Police believe more than 1,000 veterans’ grave flag holders were stolen.
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR PENNSYLVANIA BUREAU
NEW CASTLE, Pa. — Lawrence County veterans groups say they intend to doggedly pursue the prosecution of the two people accused of stealing bronze and brass flag holders from war veterans’ graves.
“We just want to see they get the full extent of the law,” said Marion DiCola, a member of American Legion Post 342 in New Castle.
DiCola, along with Mike Orelli, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 315 in New Castle, was on hand Tuesday for the preliminary hearings of Matthew Russick and Jessica Gustaitis, accused in the thefts of hundreds of flag holders from several cemeteries in the county.
Russick, 23, and Gustaitis, 22, both of New Castle, each waived their rights to preliminary hearings in Lawrence County Central Court. They are both expected to appear for formal arraignments Feb. 5 in Lawrence County Common Pleas Court.
Both remained Tuesday in the Lawrence County Jail after failing to post $20,000 bond each.
Pennsylvania State Police said the pair went on a two-week spree removing the flag holder from veterans’ graves and breaking off the brass rod and discarding the bronze emblem that holds the flag. Police contend they would discard the emblem at the grave site or another location, and sell the stems for scrap.
When the pair was arrested, police were able to locate receipts from an area recycling facility that showed 350 flag holder stems were brought in over a three-day period in early December.
Shirley Noga, director of veteran services in Lawrence County, said they now believe more than 1,000 flag holders were taken during the two-week period. “We are here to service our veterans and their families, and we are trying to take care of their grave sites, with their flagholders and flags in respect and memory of them,” she added.
DiCola said police have asked area veterans groups to check all the graves to determine how many flag holders are missing.
According to police, the pair would initially break off the brass stems at the grave sites, but later started taking the entire flag holder and discarding the emblems along roads and in trash bins. Police are still hoping to find more emblems to be returned to the county.
Police said the bronze and brass flag holders with the emblems are valued at approximately $40 each.
Noga said the county stopped buying the bronze and brass flag holders years ago because of theft and now buys aluminum flag holders.
Noga said it’s unclear when the flag holders will be replaced. Even with the aluminum ones costing only $6.25 each, the cost will be in the thousands if more than 1,000 were taken, she said.
The veterans office director said county commissioners have instructed her to wait for restitution from the defendants, if they are convicted, to pay for new holders. She was unsure how long that could take.