Elias Graham leaves court at the Homer Courthouse after pleading guilty to fifth-degree criminal mischief for vandalizing the Homer Burning Basket community art project in September. -Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News

Burning basket vandal pleads guilty

In a courtroom filled with artists and supporters of Homer’s annual Burning Basket project, the 18-year-old Homer man accused of destroying this year’s basket on Tuesday pleaded guilty to fifth-degree criminal mischief.

After accepting blame, Elias Graham said he had wanted earlier to make restitution to Mavis Muller, the facilitator of the community art project, but had been advised by Homer Police not to contact his victim. That was why he hadn’t made a formal apology, he said.

“We’re here to communicate that he broke many hearts,” Muller said in a statement to the court. “Elias Graham destroyed the most magnificent masterpiece of my career. It’s hard to brush off as ‘boys will be boys.’”

“Reach: A Basket of Remembrance and Unburdening” was built by dozens of volunteers in early September. An annual tradition, Muller coordinates the creation of a large basket at Mariner Park. It is then presented to the community and ceremonially burned. People often leave notes and mementoes remembering loved ones on the basket.

Homer Police said Graham tried twice to destroy the basket at the Homer Spit beach. About 12:30 a.m. Sept. 12, he shot flares into the basket, catching it on fire. A bystander put out the fire. Artists repaired and finished the art that day. Then at about 3:30 a.m. Sept. 13, Graham returned and put a tow line around the basket, tied it to his truck and sped off. That pulled the basket off its base, tearing it to pieces. The tow line also took out a pedestrian crossing sign. That day volunteers rebuilt the basket in a Herculean push to have it ready for the planned burning at sundown.

Muller objected to the laxness of the charge. Fifth-degree criminal mischief is for tampering with property worth less than $50. 

“We’re here to communicate that the value of the art is more than $50,” Muller said. “Its role in building social capital is immeasurable. The sculpture is considered to be a memorial. It was devastating to see that these memorials to loved ones were dragged off.”

Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Torres said it was challenging to assess the value of the art.

“The value is priceless, but then you look at the cost of materials,” he said.

Torres acknowledged in court that Graham’s destruction affected not just Muller, but the community at large.

Graham made his plea and was sentenced at his first appearance in court on the charge, formally an arraignment. Before Graham made his plea, Torres spoke with him and Muller in a hallway conversation that took about 15 minutes.

“Arraignments don’t usually take this long. Sometimes when there’s community concern, it happens,” Torres said.

In the deal put together by Torres, Graham agreed to the plea in return for a suspended imposition of sentence. Judge Margaret Murphy sentenced Graham to 80 hours of community work service and ordered him to pay restitution to Muller. The amount of restitution will be determined by Muller. Murphy also told Graham to write a letter of apology to Muller and placed him on probation for one year.

Muller offered Graham the option of doing his community work service by working on next year’s Burning Basket. Cook Inletkeeper would be the sponsoring nonprofit for the volunteer service, she said.

If Graham stays out of trouble, and fulfills the conditions of his sentence, he can apply to have the conviction wiped from his record. Torres said Graham would like to join the military or seek a career in law enforcement. Graham has no prior criminal convictions.

Muller said she hoped Graham could learn from his mistake.

“This is a good time for Mr. Graham to learn respect for his elders,” she said. “I hope there will be some change in this individual … let the healing begin.”

In accepting Graham’s plea and sentencing him, Judge Murphy said the suspended imposition of sentence gave him an opportunity to continue his adult life without a criminal conviction.

“I hope you understand the impact you have had on her (Muller) as well as the community,” Murphy said. “Hopefully you’ll learn that your actions have consequences.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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