The price of scrap metal may be at an all-time high, but it’s still nothing compared to the price of freedom.
That’s why a recent theft of bronze military grave markers sparked outrage among local police and veterans advocates and set them on a mission to seek justice for four World War II soldiers whose final resting places have been defaced.
Officers from the 8th Police District recovered the four headstone plaques, each the size of a bed pillow and weighing more than 20 pounds, from a Dumpster behind a Holmesburg pizza shop on April 28. The government-issued markers are inscribed with the names, dates and wartime military service of each soldier, but offer little else about the men.
With Memorial Day approaching, authorities are trying to locate the soldiers’ relatives and determine in which cemetery the markers belong.
“I’m appalled that anyone would dishonor our nation’s veterans by removing their markers,” said Verne Rider, the military and veterans affairs caseworker for U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick.
“Number one, it’s a theft. And it’s darn right disrespectful for veterans’ graves,” said Philadelphia police Capt. Len Ditchkofsky, commander of the 8th district.
Inscriptions on the four markers identify the men as:
• William R. Anderson; Sept. 15, 1911, to Nov. 9, 1976; Specialist-4 in the U.S. Army; served in World War II and Korea;
• John D. Pisani; Aug. 14, 1924, to Sept. 15, 1990; Private First Class in the U.S. Army; served in World War II;
• Hershell Samuels; 1911 to 1990; Technical Sergeant in the U.S. Army; served in World War II; and,
• Alonzy Truitt; 1920 to 1981; Corporal in the U.S. Army; served in World War II.
A conscientious shop-owner has provided the only link police have to the culprit.
Dominic Isabella, owner of Dominic’s Pizza & Restaurant at 8439 Frankford Ave., called 911 at about 4 p.m. April 28 to report finding the markers. He was making pizza dough when he heard a loud clanging in the alley behind the Holmesburg Shopping Center strip mall.
“When metal hits an empty Dumpster, it makes a lot of noise,” Isabella said.
He hurried outside, spotted a man and asked him what he was doing. The man fled.
“I yelled, ‘You get back here,’ and he kept running,” Isabella said.
The shop owner described the man as black, about 25 years old, skinny and about 5 feet 6 inches tall. The man ran toward Ashburner Street, turned past a fence and disappeared from view.
Isabella looked inside the trash bin, saw the grave markers and climbed inside to retrieve them. He gave them to police.
“I swear they were 30 pounds each and they were all from the world war,” Isabella said. “My grandfather was in World War I. That’s why I did what I did. It’s a low blow [to the veterans].”
Isabella figured the man who dumped the plaques was trying to stash them so he could sell them later.
“This guy would’ve taken them to a scrap yard. And if the people at the scrap yard had dignity, they would’ve called the cops,” the shop owner said.
A small sampling of area scrap yards showed the going rate for bronze to be about $1.70 per pound.
At the 8th district, police contacted Fitzpatrick’s office and the office of City Councilman Brian O’Neill for help finding contact information for the deceased veterans’ families.
According to Rider, the plaques are common on veterans’ graves. All honorably discharged veterans are entitled to them, along with a place in a national cemetery if they choose.
Problem is, most burial records are not easily accessible. The Veterans Administration began keeping computer records in 1997.
“Prior to that, it’s all on paper records,” Rider said. “It might take a little bit of time [to research] because the markers came from a private cemetery, not a national cemetery.”
Philadelphia has a veterans registry, too, according to Linda Trush, O’Neill’s administrative assistant. But participation is voluntary. The list may not include the four veterans in question.
“We’re researching these guys,” Trush said.
Officers in the 8th district have contacted cemeteries in the area to ask about possible vandalism, but have had no luck.
Bringing the thief to justice is another big project. Police are working with minimal evidence, Ditchkofsky said, although similar crimes have occurred in other areas of the city.
About two years ago, somebody stole about 15 grave markers from a suburban cemetery and brought them into the city to sell for scrap. Police caught the thieves in possession of the plaques. Ditchkofsky was assigned to the Major Crimes Division at the time and learned a lot about scrap metal dealers who trade in stolen goods.
In the recent case, police have no evidence that any metal dealers knew about the four grave marker thefts.
“I feel better that this [thief] couldn’t get rid of them. Now my objective is to get them back where they belong,” Ditchkofsky said.
For many involved, the effort is personal. Rider is a retired U.S. Air Force senior master sergeant who served in the Vietnam War. Trush has a son in the Air National Guard, another son in the Air Force Reserves and two nephews who served as Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“A lot of us have family members who were in the war and sons and nephews who are in the service now,” Trush said.
“What a shame that these men served their country in the war and this is how they’re treated,” Rider said. ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org