Not on their watch

Members of a local veterans group showed up in force Thursday to watch a Hubbard man plead not guilty to desecrating the grave of a military veteran.

The veterans – most of them from the American Legion Post 700 in Howland – waited for Richard Couturiaux to be walked across the street from Trumbull County Jail in the courtroom of Common Pleas Judge Ronald Rice for an arraignment.

They got special permission from the judge to wear their military post hats inside the courtroom.

”They asked me through a deputy if the caps could remain on for court. I told the deputy, ‘Sure, and tell them thanks for serving our country,”’ Rice said after the proceeding.

Rice increased Couturiaux’s bond from $75,000 to $250,000.

Couturiaux, 30, of North Main Street, and Michael A. Cryster, 26, of West Ohio Street, Brookfield, are both facing charges of receiving stolen property, vandalism and two counts of misdemeanor desecration in the theft of a brass military statue stolen from an East Side Youngstown cemetery. Prosecutors say the pair intended to scrap the $36,000 statute for about $25.

The statue was broken off at the ankles in March and tracked down by a Youngstown police officer, who found it April 5 at a scrap yard in Warren.

”Most people don’t realize that the desecration charge is only a misdemeanor. I think what they did was outrageous,” said Jim Campbell, former post commander, and a former Howland police officer and deputy sheriff.

”The court can only do what the law provides for,” Campbell said. ”We want to lobby the legislators to increase the penalties so the court system has the tools that it needs.”

”Every grave is important whether it’s your mother or father, or that of a veteran. The penalties have to be tougher,” he said.

Campbell said he sits on the National Legislative Council for the American Legion.

”Ever since 1919, the legion meets with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to hear out opinions on different topics. The legion has always had that presence in D.C.,” he said.

The vets are also aware of the trend within the last 10 years when scrap thieves started stealing the bronze grave markers that singled out veterans graves. The markers now are made of plastic.

”I just think it’s a creepy thing to do – steal from a cemetery. Nothing is more sacred than a grave,” said Roxane Morris, a member of the legion who stood with her husband, Tom, to observe the court proceeding.

Couturiaux is scheduled to appear Tuesday for a pre-trial hearing in front of Judge Andrew Logan, who was assigned the case.

Cryster is scheduled to be arraigned Monday before Judge Peter Kontos. He remains out on bond.

The hands, legs, rifle and other parts of the veteran grave marker were cut off the body when it was recovered. Other parts were found previously in a Girard recycling yard.

The damaged four-foot tall statue was returned to the Mahoning Valley Memorial Park, where it was on display on Youngstown-Hubbard Road.

The statue was close to 40 years old and cemetery officials said plans are to repair the statue rather than buy a new one because that would be cheaper.