew Thornton, 20, was arrested by the Decatur County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday and charged with criminal damage to property in the 2nd degree, a felony, and failure to report an accident with damages, a misdemeanor.
Sometime late on Saturday night or early Sunday, someone drove a pickup truck into the cemetery of Salem Baptist Church near Climax and caused substantial damage to the graves located there.
Decatur County Sheriff’s deputies located and seized a 2005 Ford F-150 pickup truck in northern Decatur County on Monday night and then on Tuesday, Thornton went to the Sheriff’s Office to speak with investigators, according to Captain Gale Bowyer of the Sheriff’s Office.
“[Thornton] admitted to being in the vehicle and stated the damage was an accident,” Bowyer said.
Salem Church Road is unpaved north of the church and there is a sharp curve where the road passes the church and cemetery, Bowyer said.
“It’s possible that someone traveling past the church at high speed could fail to maneuver through the curve and run into the cemetery,” Bowyer said.
After being called out to Salem Baptist Church on Sunday morning, deputies found auto parts scattered in the cemetery and a trail of vehicle fluid leading away from the church. At another location further south on Salem Church Road, near where the trail of vehicle fluid ran out, deputies found a box containing empty containers of coolant, a number of empty beer cans and hay-baling twine.
None of the auto parts in the cemetery had paint on them because they came from the underside of a vehicle, but one part was labeled “Ford” and had a part number. Deputies took that part to a local Ford dealership, which traced it to either a 2005 or 2006 model year Ford F-150.
On Monday, the Sheriff’s Office alerted local body shops and the media, in hopes of locating the truck that caused the damage.
“Captain Pat Trolinger got a tip on where the truck might be located, and we also received some calls from the public; putting all that information together led us to find the truck on Monday night,” Bowyer said.
The pickup truck, which had severe damage to its front end, was registered to one of Thornton’s relatives, and on Tuesday morning, he voluntarily traveled to the Decatur County Sheriff’s Office to talk with deputies.
Capt. Bowyer explained that criminal damage to property becomes a felony in cases in which the damage is more than $500.
“We obtained two estimates on what it would cost to fix the damage to the cemetery, and both were well over $500,” Bowyer said.
The damage to Salem Baptist Church’s cemetery included breakage of stone coping surrounding the grave sites, and damage to at least one marble headstone, the investigator said.