Friday, August 24, 2007

Who's Removing Roadside Memorials?

Renewed debate over whether sites are appropriate:

Pattie Hansen took comfort in the five crosses that marked the spot on a Petaluma road where her only daughter died in a crash last year.

Then one day this summer, the crosses were gone.

"I sat in the car and cried," she said.

Roadside memorials are disappearing across Sonoma County, including at the spot on Industrial Avenue in Petaluma where 43-year-old Tami Wilson was killed in October when she lost control of her pickup.

At least four memorials have been hauled away since June, including three in and near Petaluma, and a fourth in Forestville.

The removals rekindle a debate over whether the personal items left behind by loved ones are appropriate expressions of grief, or maudlin -- perhaps even dangerous -- eyesores.

Even some victims' families are torn over the issue.

Hansen said her husband has begged her not to go to the spot where the couple's daughter died, because doing so always unhinges her.

She goes anyway.

"I told my husband that's where she died. That's where her soul left her body," Hansen said.

After discovering the crosses gone in June, Hansen said she drove to city offices and the Police Department to see if anyone might know what happened to them. The crosses were on city property, but Hansen said she was told nobody knew who took them.

Officials with Caltrans and the CHP said their employees were not responsible for the removal of memorials on state property, even though the items violate state law.

"They're technically forbidden, but we try to work with families and let those be maintained by families as long as it's not imposing on anyone else's safety," said Michelle Squyer of Caltrans.

The removals have spawned any number of theories as to why someone would want to see them gone. Was someone weary of these visible displays of grief? Were they offended by the religious iconography? Was it a teenage prank?

Some have argued the memorials can be dangerous distractions for motorists -- an irony because many families say they are motivated to erect the markers in part to encourage others to be safer on the roads.

"I hope the memorials say to other people: 'Slow down. This could be you or another child,' " Patty Julius said of the two steel crosses on Valley Ford Road west of Petaluma where her 20-year-old daughter, Jessica Liparini, and a teen were killed in a 2004 car crash.

So far, Liparini's memorial has not been targeted. But four crosses on Adobe Road and East Washington Street near Petaluma that were erected shortly after a crash killed four teens in December 2005 have disappeared.

Those crosses were highly visible to motorists who have to pause at the intersection because stop signs and flashing lights were installed there in the wake of the deadly crash.

Around the time the crosses were removed, men wearing bright orange shirts were spotted working in the area. But even if they were Caltrans employees, Squyer said, they would not have simply carted the memorial away.

"Our maintenance folks are often the very first to arrive at a crash, and they are often the last to be cleaning up after it. It hits these guys in the heart," she said.

Besides safety concerns, some view the memorials as unwanted intrusions into their daily lives.

"Some of these things are bloody ugly," said David Evans, a Sebastopol graphic artist. "I think Sonoma County is a beautiful area. The sides of roads are not boneyards."

As an alternative, the state -- for a $1,000 fee -- offers a Victim Memorial Sign Program for those who are killed by a driver who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

One such sign on Highway 12 honors the memory of Alan Liu, a 31-year-old computer engineer from Mountain View who was riding his bicycle in April 2004 when he was killed by a drunken driver.

The sign is modest compared with some of the more elaborate roadside memorials that loved ones erect themselves.

Still, one has to wonder why someone suddenly took issue with Jaime Lunny's memorial, which was erected a decade ago after the 20-year-old Sonoma woman was killed by a drunken driver who crossed over the yellow line and hit her head-on.

The memorial on Stage Gulch Road east of Adobe Road included sunflowers, a cross and a ceramic tile with Lunny's initials that was made by her brother.

People have been passing by the memorial for years without complaint. But in late July, someone decided it was time for most of the items to go. Only the cross, which is attached to a fence, was left behind.

"I don't know if they were doing it to be mean or they were bored or they don't like those things," Diane Lunny said. "I wish they would have said something, because those things weren't mine."

The memorial was maintained by her daughter's friends and other family members. Diane Lunny said she never stopped at the site herself, although she frequently travels that road to visit her mother in Marin.

"That's not me," she said. "I wouldn't go there and dwell."

Her ambivalence raises the point of whether roadside memorials help or hinder the grieving process.

"I've heard talk around the office that we're not celebrating a person's life," CHP Officer Kimberly Lemons said. "We're celebrating the place where she died. We wonder if family members get peace out of seeing that, and if it is worth it."

Lemons recalled one instance when a woman called to complain about a memorial that had been placed at Piner and Olivet roads near Santa Rosa in honor of a 3-year-old boy and 7-year-old girl who were killed in a 2003 car crash.

"She said: 'I can't take it anymore. Two little kids died in front of my house, and that was bad enough. Now I have to look at that,' " Lemons said.

Lemons said the children's family agreed to take the memorial away. She said she wonders whether the person or persons now carting away memorials in the county could be similarly fed up with the public displays of grief.

"It makes me wonder if someone who lives locally can't take the pain anymore," she said.

Hansen said she is planning to erect another cross at the spot where her daughter died on Nov. 15, which was Wilson's birthday. But she said she'll take it down the following day.

"I sure hope nobody takes it before I get out there and get it," she said.