MURRAY — The last time vandalism occurred within the popular Festival of Lights/Christmas in the Park show at Central and Chestnut parks in Murray, it involved extension cords.
That was three years ago, and Murray-Calloway County Parks and Recreation Maintenance Director Steve Wilhelm, the creator of this show that attracts thousands of viewers from surrounding areas each year, said nothing in the way of vandalism to the show had developed since that incident.
Then came Monday morning, along with something a bit more difficult to swallow than the cutting of extension cords. One of the displays was gone.
“The thing about it is that it’s a one-of-a-kind custom display that cannot be done again,” Wilhelm said of the display in question, the one sponsored by Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 23 of Murray and Calloway County, consisting of a police car. It was situated near the front entrance of Central, just off Arcadia Circle.
“It’s ridiculous. I’m not happy about people stealing anything out of this park anyway. I desperately want this thing back. Look, don’t steal my Christmas displays.”
Murray Police Department Public Information Officer Sgt. Brant Shutt said Monday that his agency has taken a report on the theft and is investigating. City of Murray Police Chief Jeff Liles was told about the incident Monday shortly before he departed Murray to attend a function in another part of Kentucky.
He was not pleased.
“Here it is, a tradition that so many in this community enjoy ever year, something people get behind for the holiday season, and someone decides that they want to take a display down because maybe they feel they need to or something,” Liles said. “For me, I personally want to go to and see this particular display every year because I enjoy seeing it. Plus, you have kids that enjoy looking at these things and they look forward to it every year.
“Yes, we are (investigating the case) and we do intend to find who is responsible and we will prosecute them.”
This also affects the Calloway County Sheriff’s Office, as Central is under the jurisdiction of both the sheriff’s office and MPD. Attempts to contact Calloway Sheriff Sam Steger were unsuccessful Monday.
Wilhelm said it is believed the theft occurred sometime after the park was closed at 10 p.m. Sunday and when he and others arrived to begin work on the setup for the show at about 7 a.m. Monday. He said a park ranger told him that the FOP display was in place at closing time Sunday night.
Wilhelm said that with the display being law-enforcement related, he believes it was taken either for protest purposes, possibly to be destroyed, or for personal display at a residence.
“It’s got special lights, so whoever has it can’t make it work when it does break,” he said. “I desperately want this thing back. It’s a pretty distinct display that we just had re-lit in Florida, and I’d say it’s valued at around $500.
“We’re about 75 percent complete (with constructing the show) and I hope, by the end of the week, to be 100 percent with having displays up, and that gives me Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of next week to wire it and get everything turned on. This sets me back, though. We’ve got to fill that spot in with another display; it’s in a hole now, so now I’ve got to find another display.”
Wilhelm said that should the missing police car be located, it would immediately be put back in its proper place. The replacement display, whatever it turns out to be, would be placed somewhere else.
“I’ll move displays around. It doesn’t take long to move a display. I just want this thing back and I want to stop whatever vandalism we’re going to have,” he said.
The Festival of Lights has become a major draw for the community for the Christmas season. However, it also has developed into an important boost for some local organizations.
At the top of the list is the Murray-Calloway County Need Line and Soup for the Soul, which both benefit from the many canned/nonperishable food items that are donated by visitors who come to the show. Last year, a little more than 10,000 pounds was collected from donations made at the starting line for the show, the ranger station on Gil Hopson Drive.
Parks and Recreation also emerges a big winners every year from monetary donations that are made. Last year, the show earned about $16,000 in monetary donations, which was about a $1,000 increase from 2017 figures.
Murray-Calloway County Parks Director Ryan Yates said that amount was amassed in a year the Festival was offered for three fewer nights than 2017 as well.
Anyone with information on the whereabouts of this display is asked to contact the Murray Police Department at 270-753-1621 or the Calloway County Sheriff’s Office at 270-753-3151.