Police find basket vandal, but no charges yet filed

Tire tracks and a tip lead police last week to the man who burned and then destroyed the Burning Basket. An 18-year-old high school student confessed to both acts of vandalism on the weekend of Sept. 11-13. Homer Police have forwarded charges of fourth-degree criminal mischief, a misdemeanor, to the Kenai District Attorney, Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said. 

“He thought it was a prank,” Robl said of the suspect. Robl said the suspect confessed Sept. 17. No charges or arrests have been made, and police will not release the suspect’s name until that happens. Robl did release his age and sex.

Mavis Muller, the organizer of the community art project, praised police and investigating officer Sgt. Ryan Browning for their response. “I was totally impressed with the recognition that this was serious and that the individual or individuals would be held accountable,” Muller said.

The man tried twice to destroy the basket at Mariner Park on the Homer Spit beach. About 12:30 a.m. Sept. 12, he shot flares into the basket, catching it on fire. A bystander put it out. Artists finished the art, “Reach: A Basket of Remembrance and Unburdening,” by sundown.

Then about 3:30 a.m. Sept. 13, the vandal put a tow line around the basket, tied it to a 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 morning,  volunteers rebuilt it in a Herculean push to have it ready for the planned burning at sundown. 

Part seasonal marker, part community celebration, the basket also serves as a way for people to honor what Muller calls “opportunity disguised as loss.” It’s a letting go, where people put mementoes, origami cranes and notes for loved ones on the basket.

“It’s a quirky thing we do out there,” Muller said. “I’m really happy I live in a town that embraces that curious and odd form of creative expression.”

Robl said police broke the case when they got an anonymous call from someone saying the suspect had been heard talking about vandalizing the basket. Police also took tire track impressions which matched the tires on the suspect’s truck.

Robl said the man at first denied the act but eventually admitted to both acts of vandalism. While police can file charges themselves, in this case Robl sent the charges to the district attorney for review because of the question of the value of the art project. Police calculated the minimum value as that of materials used, less than $750.

Browning said he didn’t think the suspect understood the emotional value of the Burning Basket. “A lot of people put time and energy into it,” he said.

Muller said she had one question for the vandal: Why? Browning said the suspect told him he was upset about some people wanting to restrict motorized access to Homer beaches.

“This is his way of fighting back, is my surmise of my interview with him,” Browning said.

Muller said she hoped for a “positive, loving closure” to the charges and that the suspect understands destroying public art is unacceptable. The annual Burning Basket tradition will continue, she said. Muller also has received a Black Rock Arts Foundation global art grant to travel to Key West, Fla., and build a community art project at the other end of the road in the continental United States.

“I think next year we do need to step up out there and continue with this tradition that has become meaningful to the community,” she said. “If that individual (the vandal) wants to be part of it, I’m not opposed to that.”

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