Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Due to a spate of recent thefts from parked cars at cemeteries, some memorial parks have stepped up their security presence. Security guard Eucharis Tupuola takes note of the comings and goings of vehicles.

Cemeteries experience
recent rash of break-ins

Visitors to grave sites are
advised to keep their valuables
close as Oahu thefts rise

A thief raised the heads of children sleeping in a car at Mililani Memorial Park to remove purses they were resting on -- just one of many thefts at cemeteries across Oahu.

"There has been a rash of purse thefts from people visiting grave sites," said Patrick Souza, vice president of Mililani Memorial Park and Mortuary. "They're just taking the purse right out of the vehicle. It's really, really bad."

Visitors to the cemetery are handed fliers warning them to keep valuables with them rather than leaving them visible in their cars. Mililani averages one to two break-ins a month.

Several Oahu cemeteries have been hit recently.

On Good Friday a woman had her car window shattered and valuables stolen at Hawaiian Memorial Park. At the Kaneohe cemetery, four bronze grave-site vases valued at $330 were also stolen, one in March and three this month, police said.

Visitors at Mililani Memorial Park pay their respects.

A neighbor island couple had their rental car broken into two weeks ago while visiting a grave site at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Punchbowl, police said.

Signs are posted at most cemeteries warning people to secure their valuables and not leave them unattended.

But cemetery managers say that is not enough.

Several Oahu cemeteries are beefing up security and taking steps to protect against car break-ins.

Diamond Head Memorial Park manager Amy Caminos said it has had a couple of thefts in two years, but she suspects many more go unreported.

So the cemetery will soon install 24-hour surveillance cameras to deter would-be thieves.

"We want people to feel safe coming here," she said. "Even one incident, for that one person who was victimized, it's a terrible thing."

She said the two victims were both women who came alone to visit grave sites and left their purses on the front seat of their cars.

"The frustrating thing for us is, people just don't take it seriously," Caminos said. "Even if we tell people, they tend to respond, 'Oh, we're right here' or 'We're close by.' (Thieves) work quickly, in and out in a few seconds."

At Nuuanu Memorial Park, after temporarily hiring a security guard, thefts dropped. Now management is looking into other security measures, including surveillance cameras.

Until a year and a half ago, break-ins were frequent at the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park, particularly near the Byodo-In Temple, a popular tourist attraction, but they have gone down since a security guard was posted.

Cemetery staffers are on alert for suspicious vehicles.

Some visitors, however, criticize the staff for not being more diligent about watching who comes into the park.

But Souza said: "These people (suspects) are normal-looking people. We don't want to stereotype."

A couple in a suspicious vehicle were polite when staff talked to them, he said. A few minutes after they left, staff learned a theft had occurred.

Many suspect vehicles at Mililani Memorial Park turned out to be either stolen or had stolen license plates, police said.

Police urge people to report anyone loitering or behaving suspiciously.

Police characterize the break-ins as sporadic.

"We get a few once in a while, but it's not any type of series," said Lt. Mitch Kiyuna. "It's a matter of criminal opportunity. If they see a car that looks vulnerable, they'll take advantage of it."

The national cemetery has had numerous break-ins over the years, which seem to come in waves, despite a security guard patrolling its 112 acres, said Gene Castagnetti, cemetery director.

Even the cemetery flower cart was recently stolen and recovered nearby in Papakolea, he said.

Castagnetti said thieves often work in teams of two or three. While one distracts or keeps an eye on a person at a grave site, the other breaks into the car.

Police have difficulty catching thieves in the act, and victims have trouble identifying suspects caught.

Police have caught thieves by setting up sting operations at cemeteries.

But police and cemetery personnel say the biggest problem is that people often let their guard down when visiting grave sites.

"People going to cemeteries don't lock their cars," Kiyuna said. "They feel safe."

Roads that run through a cemetery are often isolated, and people walk to the grave site, leaving their valuables inside, Kiyuna said. He said they need to take the same precautions they do at a shopping center.

"You go there to visit a loved one, and you get ripped off," Kiyuna said. "It's sad. It's traumatic for anyone that gets victimized."

"The last place anybody would be stealing from is from people visiting their loved ones," Souza said. "This is sacred ground."


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