Piasa Bird landmark in Alton vandalized 6-22-07

ALTON, Ill. (AP) - Five students from Alton High School have confessed to defacing the famed Piasa Bird painted on the limestone bluffs in this Mississippi River city, authorities said.

The creature is a mythological human-headed, fish-tailed, man-eating monster. The painting was damaged June 10 when vandals threw tar-dipped sticks at the bird and dripped tar on Piasa Park's patio and walkway.

Alton Police Chief Chris Sullivan said a group of young people at Alton High School overheard one of the teens talking about committing the vandalism. Encouraged by the offer of a reward, they notified police.

Four of the boys are 16, and one is 15, according to Detective Sgt. Jake Simmons. At least three have given videotaped confessions, he said. Because of their ages, authorities are not releasing their names.

The cases are being handled through the Madison County Juvenile Court as “a juvenile delinquent act,” Sullivan said. “If they were adults, it would be felony criminal damage to property.”

The boys said they wanted to explore the park's caves and took tar from a construction site to try to make torches using sticks wrapped in rope, Simmons said.

“But they couldn't get the tar to light, so they started throwing them at the bird (painting), and they stuck. They thought it was funny,” he said.

The teens also pulled down ceiling light fixtures in the restroom, smashed eight windows, threw tar on the park's brick patio and walkway, and bent two drinking fountain spigots, authorities said.

“It was sheer nastiness, meanness,” Sullivan said.

The Piasa Bird is said to be based on a long-vanished American Indian rock painting that decorated a river bluff near here.

Over the years, the bird's likeness has been appeared in several locations and in various styles, including a metal cutout affixed to a bluff. The latest version - a painting about 50 feet wide and two stories tall, with the bottom edge roughly 20 feet above the ground - was painted by community members in the mid-1990s.