FAIRFIELD — Kennebec County sheriff’s Deputy Jacob Pierce was on duty in December 2012 when an emergency call came in that a 6-year-old girl was in medical distress.
The girl, Avery Lane, a first-grader at Benton Elementary School, was at her father’s home in Clinton. Pierce raced to the home and administered CPR to Avery.
She died in Pierce’s arms. Avery would become the first child influenza fatality in Maine since 2010.
On Monday, just 48 hours after coming home from an eight-month tour in Afghanistan with the 133rd Engineer Battalion of the Maine Army National Guard, Pierce went to visit Avery’s grave at the Friends Cemetery on Middle Road in Fairfield.
What he found stunned him: The girl’s grave had been vandalized. Toys were smashed, a visitor’s bench was thrown into the woods, keepsakes were either missing or thrown in a trash pile.
“I started crying,” Pierce, 33, said Tuesday at the grave site. “It was a girl that looks like my daughter. The same age as my son. Lived close to me, and I never met her or her family, and to pretty much have her die in my arms like that — it was heartbreaking.”
Pierce, who lives in Fairfield, said before he deployed to Afghanistan he left a Kennebec County sheriff’s department sticker, his name tag and a pin from his uniform on the stone marker.
“I was the deputy that responded the day Avery passed away,” he said. “I did CPR on her and she passed, so I made it a point to come here whenever I can to visit with her.”
Pierce has offered a reward through the Fairfield Police Department for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person who vandalized Avery’s grave — not once, but three times in the past year.
Fairfield police Sgt. Matthew Bard said Pierce has offered a $250 reward, and the police department has upped the reward to $350.
“It was brought to our attention yesterday that it had been vandalized and that it was actually not the first time,” Bard said Tuesday. He said last year police had a suspect after items were stolen from the same grave, but did not have enough evidence to bring criminal charges. Bard said the new round of vandalism there is being investigated.
Avery’s mother, Tabitha Souzer, 28, of Fairfield, said when she arrived at the grave on Sunday, she discovered that a shepherd’s hook that held wind chimes was gone. One of the chimes was broken, the other was on the ground, graveside pinwheels were gone, a glass turkey, a porcelain cat and a heavy iron bench had been moved. She said she replaced all the items and went home.
She returned Monday and found the bench had been thrown over an embankment into the woods, the glass turkey smashed, the wind chimes and shepherd’s hook gone again.
“They didn’t like that I moved all the stuff back on Sunday — this was back-to-back vandalism,” Souzer said.”I wouldn’t want this to happen to anybody, but you can clearly see her picture — she’s a 6-year-old girl blowing bubbles, and yet you can find it in yourself to be that malicious. You have to have something wrong with you.”
No other graves at the cemetery next to the 1784 North Fairfield Friends Meeting House appear to have been touched. They speculate that the culprit is someone who knows the family. Souzer said Avery was buried in the Lane family plot, but that she has no affiliation with the church.
Avery’s grave has a polished black granite marker, etched with a photo of her blowing bubbles. There is an engraved rainbow shooting star and engraved images of two cats. Avery loved cats, her mother said. They were her favorite.
Avery’s death sent waves of shock throughout the Fairfield-based school community in December 2012. Benton Principal Suanne Giorgetti sent a letter to parents Dec. 12, 2012, saying the school had “experienced the unthinkable.”
Giorgetti was out of town and unavailable for comment Tuesday. Calls placed to the Friends church and to a private phone line of the church pastor were not immediately returned Tuesday.
Nichole Lane, the wife of Avery’s father, Jody Lane, said the whole family is sickened by the vandalism.
“We are extremely upset,” she said by phone Tuesday. “It’s very nerve-wracking to know that someone is going over there and vandalizing the grave site. We have no idea who is doing this. We don’t really know anything.”
She said the continued vandalism is sickening, especially because “it’s very clear that she was just a little girl — her picture is on the stone.”