Howard and Max Butcher are bewildered, hurt and outraged.
That's because the Cambria graves of their British-American parents have been repeatedly, if subtly, vandalized since 2015.
The brothers — retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonels who co-own their late parents’ Cambria home and frequently vacation there — had decorated Fred and Joyce Butchers’ shared cemetery plot with live native shrubs and two 12-by-18-inch flags. One was the American stars and stripes, the other the United Kingdom’s Union Jack.
The flags at the Butchers’ grave site are inserted into PVC-pipe sleeves at the top corners of the site, which is surrounded by a shallow, marble enclosure.
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Four times since 2015, a vandal has stolen the British flag, the brothers claim, while leaving the American flag in place.
The brothers placed the British flag on the grave site three years ago to honor the birthright and World War II experiences of their parents.
Fred Butcher served in the British Eighth Army from 1940 to 1946.
According to Howard Butcher, his father’s unit served in “the deserts of North Africa with Gen. Montgomery and invaded with the British and American Forces into Sicily and Italy when World War II ended. During the Sicily invasion, the ship Fred was on was torpedoed coming into the harbor and sank.”
Meanwhile, Joyce Butcher and son Max survived both the London Blitz and rocket attacks in the 1940s while living in the London borough of Croydon, part of an area known as “Bomb Alley."
The Butchers and their sons emigrated from England to California in 1952.
Fred and Joyce Butcher retired to Cambria in 1988. They remembered the area with affection because of their visits there in 1970, when Howard Butcher was serving his first military assignment — at the Cambria Air Force Station.
People who knew Fred and Joyce Butcher during their retirement years on the North Coast remember that Fred was president and legislative activist of the Cambria Fishing Club.
Fred Butcher died in 1997, and his wife died in 2008. They're buried on a wooded hilltop in the peaceful Cambria Community Cemetery.
Cemetery manager Tim Burris said the vandalism incidents at the Butchers' grave are the only desecrations he's encountered in his 13-year tenure. He has joined the family’s efforts to find and stop the vandal.
A grave crime
According to state law updated in 2018, vandalizing or desecrating the grave of a veteran is a crime punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 or up to a year in county jail.
Under that amended law, Section 594.35 of the state’s Penal Code, it’s a “crime to maliciously damage, deface, destroy, mutilate or remove any object or structure set to memorialize a veteran or law-enforcement official.”
Now American Legion Post No. 432 is reacting to the vandalism at the Butchers’ gravesite.
“I’m angered that anyone would desecrate a grave, but especially a veteran’s grave," Jay Burbank, incoming post commander, said. "This is someone who served honorably in multiple conflicts. We must respect that service … We must do everything we can to make sure that happens.”
'We will find out who you are'
After the third flag was stolen in 2017, Howard Butcher replaced it again and used a metal cotter pin to attach the flagpole to the PVC.
That didn’t deter the vandal. In September, someone stole that replacement flag and also yanked the pipe out of the ground.
Butcher again replaced the flag, firmly pinning the pole to a new pipe and posted a laminated letter to the thief.
In the letter, he outlined his parents’ history and why the flags are important to the family. If the flags were returned immediately to the cemetery office and the desecration stopped, he wrote, “nothing more will be done” in trying to identify, prosecute and publicly identify the perpetrator.
That hasn’t happened, and now the brothers are taking other actions to protect their parents’ grave. The incidents have been reported to San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office detectives, who are investigating.
In his gravesite letter, Howard Butcher wrote, “We WILL find out who you are and why you think you are entitled to steal other people’s property and disturb a heroic couple’s serenity.”
Once the perpetrator is found, the Butchers say they’ll prosecute him or her and let the community know “what a contemptible person you are.”