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Today’s Grave Robbers Do Lively Business : Thieves are plundering cemeteries for statues, columns and benches. The objects bring high prices as garden decorations.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The tall man wearing a silk top hat and black mourning suit peered through the massive wrought-iron gate into the darkness. A candle flickered in the old-fashioned lantern grasped in his left hand.

“Welcome to Laurel Grove Cemetery,” he solemnly intoned to 40 people exiting their tour bus and approaching the gate. After lifting the heavy latch, the man turned and hoisted his lantern into the air as a beacon for the crowd to follow. Brown paper bags covering lighted candles outlined the path ahead. Massive oak trees, draped in gray Spanish moss, provided an eerie backdrop to the ancient tombs and graves. Sand and rock crunched underfoot as the group moved forward.

But those hoping to see ghosts and goblins and hear howls from the graves were disappointed. This night was dedicated to history, to be played out in reenactments of the lives of some of the people buried in this 145-year-old cemetery.

During one weekend, more than 600 visitors paid $15 each to trudge through the humid night air and swat the vicious mosquitoes. The Society for the Preservation of Laurel Grove’s third annual Lantern Tour was sold out.

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Graveyards have always attracted history buffs and genealogists--along with others less dedicated to preservation. Thieves. Modern-day grave robbers.

It isn’t necessary for these plunderers to pry open a tomb to find valuables. The valuables are sitting right outside the tombs: the statues--particularly angels--urns, columns, benches and fountains that beautify the grave sites.

Across the South these items are being stolen by the hundreds, destined for antique shops and flea markets, where they bring high prices as garden decorations.

“Garden-type statuary has been hot for a few years, and cemeteries are the one place to get it,” said Tom Hoepf, central edition editor of AntiqueWeek. “Any community that has the Victorian country-style cemetery in a rural area or on the edge of town is prone to vandalism or theft.”

Johnnie Cadle, 78, of Swainsboro, Ga., has spent the past two years searching antique malls for the statue taken from her brother’s grave. The 3-foot-tall boy angel, made of Italian marble, was the centerpiece of a large monument erected in a small rural cemetery about 80 years ago. A replacement angel would cost at least $4,000, Cadle said. And no new statue could ever replace “little Bubba.”

In Atlanta’s Greenwood Cemetery, a fast-thinking grounds superintendent recently foiled a theft in progress. Spotting a suspicious-looking pickup truck, the superintendent locked the cemetery gates and called police. Two men were arrested with a column, a sundial and crowbars in the back of their truck. Supt. Franklin Lewis said Greenwood has lost $45,000 to $65,000 worth of artifacts to thieves.

A 300-pound marble statue, valued at more than $2,500, is firmly reattached to its headstone in a Clarksville, Tenn., cemetery. Stolen from the grave of 4-year-old Nannie Tyler in June, the statue was recovered in August from an antique shop in Boston. The Boston dealer had purchased the statue in Indiana.

At Oakland Memorial Park in Terrell, Texas, stolen items include hand-carved angels and other figures, urns and cast-iron fences and gates. Davis Griffith-Cox, historian for the Kaufman County Historic Commission, valued the missing items at $30,000 to $50,000.

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“These are highly sophisticated thefts,” said Griffith-Cox. “The thieves are very selective. They will pass over things less costly and less fine and take the creme de la creme.”

In Savannah’s Laurel Grove, a sign near the cemetery’s entrance warns: “Theft of cemetery property is a state offense punishable by law.”

Although hundreds of artifacts are missing, only one person has been arrested. Larry Chapman has been charged with stealing clay tiles used to outline burial plots. Colin Young, vice chairman of the preservation society at Laurel Grove, says these 8-inch-square clay tiles are among the most popular items removed from the cemetery because they make very attractive garden edging. He fears that continual loss of the tiles will leave some graves completely unmarked.

“The difficult problem is apprehending the thieves,” Young said. “These cemeteries are often so large. You can’t have people on-site 24 hours a day to keep an eye on things.”

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