COLUMBUS — A district court judge called a 41-year-old Columbus man a grave robber with a complete lack of respect for military veterans and their families before sentencing the defendant to up to eight years in prison Friday.
Platte County District Court Judge Robert Steinke sentenced Steven Bequette for possession of methamphetamine and the theft of dozens of bronze ornamental vases and military veteran nameplates at three local cemeteries during a 10-day period last summer.
“Your crimes are deplorable, unconscionable and they show a complete lack of respect for the deceased, the families of the deceased and particularly for those who have served our country in the military,” an obviously angered Steinke told the defendant.
At least 40 families were victimized by the graveyard thefts at Roselawn, All Saints and Columbus cemeteries.
Court documents in the case revealed the thefts involved bronze vases and veteran grave markers valued at $10,125 stolen from at least 45 headstones.
Bequette pleaded no contest late last month to attempted theft by receiving stolen property and possession of meth in connection with the theft binge from Aug. 18-27.
The Class IV felonies were each punishable by up to five years imprisonment.
Bequette entered his pleas to the charges after reaching a plea agreement with the Platte County Attorney's Office. The prosecution reduced the theft charge from a Class III to IV felony in exchange for Bequette's pleas.
A Class III felony carries a penalty of up to 20 years behind bars.
The judge sentenced Bequette to 20 months to five years in prison for the thefts and 18 months to three years on the drug offense and ordered that the sentences run consecutively, meaning one after the other.
Steinke called Bequette a “grave robber” who had taken no responsibility for cutting up the bronze vases and nameplates and later attempting to sell them for profit at a Columbus metal salvage yard. The defendant had maintained during sentencing that he was unaware the grave markers and ornaments were stolen.
Bequette asked the judge for probation and a chance to pay restitution to the families of the deceased vets before sentencing.
“I apologize for what transpired,” Bequette said. “I had no idea what I was scrapping out was stolen or I wouldn’t have done it. I would like to be able to pay the costs for the families’ losses.”
Last summer’s Columbus Police investigation got underway Aug. 26 when City Cemetery Supervisor Steven Wortman reported brass flower vases stolen from 33 gravesites at Roselawn Cemetery, Officer Charles Case Jr. said in his statement supporting Bequette’s arrest.
On Aug. 27, Case said a worker at a local scrap metal yard reported the business bought more than 200 pounds of whole and cut up brass from Bequette a week earlier. The officer said he collected the brass vases and grave markers from the metal yard’s storage bin.
“The veteran grave marker pieces indicated they came from six different wars and one American Legion (organization),” Case said. “In all I collected the base plates from 45 headstone flower vases.”
Later on Aug. 27, the police investigator said a scrap yard worker reported Bequette attempted to sell more cut up vases and grave markers but was turned away by the business.
Police then contacted the defendant at his home and later searched his vehicle and garage workshop.
Evidence of cut up vases and grave markers was recovered from a vehicle and the garage, along with tools and brass filings used in cutting up the stolen items, Case said.
During the search of the garage, police also recovered a white powder, which later tested positive as meth.