Metal thieves turn into grave robbers

COLMA, Calif.

Police are putting local metal recyclers on alert after 525 bronze vases disappeared, leaving 525 families in shock.

"I was very devastated the day I came and I saw all the flowers everywhere and I realized that the vase was gone," said Maria Hernandez, a grieving relative.

Hernandez described the scene at the Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma the day hundreds of bronze vases vanished, including one at the plot where her grandson is buried.

"I was really hurt. It made me cry for a long time. First for my loved one and then for the people that did this," said Hernandez.

It happened first on Feb. 3, then again on Feb. 18. Over 500 bronze vases were yanked off the chains that held them to the in ground bronze memorials.

"They actually brought in wheelbarrows in the dead of night," said Ken Varner, the president of the Cypress Lawn Cemetery.

Varner says the gates were secured, but grave robbers got through a back fence and loaded the 8 pound vases into wheelbarrows.

"It's an $85,000 theft for us, a significant theft," said Varner.

They'll replace the vases for $171 each. They've emailed other California cemeteries warning them of the thefts. Some are using plastic or plain metal vases to deter thieves. And police say they're staking out local graveyards now.

"We're working hand in hand with the local cemeteries, local law enforcement and recycling centers in an attempt to identify suspect in this case," said Colma Police Detective Barton McHale.

One San Francisco metal recycler said a haul of bronze vases would be regarded as suspicious. The recycled bronze would only net the thieves $4,500.

"It's about the lowest crime I can think of, when you're stealing from cemeteries off the graves of people," said McHale.

"A lot of people don't have respect for the living. You don't think they'd go to disrespect the dead," said Carmen Castillo, a grieving relative.

The cemetery says they will increase their security and officers will be patrolling more often.

Anyone with information about the thefts is encouraged to contact Colma police at (650) 997-8321.

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