A towering SpongeBob SquarePants headstone has been removed from the gravesite of a 28-year-old Iraq veteran who was killed in a Colorado Springs hotel room on Valentine's Day because cemetery officials in the soldier's hometown of Cincinnati deem the marker inappropriate.
Spring Grove Cemetery in Ohio removed the headstone on Friday, one day after it was put up and nearly eight months after Kimberly Walker was slain. The gravestone depicts Walker's favorite cartoon character smiling in an Army uniform bearing her name and rank.
Walker was an Army corporal assigned to the 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion in Fort Riley, Kan., who had served two yearlong tours in Iraq in 2006 and 2010 as a petroleum supply specialist. Her body was found Feb. 14 among blood and rose petals in a hotel room at the Crowne Plaza hotel - now the Hotel Elegante Conference and Event Center - on South Circle Drive.
Late on Monday, cemetery officials said they were planning to meet Tuesday with Walker's family to explore possible solutions.
Walker was in Colorado Springs visiting her boyfriend, Montrell Mayo, a soldier at Fort Carson, at the time of her death. Her body was discovered after Mayo's supervisor called the hotel to alert employees that the sergeant had argued with his girlfriend and possibly killed her, according to court records.
Mayo, 25, turned himself in to police and was arrested. He is accused of beating and strangling Walker to death. The military has taken charge of his prosecution.
Walker's twin sister, Kara Walker, an information technician for the U.S. Navy, said she's upset that the cemetery is not making accommodations for veterans. She said her family is distraught about the removal of the gravestone, which is over 6 feet tall and weighs 7,000 pounds.
The headstone, along with a similar one erected for Kara Walker, has been removed and will not be allowed back up, cemetery President Gary Freytag said Monday.
"We've decided that they aren't appropriate for our historic cemetery and they can't be displayed here," said Freytag, who acknowledges that approving the gravestones in the first place was a mistake, and has offered to reimburse the family for the cost of the gravestones, amounting to $26,000.
But Deborah Walker, Kimberly Walker's mother, doesn't want the money back - she wants the cemetery, where the family has already prepaid for six plots, to uphold its end of the contract, and put the headstones back.
Freytag acknowledged that the cemetery is at fault and that staff members are hoping to find a compromise, which could include a more traditional gravestone bearing a small likeness of the cartoon character.
"I feel terrible that it got to this point but I'm hoping we can come out at the other end of the tunnel with a solution," he said in an Associated Press story late Monday.
Freytag said Spring Grove is prepared to pay for new headstones along with the reimbursement cost of the original markers.
The process of erecting the SpongeBob gravestones began months ago, Deborah Walker said, with the family presenting the idea to Spring Grove in March. In June, they received a life-size drawing of the headstone, and on Oct. 10, the gravestones were delivered and placed in the cemetery.
"I don't understand how they can just outright say, 'Oh I don't like it, and take it down,'" she said. The family will meet with cemetery staff Tuesday to discuss a solution.
Deborah Walker said her daughter, who had outfitted her entire bedroom with the SpongeBob decorations, deserves a headstone that represents what she loved and who she was as a person.
"SpongeBob has that big smile. My daughter had a big beautiful smile," Deborah Walker said, adding that she often offered to babysit for military couples, and loved kids. "She always had a smile on her face. Everyone knew her laughter."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.