Vandals Smash Open Tombs Containing Lynyrd Skynyrd Members

Remains of Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines disturbed early Thursday.

Vandals broke into tombs containing the remains of Lynyrd Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines early Thursday morning in Orange Park, Fla., about 12 miles south of Jacksonville, officials said.

"It doesn't appear that they actually took anything off the site, but some major damage was done," Clay County Sheriff's Department spokesperson Mary Justino said. "This goes way beyond fan worship or adoration. This is a criminal act that goes way beyond even a normal vandalism."

The private Jacksonville Memory Gardens cemetery stands beside a mall, where a man told police he had heard strange noises coming from the cemetery. Justino said that when police arrived on the scene around 3 a.m. Thursday, the two above-ground marble memorials had been smashed and broken into from behind. Van Zant's casket had been removed from its tomb but did not appear to have been opened. A plastic bag containing Gaines' ashes had been removed from a metal urn and had been torn, but only a tiny fraction — 1 percent, according to Justino — was spilled.

The gravesite is on the border of mall and cemetery property, an elaborate memorial of marble set off from the rest of the cemetery, with park benches, hedges and a large magnolia tree. The site also includes the grave of Cassie Gaines, Steve Gaines' sister, who was a backup singer with the band.

All three, along with personal manager Dean Kilpatrick, were killed when the band's plane crashed during a flight from Greenville, S.C., to Baton Rouge, La., in October 1977. Guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, keyboardist Billy Powell and bassist Leon Wilkeson survived the crash but were seriously injured. Collins died of pneumonia in 1990.

Lynyrd Skynyrd are best known for their Southern-fried grooves and dueling guitars on tunes such as "Sweet Home Alabama" (RealAudio excerpt) and the anthemic "Free Bird." They disbanded after the crash but reunited in 1987 and have continued to record and tour since.

Justino said that because Lynyrd Skynyrd hail from the Jacksonville area, the gravesite is somewhat of a local mecca for rock fans. Late-night visits to the site have long been tolerated, and visitors are merely dispersed by police. Justino said the graves had never been marred by graffiti and that the only previous act of vandalism had been the theft, several years ago, of a marble bench donated by fellow Southern rocker Charlie Daniels.

Police have no suspects yet, but they are questioning anyone who was in the mall or cemetery area that night. If caught, the vandals will be charged with the second-degree felony of disturbing remains, as well as trespassing and criminal mischief.

Justino said the families of the late musicians appeared to be in shock and that the remains of Van Zant and Gaines had been moved to another location while the families decide how to re-inter them. Sheriffs have enlisted off-duty police and volunteer auxiliary police to guard the cemetery pending further investigation.

Family members announced on Friday (June 30) that they're offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case, and they are asking community members and fans to contribute.

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