WASHINGTON -- A spate of cemetery heists is now unfolding across the country, as crooks make off with bronze headstones, pry bronze plaques off the graves of veterans, yank up decorative bronze urns and even steal half-ton bronze sculptures and heavy bronze doors from crypts. The astronomical price of copper these days, of which bronze is an alloy, is behind the thefts.
It was still warm in Milwaukee last October when a young couple pushed a baby carriage through quiet St. Adalbert Cemetery in what appeared to be a leisurely, peaceful, mid-autumn stroll.
But it was more than that. The couple, caught on a surveillance camera, was using the walk to steal bronze flower vases that families had attached to the crypts of their loved ones -- vases that go from $120 to $200.
The baby stroller was used to conceal the stolen items -- seven vases in all. The cameras were in place as a security measure as a result of similar, earlier thefts numbering more than 100 at St. Adelbert and Mt. Olivet Cemetery on the city's south side.
Authorities surmised the bronze items -- made of an alloy that contains copper, which is commanding astronomical prices these days -- were sold as scrap.
That incident was part of a nationwide spate of cemetery heists now unfolding, as crooks make off with bronze headstones, pry bronze plaques off the graves of veterans, yank up decorative bronze urns and even steal half-ton bronze sculptures and heavy bronze doors from crypts.
According to local news accounts, in March alone, a man was charged with stealing 158 cemetery vases in High Point, N.C., worth a total of $30,000; a cemetery in Nashville, Tenn., lost 140 vases to thieves; and in Washington, two sculptures -- one weighing 800 pounds -- with a total value of $250,0000 were stolen from historic Rock Creek Cemetery.
Centuries ago cemeteries often were popular sites for thievery, although it was more of the grave robbing sort as physicians and others -- think "Frankenstein" -- sought fresh bodies for experimentation.
These days the honored dead remain generally undisturbed but items adorning their burial plots are illicitly removed and often sold to recyclers or fenced.
Copper theft has long proved to be a lucrative profession for crooks, particularly when the price is elevated as it is now. Scrap copper is going for about $4.50 a pound and scroungers will go to great lengths to grab and fence it.
Decorative pots at gravesides are an easy target. Bryan Jacobs, executive director of the Coalition Against Copper Theft, based in Washington, said cemeteries provide easy access, open spaces and limited security beyond simple fencing.
"They can get in and out of cemeteries very easily," Jacobs said. "This has been a problem for four or five years. These guys will get copper from anywhere they can. It's absolutely appalling."
Robert Fells, executive director of the International Cemetery, Crematory and Funeral Association in Sterling, Va., said the bronze vases and urns, often used to hold flowers, are a regular target because they are easily moved.
Last February, for instance, police in Robertsdale, Ala., arrested a brother and sister team and charged them with stealing almost 200 bronze cemetery vases. Police said the pair acted indiscriminately, removing the pots from the plots of children, veterans and a former city police chief. The value of the vases was placed at $300 each.
"There's a rash of these things that come and go in different areas," Fells said. "It's an on-again, off-again kind of thing. I don't know what triggers it. From time to time cemeteries try to police their grounds because these things usually occur after dark.'
Ruthie Shapleigh Brown of the Connecticut Gravestone Network noted that the bronze vases aren't the only items that turn up missing.
"With such profit to be had, is it a wonder that our cemeteries are such vulnerable targets?" she said. "How many cemeteries have you been to where you've seen large portions of iron gates and fences -- maybe up to 80 percent - already missing? Statuary urns, lambs and angels are disappearing at alarming rates and being purchased by garden lovers, unaware that this old statue probably came from someone's gravesite."
Anything containing the precious metal appears ripe for the picking. In Brookline, MA, last September, two bronze plaques, valued at $1,200 and $1,075, disappeared and were assumed stolen. The plaques were big and heavy -- one measured two feet by eight inches while the other was 18 inches -- and bore the names of families buried on the grounds, one dating as far back as 1899.
Jacobs, of the anti-copper theft coalition, said the cemetery thefts "are as low as these guys get" but asserted that the problem is "much wider and deeper" than graveyard pillaging and it appears to be growing. Efforts are underway to eradicate the problem.
"One reason the situation is not as bad as it was in 2008 - the last time copper prices jumped -- is because a lot more states have done really good work at putting some basic laws on the books that we think are deterring the crime" Jacobs said.
About 30 states now have some sort of copper theft law, Jacobs said. "Even some of the most basic ones that just make the scrap yard ask for identification for material, that is the primary deterrent," he said.
The coalition is hoping for federal legislation to set minimal requirements for scrap yards dealing in copper and other precious metals.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com