BENTONVILLE -- A Bentonville man told a judge he was honoring a dead man by repeatedly putting dead animals on the man's grave.
Joseph Stroud pleaded guilty Monday to misdemeanor defacing objects of public respect. He was originally charged with a felony, but agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge under a plea agreement Alison Lee, his attorney, reached with Tyler Hawkins, deputy prosecutor.
Stroud was arrested Aug. 10. He admitted damaging a burial monument by repeatedly placing dead animals on Fred McKinney's gravestone between May 31 and July 31 in the Pea Ridge Cemetery.
Shannon Nobles told Brian Stamps, a Pea Ridge police officer, on July 31 her family found dead animals at her grandfather's grave site, according to a probable cause affidavit.
Benton County Circuit Judge Robin Green immediately questioned why she should accept the plea agreement.
Hawkins said Lee had provided him with a report from a neurologist, who had examined Stroud and diagnosed him with vascular dementia. Hawkins said the plea was offered because Lee has a basis to file for a mental evaluation since there's a chance the diagnosis impacts Stroud's judgment and impulse control.
Hawkins said McKinney's family was in favor of the plea and wanted the money to replace McKinney's headstone.
"They will have to replace the headstone because of the blood and guts," Hawkins said. "It's permanently stained."
The judge wanted to know whether there were any reasons Stroud should be allowed back in the cemetery.
"His wife is also buried at that cemetery," Lee said. "As long as the case has been going on he's been unable to visit his wife's gravesite."
Green said she would only accept the agreement if one of Stroud's family members accompanies him to the cemetery. She questioned whether Stroud understands the severity of the case and if he understand with whom he can go to the cemetery because of his diagnosis.
Lee said she believes her client understands the severity of the case and she would have filed for a mental evaluation if she believed he could not understand.
The family placed cameras directed at the headstone after seeing dead animals at the grave site, according to court documents. The cameras captured a person leaving a dead animal on top of the tombstone and walking back to a gray Dodge Journey, according to court documents.
The person was wearing a teal and white woman's jacket, sunglasses and a woman's wig, according to the affidavit.
Nobles said she was jogging one day and saw Stroud drive away from the cemetery. She went to the gravesite and found a dead possum on it and eight live baby possums inside one of the flower vases, according to the affidavit.
Green asked Stroud why he placed the dead animals on McKinney's grave.
McKinney was a farmer and he enjoyed animals, Stroud said.
"I done it for his behalf to show him the animals were still here and everything like that," he said. "He just enjoyed animals and that there was more of a ... a beauty than flowers an stuff."
"If you were honoring him why would you wear disguises and sneak in and out of the cemetery to put the dead animals on his grave?" Green asked.
"It was to agitate the people looking at me and following me around," Stroud said. "I done it to upset them because my car was there and my license tag was there, and they knew it was me. I done it just to agitate them because I knew they were checking on me and stuff."
Green then asked Stroud if he put baby animals on Stroud's grave.
Stroud said he got a live possum off the roadside that was about to be run over, and he wanted to protect it, so he took it and put it on the grave. Stroud said he wanted McKinney to look over the animal.
Stroud said the possum gave birth to eight babies and he went back to the cemetery and brought the babies back to his farm.
Green noted that court documents report that McKinney's family members saw the baby possums on the grave.
Hawkins said some of the babies had been placed on the grave or fallen in a vase at the site. He said prosecutors looked at filing animal cruelty charges concerning the baby possums, but they could not prove the elements to charge Stroud with cruelty to animals.
"Well, he's telling me that he took them back to the house," Green said. "That's not contained in the probable cause affidavit. The family member that noticed the headstone with this monstrosity bleeding upon it saw the baby animals there."
Green questioned whether Stroud was being honest with her, and she said it made her question whether he was honoring McKinney by dressing up as a woman and putting animals on the grave.
Hawkins said he shared the court's concern, but Stroud was admitting to committing the crime.
Lee told the judge that her client had gone to the neurologist and was doing follow-up treatments with medical professionals.
"He understands it was wrong," Lee said. "This is one of the most unusual cases I've had since I've been doing this. He knows it was wrong. He's here admitting that and he wants to get that money to the family so they can get this headstone replaced."
Green said she would accept the plea agreement only if Stroud surrendered his driver's license. She said if he's suffering dementia, he could pose a threat to society operating a motor vehicle. He could drive to the cemetery and repeat his actions, Green said.
Stroud agreed to surrender the license. Green accepted the plea agreement and Stroud's guilty plea. She said she accepted the agreement because of McKinney's family and the representation of Stroud's mental condition.
Stroud was given a one-year suspended sentence. He must pay $2,529 in victim restitution within 30 days.
Tracy M. Neal can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @NWATracy.