EAST TAMPA — Things buried in cemeteries are meant to stay in the ground and rest in peace.
Anything uprooted preys on people's fears. It's why horror movies are made and why there's such hue and cry about grave robbing.
So whoever's stealing the Italian Club Cemetery's plants is evoking some serious surprise and disgust from all its members.
"Some lowlife," said Sam Manna, president of the Italian Club Cemetery Committee.
A decade ago, the Italian Club set out to restore its historic cemetery, a unique plot that holds the bodies of some of the first recorded Italian immigrants.
Members started a repair fund, sealed loose tombs, fixed broken vases and re-erected some of the colorful mosaic tile gravestones that a Sicilian immigrant invented in 1906.
About a year ago, the club planted almost 40 yellow ixoras in front of the mausoleum to help brighten the gray cemetery at 24th Avenue and 26th Street.
Two weeks ago, someone jumped the cemetery's fence at dusk and dug up flowering plants over the course of four nights. The thief also took some crotons, which are shrubs with colorful leaves.
"We take a lot of pride in that community," said Manna, who estimated the loss at $200. "It's disturbing that we keep putting money into it for perpetual care and people come in and take from it. We're trying to be good neighbors."
It wasn't the first theft. About a year and a half ago, someone took a similar number of plants. A month ago, someone stole a few after taking a gate off its hinges. Someone also recently broke into the chained mausoleum and stole a gas lawn mower and some weed killer. Trash cans have also been taken after their contents were left dumped on the cemetery grounds.
Manna theorized that the plants are being resold.
"I don't know who is taking the plants or why but I wish it would stop," he said. "It truly is one of those historic cemeteries in the city that we're trying to maintain."
Formally named L'Unione Italiana Cemetery, the cemetery was established in 1896. The Italian Club bought the land from the family of Blanche Armwood, an educator and black civil rights leader, who was buried there in 1939.
Most of the plots are filled by Italians. The cemetery is still active, open to Italian Club members and the public for burials.
Groundskeeper Paul Smith, who opens the cemetery gates each morning, said the plant thief seemed to strike for four straight nights because Smith noticed more and more plants disappearing each morning. The plant digger apparently pulled out flowers and discarded them on the ground if they weren't top quality.
"They took the choice ones that are very nice," Smith said while standing at the base of an oak tree marked by holes in the red mulch.
In the past, Smith said he has called the police when he noticed trespassers. But the Italian Club didn't file police reports this time around.
"I'm not trying to belittle the police department," Manna said, "but how do you track down a plant thief?"
A spokeswoman for Tampa police said they are unaware of any rashes of plant thefts.
Manna said the club will wait until the cemetery committee's next meeting, in September, to decide whether to replant.
Officials have locked up the grounds' trash cans for now and hope to come up with a better security plan in a couple of months.
"I don't have any ideas now," Manna said.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.