Ret. Col. Bill Hatch looked thoughtful as he watched two craftsmen meticulously work to replace three granite benches damaged by a pickup earlier this year at the Atascadero Faces of Freedom Veterans Memorial.
“People were really angry and hurt,” he said of the incident. “There were a lot of different emotions.”
The benches — each displaying its own engraving of “Courage,” “Commitment” and “Sacrifice” — are key pieces of a larger memorial that honors San Luis Obispo County veterans with a statue, dedication bricks and walls inscribed with the names of service members who died serving their country.
But on New Year’s Day, 49-year-old Sean David Cronin drove through the site in his Chevrolet crew cab pickup before fleeing the scene. The incident was caught on surveillance cameras. The truck struck lighting fixtures, damaged two granite benches and ripped up a Pathway to Freedom walkway — scattering individual brick pavers engraved with names and messages to honor soldiers.
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“The benches were literally broken. Pieces had broken off in the impact,” Hatch said of the 5-foot-long structures made of India-imported black granite. “The top of one bench flew into the pedestal of another.”
By Thursday, the bricks and lighting were repaired and the broken benches gone. A company from Los Angeles had traveled to Atascadero to replace the benches, assembling them onsite and fixing them into the ground.
Members of the Atascadero Veterans Memorial Foundation wanted the benches replaced in time for their Memorial Day ceremony Monday.
“We want to … make it right,” said Hatch, who is also the foundation’s president. “I think most people want to forget that someone was so insensitive to vandalize this place.”
Since the memorial’s opening in 2008, Hatch said, this was the first act of vandalism there. The city, which owns the lake park where the memorial is located, used insurance money to fix the damage, Hatch said. The total cost came in at $8,000, which was less than initial estimates of $15,000.
Cronin, a 49-year-old Atascadero resident, turned himself in to authorities after the video surveillance was aired on local media. Cronin told police he accidentally hit the wrong pedal and was thrust into the center of the memorial before he fled the scene.
He pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges — hit-and-run causing property damage and driving on a suspended license — and was sentenced to three years of probation.
The incident inspired the foundation to install a small iron fence in the coming weeks between the memorial and its west side parking lot where the truck had jumped a curb. He said the fence will also direct visitors to the sidewalk’s all-access ramp so they don’t trip on the curb.
The foundation doesn’t want to fence in the entire memorial because its members want to make sure it’s easy to get to.
“We want everyone to have a chance to come down and be close to the veterans and show their respects to the people who have sacrificed so much for us,” he said.
The Atascadero Faces of Freedom Veterans Memorial, at Portola Road and Highway 41, has a Memorial Day ceremony planned for noon Monday. The event is free to the public and will feature a flyover by the Estrella Warbirds, choir music, bagpipes and speeches. Click here for more information.