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Careful theft of 40 cremains in Knoxville 'devastating to the families'

Posted at 3:38 PM, Oct 17, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-18 12:22:12-04

Security patrols have been launched at two Knoxville cemeteries after someone with intimate knowledge of the funeral industry stole 40 cremains from various structures without leaving “a scratch,” an official said.

State and local authorities said nothing of this magnitude has ever been reported in Tennessee.

“This is devastating to the families,” said Fred Berry, president of Berry Funeral Homes. “We’re shocked and dismayed that somebody would do this. It’s a despicable crime.”

Berry said the thefts came to light Wednesday while the funeral home was working with one family. The first theft noticed was at Berry Highland Memorial cemetery off Sutherland Avenue.

The thefts of cremains in urns, but mainly in boxes, was so deft that no one noticed 21 containers missing from Berry Highland Memorial cemetery and 19 from Berry Highland West cemetery off Sherrill Boulevard in deep West Knoxville near Pellissippi Parkway.

“If not for dealing with this one family, this could have gone undetected for some time,” Berry said.

He said with the first discovery, his employees began checking other columnbariums, monuments, mausoleums and memorial gardens in the cemetery for other missing cremains. When Berry realized the scope of the thefts, police were alerted Wednesday and then he launched an inspection of other cemeteries owned by his company.

“Someone knew what they were doing — there’s not a scratch,” Berry said.

He was hesitant to divulge too much detail, but said the thefts were from both enclosed and open memorials.

On Thursday his employees confirmed the thefts at the cemetery off Sherrill Boulevard. Berry said inspections at Sherwood Memorial Gardens off Alcoa Highway, Lynnhurst Cemetery off Adair Drive and New Gray Cemetery off Western Avenue revealed nothing disturbed at those locations.

Berry said his company purchased the cemeteries in January from Stewart Corp. in Louisiana.

As of Friday, Berry said his employees had alerted about half of the relatives of the targeted cremains. He said some of the contact information for some relatives was outdated, causing a problem in reaching families of loved ones interred years ago.

“The families obviously have been very shocked,” Berry said. “For some, it’s the anniversary of their loved one’s death.”

He said in one instance, relatives of the stolen cremains were preparing for a wedding.

“We do have security at both these cemeteries at night now until we make more permanent arrangements,” Berry said.

He is considering surveillance devices in the cemeteries. While Berry Highland Memorial cemetery has a gate to block traffic, Berry said it has been left open so people could visit the resting place of their loved one.

“Most cemeteries are open during the day and then they close the gates at night,” said Megan Buell, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, which regulates cemeteries. She said the state does not recommend any level of security.

“We have not encountered anything like this in the past,” Buell said of the thefts. “We are not aware of anything like this anywhere in the nation.”

While law enforcement agencies have arrested suspects who stole cremains in urns so they could sell the metal container or take jewels encrusted in it, Knoxville Police Department spokesman said investigators haven’t found any agency in Tennessee or any other state that has encountered the theft of cremains “of this magnitude.”

DeBusk said most of the cremains were in boxes, as opposed to metal that could be sold for recyclable scrap prices.

“We have several different motives we’re looking into,” he said. “It’s new territory for us. Why would someone want to victimize these families?”

DeBusk said the thieves would have known the names and dates of births and deaths of the stolen cremains because of information displayed on each memorial. He said there doesn’t appear now to be any connection by family or corresponding dates.

“They had to gain entry to the holding area, but did no damage,” he said. “That’s why we think it was somebody who knew what they were doing.”

“A lot of people may look at this as the theft of property. We’re looking at it as a crime against a person.”

Knox County Assistant District Attorney General Sean McDermott said he thinks the state law concerning abuse of a corpse would apply to the theft of cremains. The statute addresses anyone who “disinters a corpse that has been buried or otherwise interred.”

McDermott said the law designates the act as a Class E felony punishable by 1-2 years imprisonment for a person without a previous criminal record or 1-6 years for someone with a criminal history.

“I would argue that ‘otherwise interred’ would apply here,” McDermott said. “Each time the corpse was disinterred would be a separate act.”

Berry said his employees are ready to help concerned families whose relatives are interred at the two targeted cemeteries. He said people can call 865-588-0567 for concerns of those interred at Berry Highland Memorial cemetery or 865-693-9547 for those at Berry Highway West cemetery.

“We’re here for any families that have concerns,” he said.