Bob Reers stayed at the community creche in Pearl River's Braunsdorf Park until approximately 6:30 p.m. Sunday night, in part to work on a new security system.
By 10 a.m. the next morning, the manger had been vandalized; with somebody spray painting the face of the baby Jesus figurine brown.
After a third incident in four years, Reers said it may be time for solutions the committee that cares for the creche and organizes the annual Procession of Children has been avoiding. For years, people have been able to walk into the manger, but that may change.
"I think we might have to consider putting a Plexiglas sheet in front of it," Reers said. "That would break our hearts. Through the years, children have always been able to go inside the manger. I suspect we can't have that any more."
In 2009, the manger was vandalized. Reers said approximately $3,000 in damage was done.
"Two boys on Christmas night. They went in and trashed three or four figures," Reers said. "They were apprehended. Somebody at the bar across the street saw them and they were arrested. Each boy was fined and had community service hours."
"With the incidents in the past, they have all been drinking," Reers said.
This year, the portable figure used during the Procession of Children was replaced by a heavier one to stay during the holiday. It is also anchored with floor screws, so somebody wanting to take it would have to have proper tools with them.
"They can't just take it and run," Reers said. "They would have to take 25 pounds of base if they were going to steal it and that's not easy."
The damage was much more specific this time. The person or people came prepared with brown paint, used it carefully enough to only get the face and may have managed to keep their faces off the surveillance cameras inside the manger.
"When you look how the paint was sprayed on, it's just the face," Reers said. "The signs say it is under surveillance. I suspect someone went and deliberately did it. I don't think someone just happened to have brown paint."
Reers said they try to stay away from calling it a hate crime, but many were upset to see the damage done to the baby Jesus figure. There was some talk of leaving the vandalized figure in place, but eventually they chose to use the portable one, which is removed at night to keep it safe.
"It's rally heart breaking," Reers said. "We don't call it a hate crime. I know when the Menorah was damaged that time; it was called a hate crime. It's just vandalism. You feel horrible because it is the (Christmas) season. If you watch the (surveillance) video or sit and watch, you see how many people come. It's a lovely experience. It's the focus of Christmas."
Reers and Pearl River native and Rockland County historian Robert Knight provided Patch with a history of the Nativity set, which was originally purchased by a group of citizens from Hearns Department Store in New York City in 1950 for $700.
Over the years, it was cared for by many groups including the Christmas Committee, the Pearl River Jaycees, Order of DeMoley, a junior group of the Masonic Lodge and then a Knights of Columbus youth group out of St. Margaret's Church.
Reers and other members of Division 3 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians have been building the Manger for approximately 12 years. Liam Confrey rebuilt the wood manger for his Eagle Scout project in 1995. Another Eagle Scout, Edward Cardinelli, restored the original figures.
The infant Jesus figure was stolen and other figures were broken in 2004, leading to the Pearl River Community Creche Committee leading fundraising efforts to pay for a replacement set. The committee is made up of Eileen Bellew, Sheila and Michael Hussey, Rita and Bob Reers, MaryAnn Shortell and Kristen Sweeney.
"We had a fundraiser in Pearl River with collection boxes and got $10,000 and bought a brand new set," Reers said. "The set is from the people of Pearl River, which is significant."
Eight years ago, they began the Procession of Children. In each case, a child who recently lost a sibling or parent puts the baby Jesus figure in place. This year, it was .
This year they also put up ornaments in honor of the people killed in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.
"It was a very emotional memorial this year, then for something like this to happen," Reers said.
The incident is still under investigation and Reers said there is a $300 reward. Anyone with information about the vandalism can call the Orangetown Police at (845) 359-3700.