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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Local and national outbreak of grave robbing

By Nicholas J.C. Pistor

Grave robbing has become an above-ground affair. Gone are the days when enterprising thieves would dig up an old grave and pillage for gold teeth and rings. Today, it's mostly the bronze markers and flower vases that draw their attention.

Rising scrap metal prices, coupled with the lagging economy, have triggered a string of cemetery thefts both locally and across the nation. "I can't think of anything lower," said David Evans, general manager for Valhalla Gardens of Memory in Belleville. "Nothing's worse than stealing from the dead."

But grave robbers beware: The authorities are getting wise. States are passing laws and police are cracking down. In March, the Madison County Sheriff's Department arrested three people for stealing 40 vases from two Metro East cemeteries. The owner of a Granite City scrap recycling center turned them in.

Late last year, a trio of thieves hit the Valhalla Memorial Park cemetery in East Alton. They stole 17 bronze vases from graves in the cemetery. A month later, they went back and stole a dozen more. The two men and a woman were arrested after a tipster reported a suspicious vehicle. Charges are pending.

The scrap value of a bronze vase is about $10, according to cemetery operators; the replacement price often tops $300.

Grave robbery was more common in the 19th century, when thieves dug up the dead in a search for gold. Sometimes they snatched the bodies for medical experiments.

In 1876, three men broke into Abraham Lincoln's burial site in Springfield, Ill., in an attempt to steal the body and hold it for ransom. The men were caught in progress. Through the decades, such nefarious acts became uncommon. But now, grave robbery is quietly sweeping the nation. Again. Three men were arrested earlier this month on charges of stealing more than 1,000 brass vases and headstones from nine Chicago-area cemeteries.

Also this month, about 150 bronze vases were reportedly stolen from a West Virginia cemetery. In addition, a man was arrested on charges of stealing 55 vases from grave sites in the Fort Myers, Fla. area. In the last few weeks, robberies have been reported at cemeteries in Arizona, Maryland, Michigan and North Carolina.

Stronger laws and new technology are helping catch the thieves. A Missouri law passed last month is aimed at helping police track thieves who steal brass and bronze and sell it to scrap metal dealers. The state stiffened the fines for dealers who don't keep proper paperwork and requires them to get a copy of a photo ID for those who aren't regular customers.

Illinois enacted a similar law earlier this year. Ed Wilkerson, the police chief in Millstadt, said his department has begun paying for an Internet-based system, www.leadsonline.com, that tracks the sale of scrap metal online and in pawnshops. He said the Mount Evergreen Cemetery in Millstadt was robbed of bronze vases last year. No arrests have been made.

Evans, the Belleville cemetery manager, said his facility has stepped up security. "They come and take a few at time, and then wait awhile before coming back," said Evans. Evans said there has been no theft at his cemetery since one of the Madison County arrests.

Apparently, there is a way relatives can keep their deceased loved ones from becoming targets of thieves."Most of the stolen vases we've had come from vases that didn't have any flowers," Evans said.


Anonymous said...

Sure, stealing from somebody's grave is wrong. But for the cemetary general manager to say that he can't think of anything lower or worse than stealing from the dead??? Seriously? So in his eyes, it's unfortunate if a person gets murdered in the first place to end up in a cemetary, but oh my gosh, if their grave gets robbed, that's the TRUE crime against them! There are some cemetaries in the area that have stepped up security so much that they could put the local university to shame. So appararently others share Mr. Evans' views that there's nothing worse than stealing from the dead, including preventing the violent rapes of multitudes of young college coeds. Sometimes, I just wonder where people's priorities are...

Janet said...

oh, come on...is nothing sacred at all anymore? No wonder so many people are being cremated. Why can't these thieves go get a job instead of stealing. Thieves are the low-life scum of the world. Sure there are much more horrible crimes, but that doesn't mean this is ok. This is disgusting. Steal from the dead...