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Shoplifting probe reveals stolen tombstones

Gowanda police went to Shawn Blanc’s apartment earlier this month to investigate a theft from a grocery store.

Authorities believed that they had the 21-year-old Gowanda man on a surveillance video stealing three alcoholic energy drinks from a Shop 'n Save on Buffalo Street in the village.

As police talked with Blanc, they noticed something unusual in his apartment – seven headstones.

Investigators this week charged Blanc with three counts of cemetery desecration for stealing the headstones from Pine Hill Cemetery in Gowanda and Maplewood Cemetery in Springville.

Blanc, who has a history of mental health issues, is going through a separation with his wife, Stephen G. Raiport, officer in charge with the Gowanda police, said when asked about a possible motive for the thefts.

“I guess it makes him feel better when he’s depressed,” Raiport said.

In addition to the felony desecration charges, Blanc also faces two counts of felony criminal mischief and petit larceny, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office and Gowanda police said.

The headstones dated from the 1800s and early 1900s. The thefts in Springville happened in December, with the Gowanda stones taken about two weeks before they were found Feb. 2, Raiport said.

Pine Hill Cemetery officials didn’t know about the two missing headstones until they were contacted by police, said Jack A. Torrance, treasurer and trustee of the cemetery.

One of the stones taken from Pine Hill, which was established in 1867, dated from the 1870s. That headstone had already been knocked over and was lying on the ground when it was stolen. The other stone was knocked over and taken, Torrance said.

The weathered headstones were a couple of inches thick and weighed between 30 and 40 pounds, “like a sack of birdseed,” Torrance described.

With snow on the ground, it’s possible the thefts may not have been noticed until the spring, he said.

At Maplewood Cemetery in Springville, police also notified officials there about their unusual discovery.

Some of the stones date from the 1830s and 1850s, said John M. Ornce, cemetery superintendent and trustee.

One of the stones that police believe was taken from the 23-acre cemetery was about 2½ inches thick and 18 inches high, weighing 80 to 90 pounds, Ornce said. “He just took ones that were old that he could lift,” Ornce speculated.

Most of the older grave markers at the cemetery are made of sandstone and limestone, while more recent headstones are made from granite and marble, which are heavier stones.

Some of the other stolen stones – now in the possession of Gowanda police – were smaller, about 8-by-10-inch plaques – from a family plot. One was inscribed “Little Alice,” while others were so worn and weathered, he said, that they were illegible.

Police toured the cemetery with Ornce and Blanc’s wife, who provided a brief explanation for the possible motive.

“He just likes to collect weird stuff,” he recalled the woman as saying.

Blanc was arraigned in Springville Village Court on Monday on the charges filed by the Sheriff’s Office. He was released on his own recognizance.

The investigation is continuing, authorities said, and additional charges are pending.