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"Nowadays, nothing is sacred," Ellie Hanson of Superior said as she stood near her future grave site at the city's Nemadji Cemetery, where a vandal had pried off a brass plaque, possibly to sell as scrap metal. Hanson's plaque was one of two taken from the cemetery this year; officials say they're the only thefts of their kind in the city in the past 30 years. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Thieves steal markers from Superior cemetery, possibly for scrap metal

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Ellie Hanson's humor softens the cruel fact that in May, it was discovered that someone pried the brass plaque off her future grave in Superior and probably sold it for scrap.

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Knowing she'll probably never find out who would "stoop so low" to steal from a cemetery, she recently tried to put an ad in the local newspaper. "It was going to say: Whoever stole the marker on my grave, I'd like to have it back. I plan on dying soon."

"Something goofy like that," the 87-year-old Superior resident said this week while talking about the unmarked slab of concrete that now holds her place in the St. Francis Church section of Nemadji Cemetery. It's next to the military veteran plaque of her husband, Dewey, who was buried here in 1990. "He appreciated my wit," Hanson said wryly.

There is frustration behind the humor when it comes to the lengths to which people seeking cash for scrap metal will go. "Nowadays, nothing is sacred," Hanson said.

Cemetery caretaker Rolland Plunkett noticed the missing plaque in May and heard of another shortly thereafter. "That's two too many," he said.

Plunkett's son, Jim, is the caretaker for many of the other cemeteries in Superior. They said the two missing plaques are the only known thefts of their kind in the city in the past 30 years.

The remaining concrete at Ellie Hanson's planned grave has marks where a tool was used to pry the plaque up, probably snapping the bolts that held it in place. There are similar tool marks next to Dewey Hanson's plaque.

Either it was too difficult to get loose or the thief had a conscience, Plunkett said. They probably realized how low it would be to take a veteran's marker, he said, or that it might be a federal offense if they were caught. Veteran markers are paid for by the U.S. government. Ellie Hanson said her plaque, placed 20 years ago just after her husband's death, cost about $600. "It didn't break my heart or anything," she said. "I don't feel bad about the grave or the money. I feel bad that someone has to stoop so low."

The Duluth Police Department said it hasn't had any reported thefts of plaques from cemeteries. Hanson called Superior police and said she was told that desperate people will take anything for the possibility of cashing in the metal, including air-conditioners.

The second plaque taken was from the footstone of Ben Polaski's sister, Marie. Ben and Donna Polaski had the remaining stone taken out and put in a new marker without a bronze plaque. "We weren't going to put another one on to get stolen," Donna Polaski said.

Aside from the expense of replacement, Polaski has been frustrated overall with people taking flowers and plants from graves. "You can't leave anything out overnight or it'll be gone," she said. "It's disgusting."

The Polaskis discovered the plaque theft around Memorial Day, about the same time Plunkett noticed the missing Hanson plaque while mowing.

The ire expressed this week also went toward scrap-metal dealers who would accept the plaques.

Craig Mullauer of Superior Iron & Metal said there are policies in place industry-wide to not accept such items. He said thieves will often hammer or partially melt plaques until they are unrecognizable before bringing them in. "We've never seen anything like that," he said of the missing Nemadji plaques, offering that thieves probably would take them out of the area.

Wisconsin law requires that "proprietary" items such as large quantities of copper wire or other industrial-sized caches require a contracting license and other qualifications, Mullauer said. Items that can be stolen, such as railroad spikes and cemetery markers, also are included in the classification.

Mullauer said it's "quite often" that his company finds people trying to pass questionable scrap.

The theft from cemeteries and memorials has come up in news stories across the country this past year, including bronze plaques and urns. People in England and Australia also reported thefts. The metal can bring $2 to $3 a pound as scrap. In some cases, scrap yards reported the items.

Hanson is keeping her sense of humor. She joked that her first reaction to the missing plaque was that someone had a crush on her and had stolen it as a memento. "I thought it was a compliment, that someone was crazy about me, until (Plunkett) told me about the scrap metal."

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