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Who's removing roadside memorials?
Renewed debate over whether sites are appropriate

  • After someone removed a large memorial of five crosses, Pattie Hansen placed a small cluster of plastic flowers at the site where her daughter, Tami Wilson, died in a car crash on Industrial Avenue in Petaluma in October 2006. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat)

Pattie Hansen took comfort in the five crosses that marked the spot on a Petaluma road where her only daughter died in a crash last year.

Then one day this summer, the crosses were gone.

"I sat in the car and cried," she said.

Roadside memorials are disappearing across Sonoma County, including at the spot on Industrial Avenue in Petaluma where 43-year-old Tami Wilson was killed in October when she lost control of her pickup.

At least four memorials have been hauled away since June, including three in and near Petaluma, and a fourth in Forestville.

The removals rekindle a debate over whether the personal items left behind by loved ones are appropriate expressions of grief, or maudlin -- perhaps even dangerous -- eyesores.

Even some victims' families are torn over the issue.

Hansen said her husband has begged her not to go to the spot where the couple's daughter died, because doing so always unhinges her.

She goes anyway.

"I told my husband that's where she died. That's where her soul left her body," Hansen said.

After discovering the crosses gone in June, Hansen said she drove to city offices and the Police Department to see if anyone might know what happened to them. The crosses were on city property, but Hansen said she was told nobody knew who took them.

Officials with Caltrans and the CHP said their employees were not responsible for the removal of memorials on state property, even though the items violate state law.

"They're technically forbidden, but we try to work with families and let those be maintained by families as long as it's not imposing on anyone else's safety," said Michelle Squyer of Caltrans.

The removals have spawned any number of theories as to why someone would want to see them gone. Was someone weary of these visible displays of grief? Were they offended by the religious iconography? Was it a teenage prank?

Some have argued the memorials can be dangerous distractions for motorists -- an irony because many families say they are motivated to erect the markers in part to encourage others to be safer on the roads.

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