Cemetery thieves steal a lot more than metal

Unguarded headstones an easy target nationwide

Michael Solaya talks about how his grandparents graves were vandalized at the Cedar Park Cemetery in Chicago. (Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune)

Michael Solaya has a routine when visiting the graves of his extended family at Cedar Park Cemetery.

This isn't a business of a few minutes. This obligation takes time, to stand at the graves and confront the memories of the dead, to wonder if you've been worthy of their names, perhaps to say a prayer or two.

But first you have to know where to stand.

Solaya's family are Serbs from South Chicago, steelworkers who thrived on the Southeast Side when steel was king and immigrants could make good money doing heavy and dangerous work.

When they were buried at Cedar Park Cemetery near Calumet Park, their gravestones were laid flat along the ground. Heavy bronze nameplates bearing their time of life were bolted into the granite stones. You stand above them to read the names.

As he told his story at the cemetery, herds of deer wandered past. They're not tame, not exactly, but the deer are used to the mourners. They drift out of the black winter trees and cross the open spaces at a walk.

Two months ago, he stopped first to see his father, Michael "Mitch" Solaya and his mother, Melvina "Babe" Solaya. Then on to the graves of the greater Serbian clan, grandparents and aunts and uncles.

"Then I went to see my grandparents. I always do. It's always my mom and dad first and then my grandparents," Solaya, 59, said the other day.

He knew something was wrong, but he couldn't figure it at first. He'd found his parents easily enough. But not his grandparents.

"I went there and I stood there and I looked and I'm going, 'I think I'm in the right section,'" he recalled.

He saw something at his feet — a smashed chunk of granite sticking out of the ground where his grandmother Anna "Jaga" Marcetich had been buried.

There was no nameplate to mark her place. He began to sob.

It wasn't just his grandmother's grave. Other gravestones of the Solaya clan had been defiled, too. Thieves had broken the stones to take the bronze nameplates of grandfather Petar Marcetich, great-uncle Petar Dozet and great-aunt Milka. All three were nameless in the cold.

Solaya knelt and apologized to his grandfather for the desecration by others.

"I told him I'd fix this," he said, his voice rising in anger. "It's consecrated ground, first of all. It's my grandparents. That somebody could stoop that low to take someone's grave marker? How low can you go? I was just sick. I was like a zombie for several days. I just kept running it (through) my head: 'How could somebody do this?'"

The thieves probably used a heavy hammer and a crowbar. They took the bronze nameplates and all the bronze vases set in the stone, vases where a mourner could place flowers or drop a piece of lit charcoal and beads of incense before chanting ancient Orthodox prayers.

What Solaya didn't know was that his family wasn't alone. Dozens and dozens of graves at Cedar Park have been so desecrated.

Law enforcement authorities tell me that across the country, at cemeteries throughout America, the metal thieves are busy savaging graves.

They steal the names of the dead and sell the bronze to scrap dealers for a few dollars.

Detective Jason Moran of the Cook County sheriff's police's major case squad said that a large grave marker costing a family between $1,000-$2,000 can bring a quick $40 in cash at the right scrap yard.

It's a national concern. Cedar Park has been hit particularly hard, Moran said.

Metal thieves "are stealing copper gutters off the front of people's houses," Moran said. "They're stealing sewer caps from villages all over the county. They steal the copper in the cell towers. This is really about metal theft everywhere. It just so happens cemeteries are an easy target."

Willie Carter, the cemetery owner, said he doesn't have enough money to provide security guards. The metal thieves know this, and return again and again.

Paying to replace the gravestones, or even coming up with the insurance deductible, is a challenge for Solaya, an out-of-work TV studio manager. He remembered his grandfather and he shook with rage.

"He was a huge White Sox fan," Solaya remembered. "After school, I'd cross the alley and go to his house and we'd sit at the kitchen table and he'd be sitting there playing solitaire, listening to his big radio with Bob Elson doing a Sox game. And I'd get my little glass of Coke and my fig bars that they used to buy at Goldblatt's."

On that first day of terrible discovery, he strode into the Cedar Park office.

"They sort of shook their heads," he said. "They said, 'Was it bronze?' And I said, 'Yes, it was.' And she goes 'Yeah, we've been having problems with that for a while.'"

"Their reaction is always 'Well, just pull it out of your insurance.' I mean, very crass … 'It's not our responsibility.' That's all they ever say."

The deer walked past. The wind ran its hands through the long grass. And Michael Solaya knelt among the nameless graves.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass

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