Dale Lee Parsons's first burglary—or at least, the first one for which he was ever caught—was on October 19, 2015. He knew, from a funeral announcement, that Wayne Berry would be attending the service for his late wife of 41 years. So Parsons broke into his house, taking jewelry, credit cards, and a handgun, according to local news reports.
Parsons targeted two more houses the following month, on November 27, where he also knew the owners would be attending a funeral. (One of the residences belonged to the deceased's 60-year-old widow.)
When Parsons was detained two days later during an unrelated traffic stop, the Clay County Sheriff's Department found a handwritten note in his car. It had the name and address for another man, along with dates and times. When officers contacted the man, they discovered that the dates and times coincided with those advertised in an obituary for someone with the same last name.
Last Monday, Parsons pleaded guilty to eight felony and five misdemeanor charges including burglary, attempted burglary, receiving stolen property, stealing, and unlawful possession of a firearm—all related to his series of "funeral burglaries." He was sentenced to 45 years behind bars.
"I hate to think about anybody even doing something like that, [taking] advantage of people at a time of their loss and mourning a loved one, being gone, then come home to find something like that," Berry, one of the victims, told local news. "It's unthinkable."
Unthinkable, but not totally uncommon. The idea of a prospective burglar picking homes by trawling through family members obituaries sounds like an urban myth—so much so that the question was put to snopes.com in 2011—but it does happen. In 2015 alone, I counted roughly 50 incidences of funeral burglaries (many targeting several homes on one night) in at least 15 different states. In October of last year, police apprehended three suspects who are believed to have been involved in 17 different "funeral burglaries" in Arizona alone. The Bureau of Justice doesn't keep track of these sorts of things on a national scale, but their data do show that 72 percent of burglaries occur while residents are not present. And a pretty good way to guarantee someone won't be present is if they're attending a loved one's funeral.
The scam basically works like this: Prospective burglars look through local funerals announcements and scan them for who the deceased is survived by. Or they might look up addresses for people with the same last name, banking on the fact that they'll be out of the house for the duration of the service. A mourner will probably also be stricken by grief, meaning they might be more likely to forget to lock the doors or set up the security system.
In 2015, Minnesota resident David William Pollard was arrested and charged with 42 residential home burglaries in six different counties—many of them involving victims who were attending funerals. Records retrieved from his computer by the Dakota County Attorney's office state that Pollard would research funeral locations online and then call the home phone numbers for family members he would locate online. If nobody answered, he would break in.
Even high-profile individuals can fall prey to this tactic. In 2013, Archbishop Desmond Tutu's house in Cape Town, South Africa, was broken into on the same day he was speaking at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela. In the days leading up to the 2015 funeral for English actress and singer Cilla Black, a "professionally cut circular hole" was found in the fence surrounding her Buckinghamshire home. It's believed that the plan was to use the hole to burgle the home during the funeral, but after its discovery, they enhanced the security system to prevent a burglary.
Some of the more bizarre cases involve individuals who actually knew the deceased. In November of last year, 20-year-old Mason Sneed was arrested in Newport, Kentucky, for aggravated burglary. The house belonged to his father, who was attending his mother's funeral. And this past May, 19-year-old Blake Elliott of Springfield, Ohio, was arrested for burglarizing the home of a woman who was attending her grandmother's funeral—a funeral for which Elliott was scheduled to be the pallbearer. Elliott skipped the funeral and was later found to be in possession of some of the stolen property.
One upside is that the ubiquity of funeral burglars may also make it easier to predict where they will strike next. This past January, Brian Lowery was at the funeral for his 12-year-old daughter who had died from flu-related complications. Lowery had asked a family friend to house-sit while he attended the service. Apparently, a man named Shane Michael Grinde targeted the home for a burglary and rang the doorbell to see if anyone was home. When the family friend answered, Grinde claimed he was looking for his cat and left. The friend—suspicious of the interaction—took pictures of Grinde and his car, and reported it to Lowery.
Lowery set out to find where Grinde might go next. A week and a half later, he visited the home of a nearby widow who was on her way to attend her husband's funeral, and warned her that her home might be targeted. As the funeral was about to begin, Lowery returned to the property and ran into Grinde, detaining him long enough for the police to arrive and take him into custody.
In July, Grinde was sentenced to four years in prison. Lowery told local news that he was relieved Grinde would be behind bars. "You know, make sure he got what he deserved."
Follow Simon Davis on Twitter.