Cemetery thefts unnerve families

Mar. 09, 2014 @ 07:37 AM

Kevin Hartso and his mother, Katherine Hartso, stepped gingerly among some of the approximately 7,500 graves dotting the landscape at Blue Ridge Memorial Park. Fearing the bronze vases perched atop their relatives' markers might be among the 138 stolen last weekend, they were relieved Wednesday to find them still in place. But they passed several markers where instead of a vase to hold freshly cut flowers stood is now a neat, 6-inch-wide hole.

"It's got to be drug addicts," Marvin Hartso said. "It takes a low-life person to do something like this. It's robbing the dead."

Like the Hartsos, Kim Stanbury went to the cemetery to investigate graves -- those of her cousin Jerold Tolber Jr., who served in the U.S. Navy and died in Guam in 1963 at age 26, and her father, a World War II veteran. Their bronze vases, as well as those for seven other relatives, were also still in place, but she feels the thefts desecrate the memory of all buried there.

"It's one thing to steal from me, but these people are dead," Stanbury, who lives in the nearby Kings Creek community, said. "These are military veterans. I feel very fortunate ours are still here, but's so disrespectful."

On Monday, a caller reported a vase had been stolen from a grave marker at the 27-acre park, off Wilkesboro Boulevard. Employees inspecting the cemetery discovered that 138 had been removed sometime over that weekend. Lenoir police were investigating the case of the stolen vases, but as of Friday still had no leads. Patrols have been stepped up in the two city-run cemeteries, Blue Ridge and Bellview.

"We've called all the scrap dealers in the area, but nobody has tried to sell bronze vases," Capt. Couby Stilwell said.

The vases cost $300 apiece to place on a grave, or more than $41,000 together. To a thief seeking scrap, though, they would bring less than $6 each: The price of scrap bronze last week was $1.70 a pound, and each vase weighs about three pounds.

In 2005, 25 bronze vases were stolen from the cemetery and another two in 2011. In both cases, they turned up in area scrap yards outside of Caldwell County, some in Gastonia, but others had already been destroyed.

Area scrap dealers say they do not accept metal monuments, markers or vases unless a letter from a cemetery is produced verifying they were not stolen. One scrap yard, Dale's Recycling in Hudson, will not even accept them even then.

"We don't buy anything that is monument-related," said owner Clay Dale. "It's just not worth the risk."

Nancy Tips, manager at Mountain Recycling in Hickory, said she gets few calls from someone trying to sell monument items.

"Every once and a while, we will get a phone call to see if we take vases," Tipps said, "but it's very rare."

Mountain Recycling will accept them only if there is a letter from a cemetery verifying that they belong to a family member of a loved one, she said, and even then the business won't deal with anyone who had been charged in the past with theft.

L. Gordon Iron and Metal Co. in Statesville will buy monument-related items only from cemeteries or from sellers that the business is familiar with. Owner Richard Gordon said he couldn't speak for the other dealers.

"There's good lawyers and bad lawyers, good doctors and bad doctors," Gordon said. "And there's good scrap yards and bad scrapyards."

Lenoir police are eager to catch the person or persons responsible, Stilwell said. Public Works director Charles Beck said the person who stole the vases in 2005 was eventually caught. And he said he will not rest easy until this most recent theft also is solved.

"I think someone who steals is bad enough, but from a grave, that's the lowest of lows," Beck said.