Southampton Town police are seeking the public’s help to find out who toppled 31 gravestones in two adjoining Southampton cemeteries where actor Gary Cooper and former boxing champion Jack Dempsey are buried.
According to a police report, the stones — some of which date to the 1800s — were overturned between the afternoon of Sept. 3 and the morning of Sept. 6 at the private cemetery of The Basilica of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a Catholic church, and in the adjacent town-owned Southampton Cemetery.
“A lot of work and effort went into this,” said the Rev. Michael Vetrano of The Basilica.
He said 21 gravestones in the church cemetery were involved and 10 in Southampton Cemetery, adding that the vandalism was discovered by church workers.
“There’s really no physical divider between the two cemeteries, just a row of trees,” Vetrano said Monday as he walked around the grounds of both and pointed out areas where gravestones had been vandalized.
Vetrano called the toppling of the gravestones a “spree” that had not happened before at the church cemetery “that anyone can remember.”
Cooper, an Academy Award-winning actor whose career spanned the silent-film era to the 1960s, and who died of cancer in 1961 at the age of 60, is buried in the church cemetery. Dempsey, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world from 1919 to 1926 who died of heart failure in 1983 at the age of 87, is buried in Southampton Cemetery.
“He was a parishioner at our church for many, many years,” Vetrano said. “He summered in Southampton.”
Vetrano said neither man’s grave was part of the spree.
“There are gravestones that date back to the late 1800s in the Sacred Heart cemetery,” Vetrano said. “The cemetery has been a place of burial for any Catholics on the East End of Long Island.”
Kenneth Rothwell, the owner of O’Connell Funeral Home in Southampton, stepped forward to repair and reset all of the stones for free.
Rothwell completed the work at the church site Monday and said his offer to the Southampton Cemetery had not yet been answered.
“It would have cost about $10,000 to repair all 31 stones,” Vetrano said.
Rothwell said he was happy to help because some families that had been customers of his funeral home were affected.
Southampton Town Police Lt. Susan Ralph said a Crime Stoppers reward is being planned.
“There had to be more than one person involved because there are so many gravestones,” Ralph said.
Anyone with information is asked to contact Southampton police at 631-728-3400. All information will be kept confidential.