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Obituary Thieves

Claim:   Burglars check newspaper obituaries so they can clean out homes while the residents are away attending funerals.

TRUE

Origins:   It's been rumored that thieves scan the obituary and wedding announcements to see which house to hit. Far from a baseless anxiety, this does indeed happen. Here's a fine 1996 article about how a pair of thieves worked this system:
The two shy sisters Pasadena police call the "obituary column" thieves kept a systematic log on intended victims, detectives disclosed at a preliminary hearing.

The sisters, police said, specialized in burglaries from homes of vacationers, honeymooners and deceased persons after careful perusal of newspaper death notices and society pages.

In a black book, the sisters listed the names, addresses and phone numbers of potential victims, officers said, and indicated probability of
success with such notations as: "D" for dead; "Soc." for a person on a honeymoon or attending a social event; "V" for a family on vacation.

Detectives said they had "cleared" more than 40 residential burglaries with the arrest last week of Mrs. Helen Eposto, 34, a nurse, and Mrs. Jean Kolentik, 32, a bookkeeper, both of 1107 Steuben St., Pasadena.

"But we still have a whole storeroom of loot and we've received calls from more than 300 persons who think they may have been victims of the sisters," Det. Ray Bartlett said.

"They used some of their loot to go to Las Vegas one weekend where Jean won $1,500," Bartlett's partner, Vern Faulstich, said.

The officers have marveled over the theft of some of the stolen articles, considering the frail appearance of the two women. Discovered among the loot were color television sets and floor safes. Police said the sisters began their operation last July.

Both wore slacks and sneakers when they appeared Tuesday in the courtroom of Municipal Judge John F. Hassler, the same costumes which, officers said, they used in their burglaries. They sat expressionless during the court proceedings.

The sisters were held to answer on three counts of burglary and one of grand theft. Judge Hassler set their bail at $5,000 each and their arraignment in Superior Court Dec. 15.
As of 2007, this theft scheme was still being successfully employed:
A multistate investigation has led to the arrests of three men suspected of using information in published obituaries to burglarize homes while grieving families attend services.

The sheriff in Reno, Nevada, calls the burglaries a "horrific type of crime" targeting the elderly when they are most vulnerable.

Besides stealing tens of thousands of dollars in collectibles, jewelry, guns, heirlooms and silver dinnerware, detectives say the suspects inflicted added emotional turmoil by ransacking the homes.

Investigators believe 19-year-old Richard Charles Hery was a key player in at least seven such break-ins that occurred in southwest Reno from early April through May. They say six other similar burglaries are under investigation, and there could be more.

Hery was arrested in Tucson. Police say they received a tip that similar crimes were being planned there.
The same modus operandi popped up again in a 2008 case:
A burglar who authorities say used the obituary pages to select his targets was convicted of 10 counts.

Prosecutors say 30 Kansas City-area homes, picking their victims by reading real estate listings and obituaries, hitting model homes, homes on real estate tours or homes where owners would be attending funerals.

In one of the five Platte County cases Johnson was convicted of, a man was at a funeral for his wife while Johnson burglarized his home.

"It's hard to imagine a more cruel and heartless burglary scheme than this one," Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd said. "Picking out a home to break into because the owner is at a funeral reveals a complete lack of any conscience whatsoever. Dane Johnson deserves every year he will spend in prison."
Barbara "ain't it amazing what you can find in the papers?" Mikkelson

Last updated:   6 July 2011

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Sources:

    Associated Press.   "3 Arrested in Obit Bandit Caper."
    azcentral.com.   18 July 2007.

    Associated Press.   "'Funeral Day Burglar' Found Guilty of 10 Counts in Mo."
    azcentral.com.   9 May 2008.

    Los Angeles Times.   "Log Kept, Police Say — 'Obituary' Thefts Charted Carefully in 'Black Book.'"
    30 November 1996.