Digging (Six Feet Under) For Scrap Metal

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The scrap metal crime wave that has been gripping much of the country is getting worse and a little weird.

It started with thieves ripping off copper wiring from places like vacant homes. Then, they started stealing manhole covers and fire hydrants. Now, metal thieves have moved on to new, more despicable territory — cemeteries and monuments to the dead.

Gary Meyer was a 19-year-old Army private when he was killed in Vietnam in 1966. A few years later, a memorial was established in a public park on high ground overlooking his hometown of Pleasanton, Calif., a suburb of San Francisco.

"He was the first soldier from Pleasanton who died in the Vietnam War, and in 1969 on Memorial Day, this memorial was dedicated in his honor," says Jim Wolf, director of Pleasanton's parks. Wolf points to a small red-brick stand where someone used a crowbar to pry loose the bronze plaque memorializing Meyer's sacrifice.

'Thoughtless And Callous'

To the thief, Wolf says, it was just a hunk of metal that could be sold to some scrap dealer who wouldn't ask questions. Even in this quiet upscale suburb, metal thieves are fearlessly stealing everything — including the copper from roadside lamp posts.

"This was different, though," Wolf says. "This was something I don't think anyone would have expected that someone would be so thoughtless and callous that they would remove something dedicated to someone who gave their life for our country."

It's one thing to pilfer a memorial for a dead soldier, but some thieves have taken even more than that.

In nearby Union City, Police Lt. Jim Bizieff is investigating the theft of almost two dozen bronze urns, each weighing between 20 and 40 pounds. They were stripped from a mausoleum.

"All of the urns that were stolen were unmarked, meaning they weren't etched, so it's possible that the thief might have thought there was nothing in those," Bizieff says. "However, one of the urns did in fact contain human remains."

Bizieff says his investigators have had no luck tracking down those remains.

A National Trend

Around the nation, law enforcement officials says drug addicts are taking advantage of rising prices for scrap metal by stealing everything from farm equipment and manhole covers, to the brass gates of cemeteries. In Vancouver, Wash., thieves stole 150 bronze vases from the Evergreen Memorial Gardens.

"It's grave robbery, and they're stealing from the dead," says Brad Carlson, president of the cemetery. "If anything should be sacred, it should be a cemetery."

This apparently is not the case, so lawmakers in about 40 states are trying to head off the thieves at the market by regulating scrap metal recyclers.

In California, there's a new law that requires scrap dealers to take a photo of anyone selling scrap metal and their goods. The sellers also will have to wait three days to get paid. The bill was co-sponsored by Republican Assemblyman Tom Berryhill.

"What we're hoping is that other states can use this as a model so we have uniformity across the country, so they're not going from one state line to the other doing what they're doing from county to county right now," Berryhill says.

Berryhill's bill was supported by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, says its spokesman Chuck Carr.

"No legitimate recycler takes — intentionally takes — stolen material," Carr says. "Certainly, a lot of it comes in that is just unidentifiable, once it comes into the yard. But the legitimate scrap industry wants no part of stolen material and would love to see this problem go away."

In California, the new law requires anyone convicted of buying or selling stolen scrap metal to pay for any damages the theft may have caused.

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