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Monday, June 30, 2008

Local and national outbreak of grave robbing

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. [Mark Godsey]

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