An Anniston man faces a felony theft charge after brass vases went missing from more than 100 graves in Anniston and Oxford cemeteries, police say.
Jonathan Miguel Brittain, 36, was arrested Tuesday by Anniston police, according to an arrest report. Investigators say he’s one of multiple people who stole metal from more than 90 graves at Forestlawn Gardens at Golden Springs.
“My mother and dad’s graves are there, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles,” said Anniston resident Roy Thomas, one of the first people to file a theft report to police.
Some of Forestlawn’s graves include headstones with metal plaques with the names of the deceased — and brass vases where mourners can place flowers, flags or other items. Police say those vases, built to be removed when visits to a grave slow or cease, are much easier to steal than the brass plaques.
But thieves often don’t count on graves having regular visitors, said Anniston police Lt. Chris Sparks.
“Typically we get reports within a couple of days, when families come to visit graves,” Sparks said.
Sparks said about 40 vases have been recovered, though he declined to say where those vases were found or how police connected Brittain to the crime. He said the case was ongoing and additional arrests were expected.
The area, and much of the country, faced a rash of metal thefts several years ago, when the price of copper and other metals began to rise. Thefts of air conditioning units, which contain copper tubing, were common. Sparks said the last rash of metal thefts from graves in Anniston happened around that time, in 2012.
In response to the metal-theft spree, the state passed a law that required better tracking of transactions at recycling centers. Sparks said the law may have made a dent in metal thefts, though he noted that the price of metals like brass and copper have also declined over the years.
Asked if any local recycler led police to Brittain, Sparks said only that “every source we talked to has been cooperative.”
Police records show a single report of a stolen vase on Monday, and Brittain so far faces only a single charge of felony theft. Sparks said that because each vase is worth a little more than the $500 felony theft limit, Brittain and any possible accomplices could face multiple charges.
“Getting reports is difficult, because the cemetery is not the victim,” he said. “Each of these plots belongs to a family, and they’re the ones who’d need to file a report.”
Sparks said it’s possible there will be similar reports from other Anniston cemeteries.
Oxford Police Capt. L.G. Owens said his agency is looking into the theft of 14 vases from Dogwood Trails cemetery in that city. He said Anniston and Oxford were working together on missing vases though Oxford has yet to make arrests and the Oxford investigation is “in its infancy.”
“It’s sad, because some of these are veterans’ graves,” Owens said. He said thieves typically just toss out the flowers they find in the vases.
Sparks said he wasn’t aware of any prior arrests connecting Brittain to metal theft.