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Men charged with stealing 76 vases from cemetery

Friday - 9/28/2012, 6:00am  ET

Two men face criminal charges after police say they stole bronze flower vases from grave sites at a county cemetery.

Christopher Michael Wachter, 22, of the 13000 block of Graceham Road in Thurmont, and Robert Michael Shriner Jr., 34, of the 19000 block of Bennie Drive in Hagerstown, are each charged with theft of more than $10,000, operating a theft scheme, malicious destruction of property and destroying a funerary object.

The two men stole 76 vases with a combined value of more than $25,000 from Resthaven Memorial Gardens near Frederick between Aug. 20 and Sept. 19, Maryland State Police investigators said.

Cemetery staff first alerted police about the thefts Aug. 20, when 13 vases were reported stolen. A series of theft reports followed over the next month, including 37 vases stolen between Sept. 7 and Sept. 10, according to charging documents filed in Frederick County District Court.

The chains that connected the vases to the burial plots were broken, police said.

Resthaven President Richard Cody said mowers noticed a number of vases missing from one area of the cemetery. The area was the part of the cemetery closest to U.S. 15, and Cody said he thinks the thieves may have parked along the highway and walked up the hill to the graves.

Cody said the cemetery does not have a gate and is accessible at all hours.

"Many people come visit during the twilight hours after work," he said.

Employees at Reliable Recycling in Frederick told an investigator the men had brought in broken pieces of bronze vases several times in the previous month, the documents state. The company provided a transaction history that included copies of the men's driver's licenses and a license plate number for the pickup Shriner drove, as well as surveillance video showing Shriner selling the pieces of bronze.

The investigator inspected some pieces, which he said matched the material used in the vases, the documents state. He also weighed the vases and determined that the weight of the pieces sold on each occasion matched exactly the weight of the number of vases stolen in each incident.

Based on the total weight of the material sold by Shriner, police determined that he had been in possession of 100 vases.

The recycling center reported sales of the same material by Shriner on July 30 and Aug. 7, but no surveillance video was available for those transactions.

Police obtained warrants for Wachter and Shriner on Sept. 19, and they were arrested Sept. 21. Wachter was being held Thursday at the Frederick County Adult Detention Center in lieu of $5,000 bail. Shriner was released after posting $15,000 bail.

Cody said thefts of vases from cemeteries are not uncommon. Resthaven had about 90 stolen vases returned last year by West Virginia State Police after troopers found them in a vehicle during a traffic stop, he said.

"It's not just us," Cody said. "It's happening throughout the country since the price of copper has shot up."

Cemetery staff are looking into the possibility of buying vases made of another metal less desirable to thieves, as well as installing a surveillance system to monitor vehicles entering and leaving the grounds, Cody said.

Cody said he thinks Maryland's strict laws dealing with scrap sales, and Reliable Recycling's adherence to those laws, made the arrests possible.

"I think this will deter other people from doing the same thing," he said.

Cody said Resthaven is working with the manufacturer on a discount price for replacement vases, and that staff will be working with the people who had vases stolen to make sure they are all replaced.

"We're not going to let any family not have a vase," Cody said.