CHARLESTON, W.Va. Grave robbers, a curse of burial grounds for centuries, are back for new valuables: metal ornaments that can be melted down for quick cash as copper and other metal prices climb.
In West Virginia, it was vases bolted to headstones. In Washington state, it was bronze markers on veterans' graves. In Chicago, it was nearly half a million dollars' worth of brass ornaments.
"It's a crisis of the times," said Ruth Shapleigh-Brown, executive director of the Connecticut Gravestone Network, which monitors cemeteries for theft and vandalism. "People are finding a way to make money."
Across the country, police have reported mounting scrap metal prices translating into increased thefts that range from manhole covers and church downspouts to telephone and power lines.
Stealing from the dead is a practice that goes back far enough in history to be the subject of curses on the walls of Egyptian pyramids.
A decade ago, metal urns, flag holders and ornaments in cemeteries were mostly ignored by thieves, who instead stole grave markers and other stone fixtures for the antiques market, said Shapleigh-Brown.
But with copper currently selling for about $3.75 per pound close to historic highs of over $4 a pound in 2006 thieves are carrying off brass and bronze items that can be melted down for the copper they contain.
"I don't know what could be more sacred than protecting our cemeteries," said West Virginia state legislator Kevin Craig, who co-sponsored a law against scrap metal theft after a bronze door was stolen from a tomb at a cemetery in his district in 2006.
The measure, passed last year, increases pressure on scrap dealers to avoid stolen metals by requiring them to keep records of sellers' identities and provide these records to police.
Still, thieves in June stole 150 copper vases worth about $18,000 from a St. Albans cemetery.
"It's a crime of opportunity," said St. Albans Police Chief Joe Crawford, whose department has arrested a suspect in the cemetery thefts.
"A cemetery is a walk in the park" compared to the closed coal mines and active power stations where thieves also seek out copper, he said.
One factor lessening the sting of such thefts is that many homeowners' insurance policies provide coverage for them under the category of "offsite personal property," said Robert Fells, general counsel for the International Cemetery and Funeral Association.
Those insurance policies don't cover some of the other things sought by thieves at cemeteries, though, which include antique gravestones, flowers and even, in a few grisly instances, human remains.
Most commonly, old graves are disturbed by people hunting for Revolutionary or Civil War relics to sell. In rare cases, body parts are removed by groups for use in occult ceremonies, said Nicholas Bellantoni, Connecticut's state archaeologist.
"It's kind of ghastly, but we've seen it," said Bellantoni.