- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2000

In Charlottesville, some real-life "Grinches" really did try to steal Christmas.

City police officers got a tip late Christmas Eve that a group of youths were pilfering ornaments and pulling up fastening cables that hold the 19-foot Norway Spruce in front of Charlottesville City Hall.

One of the accused cheer-snatchers dropped the tree's decorative bulbs as officers chased him. Another reportedly told police that he and his "punk brotherhood" simply "hated the tree and all it stood for."

The spruce which was not seriously damaged is actually a replacement for the $20,000 artificial tree that vandals trashed beyond repair earlier this month.

"I've heard of some incidents where people have stolen trees from farms, but I have never heard of any incident like the one … in Charlottesville," said Thomas O'Halloran of the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association.

"Sounds like somebody's out for kicks."

Said one city employee: "We've had some Grinch-like activity here," referring to the Dr. Seuss character who, in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," attempts to ruin the town of Whoville's holiday by swiping their toys, decorations and Christmas trees.

A Christmas tree controversy existed in Charlottesville even before the recent acts of vandalism.

Every year, merchants and residents in this city of more than 40,000 celebrate the season with a "Grand Illumination" on the tree-lined downtown mall, complete with festive lights and the decoration of a permanent tree across the street from City Hall.

This year, after past troubles lighting that tree, a committee decided to take bids and get a new one. The city accepted the lowest bid, from California, of $20,000 for an artificial tree, its shipment and decoration.

Residents balked at spending so much of the public's money for a little holiday cheer, albeit 20 feet of holiday cheer.

"There were definitely some folks in the community who were upset about that," said city spokesman Maurice Jones.

On Dec. 15, police said, they found the tree lying on its side on the sidewalk about 11 p.m.

The metal base that held the tree sustained damage in several places. Bulbs were broken. Not even the wire reindeer in front could escape harm.

Police suspect more than one vandal had a hand in the crime.

"One person's not going to be able to pull this tree away," said Sgt. David Shifflett.

Fortunately, the tree was insured, so the city will be reimbursed for all but the $1,000 deductible.

Dozens of local farmers offered to replace the artificial tree with a real one.

The city issued a press release stating: "They all have chosen to send a message that the holiday spirit will not be ruined by the tearing down of the tree."

Mr. Jones and a representative from the local park service headed to the Albemarle County farm of Robert and Joanne Shepherd to inspect one candidate.

"The moment we saw it, we knew that was the tree we were going to go with," Mr. Jones said.

Children from the Creative Learning After School and Summer Program added decorations in addition to those used from the vandalized tree. Workers raised the substitute on Dec. 21.

Then, just before midnight on Christmas, a resident told officers that some youngsters were messing with the spruce, police said. The officers rounded the corner the police station is in the back of city hall and noticed three youths running away.

Officers captured Dustin Williams, 20, Jason Thraves, 18, and a 16-year-old whose name is being withheld. Mr. Williams, who police said dropped bulbs as he ran, is charged with petty larceny and destruction of property. Mr. Thraves and the juvenile each are charged with destruction of property.

More youths, as many as six total, may be involved, and police are still investigating the case. There is no indication that those arrested on Christmas are responsible for the earlier vandalism.

This time, the damage is estimated at only about $50.

Mr. Jones said the tree will stay up through the "First Night Virginia" celebration New Year's Eve and likely be taken down Jan. 2.

Police who patrol the area may make a few extra trips past the tree between now and then. "We're not going to put a police officer out there 24 hours a day," he said.

As for next year, he insists another tree will take the place of this one, and the people "won't let a few hoodlums ruin their Christmas spirit."

Merchant Deborah Henshaw, of the Under the Roof gift shop, agreed.

"I don't think there's an anti-Christmas feeling around here."

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