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WASHINGTON -- Ghouls have made a resurgence in cemeteries throughout the United States, prying plates and ornaments from headstones and selling them to scrap yards.
A rise in metal prices is driving the thefts, detectives say. Prices for copper, brass and bronze -- metals that are commonly found in cemetery remembrances -- have in some cases quadrupled in price in the past four years.
Because the metals can be hammered out of shape, the thefts are virtually untraceable.
"It's disgusting," says Detective Kurt Fundermark of the Cape Coral (Fla.) Police Department, who is investigating the theft of 150 brass flower vases from grave sites in two cemeteries.
"These thieves don't seem to care about their conscience. They don't care about right and wrong," Fundermark says.
*In Delaware someone removed 1,000-pound bronze gates from two mausoleums at the Riverview Gardens cemetery in Wilmington.
*More than 200 brass urns were stolen from Rest Lawn Memorial Gardens and Sunset Memorial Park, both graveyards in Cumberland, Md. A married couple was recently charged in the case.
*In Chicago last month, three men were charged with taking $500,000 worth of brass urns and ornaments from cemeteries.
The thieves are often addicts seeking money for drugs, says Sgt. Jon Dudiak of the Allegany County Combined Criminal Investigation Unit in Maryland.
The prices make it worth it.
Scrap copper is worth $2.25 to $2.40 a pound, up from $1 to $1.50 a pound in 2004; and bronze gets $1.50 to $2 a pound, up from 40 to 50 cents a
pound in 2004, says Joel Nucci, owner of Calamari Recycling in Essex, Conn.
"There's definitely an uptick; you might call it a rash," says Bob Fells, general counsel for the International Cemetery Cremation and Funeral Association. "This seems to happen any time the price of metal goes up."
The National Cemetery Administration, which replaces stolen bronze markers on the grave sites of U.S. veterans free of charge, has done so 104 times this year, compared with 104 in all of 2007 and 70 in 2006.
"It's very troubling ... not just because of the marker that needs to be replaced but also because of the pain it causes loved ones and the disrespect it shows to veterans," spokeswoman Jo Schuda says.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade group, already urges its members to record sales and not to buy suspicious items, such as brass cemetery urns. Prices for copper and brass jumped by about a third in the past six months, says Bruce Savage, a spokesman for the trade group. But often objects such as urns are cut, pounded and made unrecognizable, or buried under other metal items when they're dropped off at a scrap yard, only to be discovered later, he says.
"We do not knowingly take these materials," he says.
Not all recyclers follow that advice, Fundermark says. In July, he arrested Kevin Kraft, 39, of Fort Myers, Fla., in the theft of the 150 brass vases. A scrap dealer bought the vases even though he had been alerted by police to keep an eye out for the items, Fundermark says.
Police want stronger laws to fight the problem. This year, 25 states introduced bills to regulate or increase penalties for violations related to scrap metal reprocessing and theft, the National Conference of State Legislatures says. Maryland state Sen. John Astle, a Democrat, has proposed a law that would force scrap dealers to report each sale and seller. "As long as there's a place for the thieves to sell their stolen property they're going to steal it," Astle says.
Ruth Shapleigh-Brown, executive director of the Connecticut Gravestone Network, which monitors old burial grounds, says in the past thieves made off with angel statues, urns and gates and sold them as folk art or unique garden ornaments.
Today, Shapleigh-Brown says, the objects "are absolutely being mutilated.
"It hurts the people who go to grieve for the dead."