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Lawrence County vets' grave thefts lead to 2 arrests

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Monday, Dec. 10, 2007

A New Castle couple might have stolen as many as 800 memorial markers from veterans' graves at cemeteries in Lawrence County during the past two weeks, state police said Sunday.

They sold the brass stakes from the markers at a recycling center for $1 each to get money for drugs, state police said.

"These are the men and women who gave their lives to keep them free, and that's what they're doing with their idle time," said Frank Yoho, 68, a Vietnam veteran and commander of American Legion Post 749 in Wampum. "I hope they get their just reward."

Police said a snow plow driver saw Matthew Edward Russick, 23, and Jessica Lynn Gustaitis, 22, of Pin Oak Drive take markers from St. Mary's Cemetery in Union on Friday, the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They were arrested later in the day after a traffic accident, state police said.

In addition to St. Mary's, the couple took markers during the day from Nov. 23 through Friday from St. Vitus Cemetery in Shenango and Graceland and Oak Park cemeteries in Neshannock, police said.

State police said every veterans' marker at St. Vitus was taken.

State police said Russick and Gustaitis at first broke off military emblems from the stakes and left the emblems at the cemeteries. Last week, they began taking both the emblems and stakes from cemeteries and discarding the emblems in ditches, trash containers and parking lots.

A total of 238 damaged emblems has been recovered, and state police said more may be found once the snow melts. They are valued at $40 to $50 each.

Michael Orelli, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 315 in New Castle, said an employee from a fast food restaurant near St. Vitus brought him a bag of 15 to 20 broken emblems found in the business' parking lot.

"They should go to jail, stealing something from a grave. I don't care what it is. You do not take from a grave. They should be embarrassed to steal from a cemetery," said Orelli, 60, a Vietnam veteran.

Russick and Gustaitis are each charged with felony counts of institutional vandalism, conspiracy, theft and receiving stolen property and misdemeanor charges of desecration or sale of venerated objects and criminal mischief. They were being held in the Lawrence County Jail on $20,000 bond.

Because of frequent thefts, Yoho said metal markers are beginning to be replaced with plastic. Getting the right marker back on each grave could be difficult.

"I have no feelings at all for the people who do this kind of stuff. I don't know what would make them do that," he said.

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