Worth More Dead Than Alive: 5 Famous Grave Robberies

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After Michael Jackson passed away, his family decided to bury him inside Forest Lawn Memorial Park, a private, gated cemetery where many musicians, actors, and other celebrities are buried. As odd as it might sound, one of the main reasons the family chose the private cemetery was to ensure that Michael's body could not be stolen and held for ransom. If you think they're being paranoid, you should read these five stories of famous folks who—to grave robbers, anyway—were worth more dead than alive.

1. Stealing the Tramp

Silent-era funnyman Charlie Chaplin, best-known for his "Little Tramp" character, died on Christmas day in 1977 and was buried soon after in a 300-pound oak coffin in the village of Corsier, Switzerland. But in March 1978, his grave was disturbed and his body stolen, with a demand for £400,000 received by phone a few days later. The grave robbers' plan seemed so perfect until Chaplin's widow, Lady Oona Chaplin, refused to pay the sum, saying, "Charlie would have thought it rather ridiculous."

In an attempt to nab the crooks, the local police set up false pay-off meetings, but these proved fruitless when the robbers chickened out and didn't show. However, both the police and the suspects were persistent, so the two parties continued to communicate in the hopes of resolving the standoff.

In May, the police were expecting another call from the robbers, so they tapped the Chaplins' phone. In an extraordinary display of coordination, they also assigned officers to watch as many as 200 phone booths throughout the area.

When the call from the robbers came in, it was traced back to the originating booth, and two men, Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev, both auto mechanics, were arrested. The men led police to Chaplin's remains, buried in a cornfield about 10 miles from the graveyard.

For his crime, Wardas received a four-year stint for masterminding the scam, while Ganev, seen only as a muscle man, got off easy with an 18-month suspended sentence. As for Chaplin, he was re-buried in the same burial plot, but this time his coffin was surrounded by thick concrete to prevent anyone else from disturbing his slumber.

2. Stay On the Line. Police Will Be With You Shortly.

cucciaSoon after his death in 2001, the body of Enrico Cuccia, a powerful bank president often considered the father of Italian capitalism, was removed from its vault. The foul play was discovered by a loyal housekeeper who visited the grave on a weekly basis to clean up around the tomb.

A ransom demand was received by the family a few days later, asking for the equivalent of $3.5 million to be deposited by Mediobanca—the bank Cuccia had controlled for more than 50 years—into a numbered Swiss account. When the ransom was not immediately paid, a man called Mediobanca to set up the transfer of funds, but was placed on hold under the pretense that the bank president was on the other line. This gave the police time to trace the call back to a small village near Turin, Italy, and found Giampaolo Pesce, a steelworker, still holding the phone.

Caught red-handed, Pesce led authorities to a barn where Cuccia's coffin had been hidden under some straw.

3. Seeking: SWM, Rich, Deceased

alexander_stewartAlexander T. Stewart made his fortune selling high-quality fabrics, European fashions, and popular household items inside giant, lavish buildings that became the model for modern day department stores. By the time of his death in 1876, his wealth was estimated at $40 million, making him one of the richest men in New York City.

A few weeks after he was buried in a vault at St. Mark's Church, thieves broke in and made off with Stewart's remains. As part of their plan, the culprits also removed the nameplate from the coffin and cut out a small piece of the coffin's interior fabric.

Soon after, New York City lawyer and Civil War veteran General Patrick Jones was surprised to receive a letter from a man calling himself "Romaine," asking Jones to serve as mediator with the Stewart family to help facilitate the return of Alexander's body. Jones agreed and wound up communicating with Romaine for the next two years through a series of cryptic messages disguised as personal ads in the New York Herald.

To send a message, Jones would place a personal ad addressed to Romaine and sign it "Counsel" (or simply "C"). Romaine would then respond with a written letter to Jones' office with further instructions. It was through this complicated system that Jones received a $250,000 ransom demand, as well as pieces of evidence to prove Romaine had the body—the screws from the nameplate, the nameplate itself, and a piece of paper cut in the shape of the fabric missing from inside the coffin.

Communication was tedious, but it got the job done when, finally, the two parties agreed to a reduced ransom payment of $20,000. In a scene straight out of a 1930s detective movie, Jones met Romaine alone on a deserted country lane in what is now Westchester County, New York. Money exchanged hands and the body of Alexander Stewart was returned. However, Romaine was never apprehended.

4. Honest Abe Worth a Pretty Penny

lincoln-tombIn the early hours of November 7, 1876, a group of four counterfeiters broke into Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, with the intention of stealing Abraham Lincoln's body from his sarcophagus. They planned to take the body, hide it in the sand dunes of northern Indiana, and hold it for $200,000 ransom, plus demand the release of one of their gang from prison.

The plot was foiled, though, by a paid police informant who had infiltrated the crew. When the men broke into the cemetery that night, police and Secret Service agents (who were only charged with investigating counterfeiters at the time, not guarding the body of the President) were waiting for them. Due to an errant gunshot going off before the trap was sprung, the crooks got away, but were arrested a few days later.

After the attempted robbery, Lincoln's remains were re-buried in the same mausoleum at Oak Ridge, but instead of being inside the sarcophagus, they were secretly hidden in a shallow grave in the basement of the tomb—a fact that was known only to a handful of people for decades. There the body stayed until 1901, when eldest son Robert Todd Lincoln had his father's remains placed inside a steel cage, lowered 10 feet into the ground, and covered in concrete for safe keeping

5. Elvis Almost Left the Building

elvis-graveIn August 1977, just two weeks after The King's death, police were told by informant Ronnie Adkins that he had infiltrated a group that planned to steal Elvis Presley's 900-pound, steel-lined, copper-plated coffin and hold his remains for ransom.

With this information, a police task force was assigned to watch the grave at Forest Hills Cemetery in suburban Memphis and successfully caught three men—Raymond Green, Eugene Nelson, and Ronnie Adkins—snooping around Presley's mausoleum. Just how the men were going to get through the two concrete slabs and solid sheet of marble that covered the coffin is unknown, since no tools or explosives were ever found. That doesn't even take into account how they planned to remove the coffin without a forklift. The Memphis police felt like something about the situation didn't add up, so until further evidence about the plot could be uncovered, they charged the men with criminal trespassing and kept them in jail.

As the investigation continued, it became apparent that the story Adkins told police was full of holes. He said the men were going to be paid $40,000 each by a mysterious criminal mastermind who planned to ransom the body for $10 million. But he couldn't tell police how the men intended to get their reward or how to contact this shadowy kingpin once the deed had been done. With no actual crime being committed (other than the men being in the cemetery after dark), and the evidence against the men being so weak, all charges were eventually dropped.

As a result of the almost, kinda, sorta attempted grave robbery, the Presley estate requested permission to move the bodies of Elvis and his mother to Graceland where they could be monitored 24-hours a day by staff security and closed-circuit TV cameras. Of course they're still at Graceland and have become one of the main attractions to the site.

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November 4, 2009 - 7:28am
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