Monday, 3 November 2014

"Grave Robber" Scrap Metal Dealer Jailed For Memorial Plaques Outrage

A "grave robber" rogue scrap metal dealer, who bought hundreds of bronze memorial plaques stolen by heartless thieves from cemeteries in the dead of night, was jailed for fifteen months today.

Over 723 plaques were stolen overnight from Croydon, Beckenham, Tonbridge & Malling, West Norwood and Putney Vale cemeteries and evidence of all of them were discovered during a police operation, which targeted DSM scrap yard.

It's boss, Joseph Collier, 72, of Woodhall Drive, Dulwich cut the £75 plaques into tiny unidentifiable pieces and also bought an £1800 bronze sacred heart of Jesus statue stolen from a grave in Putney Vale.

Recorder Benedict Khelleher told him at Isleworth Crown Court: "Their value to those who they were a memorial to, loves ones, can't be valued in monetary terms and the theft of these plaques would have caused distress to many.

"Your motivation can only have been to maximise the profits of your business," he told Collier, who has two separate convictions for trading in scrap metal while unregistered and unlicensed.

His lawyer Mr. James Martin told the court: "He fully appreciates the seriousness of the offending and the suffering to the families of loved ones.

"He said when he read it in the newspaper he felt like a grave robber.

"He was running a legitimate business, but in a way that was asking no questions. He's taken people on face value and not asked the proper and appropriate questions."

Collier claims the scrap value of the plaques was only £4,000, but the police say the cost to replace them to bereaved families would be £17,000 to £30,000.

He fought the case and even tried to dodge responsibility when interviewed by the probation service after his conviction. "He was explaining just because they were plaques didn't mean they were stolen," explained Mr. Martin.

During the police raid, which was the culmination of 'Operation Ferris', officers also seized a £3,200 200 kilo Thai bronze dragon statue, "wrenched from its concrete setting", from a front garden in Teddington. 

Collier was also trapped in a police sting of trying to buy eight reels of copper, valued at £800, belonging to UK Power Networks ten months later while he was still on bail.

"He's lost his business now, that's a huge blow to him. He's a man who's literally worked every day of his life. There's no chance anyone is going to give him a scrap licence again and he doesn't know what to do with himself," added Mr. Martin.

Prosecutor Mr. James Lofthouse told the jury the plaques - of which 250 were later identified - were for the recently deceased. "They included memorial plaques from 2010, 2011 and 2012. These were not old, unwanted, unvisited memorials.

"Some had been recently visited and could not be said to be scrap metal and Mr. Collier would have known this as well.

"Various memorial plaques were pieced back together and shown to staff at the cemeteries and in all five instances they identified them."

The first cemetery targeted by thieves was Croydon in September, 2011. "Staff reported the theft of a large amount of memorial plaques from their garden.

"They are all four inches by three inches and are secured to the ground by a twelve-inch metal spike and sixty-six were stolen."

Over 200 were then stolen from Beckenham, 148 from Tonbridge & Malling, 300 from West Norwood and 9 from Putney Vale.

DSM, of Bensham Lane, Croydon was searched on March 14, 2012 and Collier arrested on the premises.

"Officers found a number of plaques and fragments of plaques and Mr. Collier ran the business, he decided what to pay and accepted metal on a no questions asked basis," added Mr. Lofthouse.

"In several bags in the yard were found these bronze memorial plaques, with the names of the deceased, details and personal messages on them.

"some had been cut into small pieces rendering them unrecognisable. You would not have known what they were."

A member of Collier's staff was operating a cutting machine in one of the buildings.

"There was a memorial plaque with the corner cut off on the machine and a basket beside it containing plaques already chopped up.

"The bronze sacred heart of Jesus statue was found nearby along with the ornamental dragon."

Beckenham Cemetery had coated their plaques in identifiable 'Smart Water' and traces of it were found on the cutting machine.

The jury were also shown undercover surveillance footage of Collier buying the stolen items and handing over cash.

He was found guilty of two counts of possessing criminal property on May 14, 2012, namely the memorial plaques and sacred heart statue and the ornamental dragon figure.

Collier was also convicted of disguising criminal property, namely a quantity of memorial plaques, on the same date and attempting to receive stolen goods, namely eight reels of copper on March 27, last year.

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