SEMINOLE — Pinellas detectives are looking for grave robbers.
Within the last few days, deputies discovered that the cremated remains of five people had been snatched from two outdoor mausoleums at the Garden Sanctuary Funeral Home and Cemetery at 7950 131st St. N.
Why anyone would steal the cremains is a mystery. Was it for valuable urns or mementos that could have been included within? Was it kids on a dare? Or were the thieves after human ashes for a darker, cultlike purpose?
Pinellas sheriff's deputies weren't saying Friday whether they knew a motive.
Deputies received the initial report of a theft on Thursday. Cemetery workers found a marble vault cover in an outdoor mausoleum on the south side of the cemetery that had been smashed open by a blunt object, its contents stolen, deputies said. The marble vault, about a foot wide by a foot deep, contained the cremains of a husband and wife, deputies said.
While deputies were investigating that case, cemetery workers found two similar vaults in an adjacent mausoleum that had their contents emptied. In this case the vaults — one with the cremains of a couple and another with those of a woman — had their inch-thick covers pried off and left intact.
Deputies did not release the names of the deceased people.
"We're shocked and dismayed that anybody would disturb any grave or its contents," said Keith Gruendl, a spokesman for the cemetery. "Vandalism of any kind is unacceptable, but this is despicable."
The cemetery is fenced and is routinely patrolled by its workers and sheriff's deputies, though it has no security staff of its own. Though visitors are invited to come unannounced from sunrise to sunset, there are entrances open at all hours, Gruendl said.
Deputies are not sure if the thefts are related. They said it did not appear initially that any valuables had been placed inside the vaults. They did not have descriptions of the containers that the ashes had been kept in.
Gruendl said the cemetery keeps the contents of its vaults on record, but he would not say whether those records included a physical description of urns or containers. Oftentimes, the containers are provided to families by the cemetery, he said.
It is not unheard of for graves to be disturbed. Most cases from the last couple decades have been the work of teens taking remains for religious rituals, according to news reports.
In 1986, police in Sarasota suspected the remains of three children were stolen for a religious cult ceremony. Ten years later, in West Palm Beach, a 17-year-old boy was sentenced to two years in prison for breaking into graves at a cemetery.
In 2003, vandals broke into a vault at a New Port Richey cemetery and took a box of cremains. That same year, police arrested two Naples teens on charges that they stole cremains from a Brevard County cemetery.
In 2004, four young people were arrested in Jacksonville after they stole religious relics and four urns from an unlocked mausoleum to perform spells aimed at raising the dead.
In 2006, the remains of a 6-year-old boy — which had been interred for 31 years — were stolen from an above-ground vault at a Tampa cemetery. The boy's mother later settled a lawsuit against the cemetery but authorities never arrested the thief.
In 2009, deputies determined a skull found in a Pinellas County home had been taken from a local grave. Deputies identified whose skull it was and returned it to its grave.
Luis Perez can be reached at [email protected]