Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Stealing from the Dead

On December 18, 2013, thieves stole two 250-pound bronze mausoleum doors from Arlington Cemetery in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania (a Philadelphia suburb). The replacement value of the doors is about $30,000. This was their second trip to Arlington – they had stolen more doors the prior weekend, assuming the same thieves. (Links at the end of this article will take you to the news postings and videos regarding the story.)

What would anyone want with heavy bronze doors? Might they need replacements for the antechamber doors in their castle? Would they sell them on the black art market? Hardly. Most likely they would attempt to sell them for scrap. At current rates for bronze scrap ($2.00 per pound), the doors would fetch a thousand dollars (500 lbs. x $2.00 per pound). Bronze, being an alloy of copper and tin, is worth almost as much as copper (click link for current prices), the “gold” of the scrap metal industry.

But there’s a catch – and that is, quite literally, that the thieves or the scrap yard could be caught. Selling scrap is not so easy if the booty is recognizable. So if the thieves thought that it was hard enough to remove the pair of 250-pound doors from the mausoleum, lug them across a snow-covered cemetery, over a fence, and into a waiting vehicle – wait until they try to chop them up. That can’t be easy.

Blocked-up mausoleum entrance
And if they pound or cut them into unrecognizable chunks, they’ll have to cart it all off to a scrapyard and try to pass it off as (relatively) worthless – and not stolen – junk. One trick my father taught me (as he would sometimes sell a truckload of scrap metal to the junkyard) is that if you mix the questionable stuff up with the REALLY worthless stuff, it’s more difficult to detect the former. Not that he stole from cemeteries, of course. When one person tosses an old refrigerator or a roll of copper wire in the trash, there are scrappers who pick it out and sell it to a metal recycling operation (or, as they were called when I was a kid in the 1960s, a “junk yard”). Recycling scrap metals means extra cash for some people. Today, with a poor economy and scrap metal values as high as they are, THEFT of metals to be sold as scrap is rampant.

Grave medals a target for thieves
If a recycling or metal reclamation site gets caught buying stolen merchandise, the people involved may face jail time, fines, and restitution. A recent example  is described in this September 2013 article from the Isanti (Minnesota) County News: “Randall man sentenced for receiving stolen bronzestar markers from graves.” The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) is at the same time trying to put a more positive face on the situation, for the good of the industry, as we see in this excerpt from the article, “Combating Scrap Theft: ScrapDealers Don't Want It and They're Doing Something About It:”

The problem of metal theft is ever present, but it has boomed in recent months.
     The rash of scrap thefts has put recyclers in a difficult position. Many find themselves trying to maintain their incoming supply while guarding against accepting stolen material.
     "Unfortunately, with most scrap metal, there's just no way to tell the difference between legitimate scrap and that which has been stolen -- it all looks the same,” said Chuck Carr, spokesman for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI). "Recyclers are also confronted with the challenge of protecting their own inventory from theft, both at their facilities and in transit to their customers."
     To meet these challenges, recyclers are engaging in cooperative crime-fighting efforts with other recyclers and law enforcement officials.
     In general, scrap recyclers must address scrap thefts on two fronts: First, they must protect themselves from having their own material stolen.  And second, they must protect themselves from inadvertently buying stolen material over the scale.
     Recyclers are taking steps to identify incoming stolen material and avoid purchasing it. Scrap operators know it's illegal to intentionally purchase stolen material. They also recognize the potential out-of-pocket losses they may suffer by unwittingly buying such material. If the material's rightful owner or local authorities find the stolen goods in a recycler's yard, they can reclaim it without having to reimburse the recycler.
Mausoleum with blocked-up front door (Wilmington, Delaware)

Doorless mausoleum
So how did the thieves get the doors off the mausoleums, anyway? They pried them open (where the two doors meet in the center) and then removed the side hinges from each door. Arlington has now chained the door handles together on its remaining eighteen mausoleums to prevent future theft. Attractive sight, isn’t it? I’ve seen this a lot, in many cemeteries, and just assumed it was done to prevent unauthorized entry. I’ve also seen mausoleums with the doors missing altogether. and many with the window and door openings blocked up. All a result of theft, I imagine.

And what about the families who own the mausoleums? Does a cemetery insure itself against such theft? Do the families who own the mausoleums insure the building? Arlington Cemetery is home to the Museum of Mourning Arts, a wonderful museum of Victorian funerary art. I hope the building has an electronic security system. The cemetery itself is immaculate, a genteel purlieu in a residential neighborhood, fronted by busy Lansdowne Avenue. Its wooded acres are very well-maintained, though such bucolic forested landscaping offers convenient cover for thieves. Hard to believe such a theft could occur here, and no one see the theft in process. If anyone reading this has any information about the doors, please call Upper Darby Police's anonymous tip line at 610-734-3439. 

Even more difficult to believe is that a similar theft occurred earlier at nearby Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pa, four miles from Arlington. Three sets of doors were stolen from this Catholic Archdiocese cemetery. It has many more mausoleums to choose from and is a larger cemetery, making it potentially easier to perpetrate such a crime. Holy Cross is one of my favorite cemeteries in which to make photographic art, so the desecration is even closer to home. The image of the Christmas wreath on the mausoleum door that you see at the beginning of this blog was made in Holy Cross a few years ago. I’m wondering if the doors are still there.

Nothing is safe when people are hard up for money, perhaps money to feed a drug habit, as police suspect in the Arlington thefts. The bronze medallions (see photo at left) that mark veterans’ graves in many cemeteries are easy pickings, certainly easier than a mausoleum door. They go missing all the time (see link). Though I never weighed one, I assume each weighs a pound. Fifty of these at $2.00 apiece would fetch one hundred dollars as scrap. You can buy a gram of heroin with that. (My mathematically-inclined readers have already done the math and see that the value of heroin is TWICE that of gold!)

Ed Snyder with "Silent Sentinel" (photo Frank Rausch)
Cemeteries need a silent sentinel to keep theft down these days. This particular bronze sculpture of a Civil War soldier, coincidentally known as the “Silent Sentinel,” used to stand in Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery. In the 1970s, it was recovered while thieves were in the act of removing it. It had been knocked off its granite pedestal, chained to a pickup truck and was being dragged out of the cemetery. The theft was thwarted and the statue was placed in storage for safekeeping. The “Silent Sentinel” was restored and kept in a foundry for safekeeping for forty years. Not until 2013 did it see the light of day. It now stands (temporarily) in the office at Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery.

References and Further Reading:

Bronze grave markers stolen