Northeast Times

Stolen bronze markers found in Holmesburg trash bin

Four World War II Vet­er­an grave mark­ers were re­covered from a dump­ster in back of Domin­ic’s Pizza, Thursday, May 17, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

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 wkenny@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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