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Police find statues stolen from Pikesville homes

Lawn decorations rescued from salvage yard

By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

10:07 AM EST, December 10, 2011

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The thieves took the bronze monkey statues Hear No Evil and Speak No Evil, leaving behind the one covering his eyes: See No Evil. If they had been satisfied with their haul of 100 pounds of bronze, they might have avoided scrutiny.

But police and the homeowner say the men returned a day later to the same Pikesville-area home to grab another statue — of a boy with a kite — and tried without success to stuff the 6-foot-tall lawn ornament into the back seat of a Honda Civic.

A watchful neighbor videotaped the attempted theft Dec. 1, chased the culprits away and called police.

That may give Baltimore County police a rare break in a spate of thefts of bronze and copper items. A department spokeswoman says police have leads on potential suspects and are working to make arrests.

Police think that the people who took the monkey statues also took a $5,000, 3-foot-tall statue of a ballerina holding a ball from a nearby home on the night of Dec. 3 or morning of Dec. 4.

A few days ago, an officer found the two bronze monkeys — and the ballerina — at a recycling plant in Owings Mills, and was able return them to the owners before they were destroyed.

"We assumed they had been melted down," said the owner of the monkeys, Myron M. Oppenheimer, who along with his wife bought them three years ago at a shop near San Francisco's Chinatown. Police said each monkey weighs 50 pounds and is worth $1,000.

The couple enjoyed dressing the bronze monkeys for holidays — and in purple hats and beads for Ravens games — and are happy to have them back. The statues were being repaired this week before being put back on their bench, where they are bolted down.

"They are part of the family," Oppenheimer said. "We have a lot of fun with them."

A rash of metal thefts, including copper gutters and downspouts, is being reported in North Baltimore neighborhoods such as Homeland and Charles Village, and in and around Towson and Rodgers Forge. The pastor of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Towson said 11 downspouts were taken from his church and rectory in September.

"We don't have a lot of information in reference to suspects or vehicles," Baltimore County Sgt. Stephen Fink wrote to Towson residents in an email about the area thefts this week.

Authorities can try to trace stolen items to local scrap-metal dealers, who are required by law to record transactions and take personal information from sellers. A new state law has banned the sale of certain items, including light poles, manhole covers, street signs, catalytic converters, cemetery urns and tree grates.

But other items — such as gutters and downspouts that thieves typically mangle before trying to sell, so they appear to be discarded — are difficult to retrieve. Police said decorative heirlooms and sculptures are easier to locate.

After taking the report on the attempted theft of the ballerina statue, Baltimore County police spokesman Detective Cathy Batton said an officer scoured area scrap-metal dealers and found the statues at Maryland Recycling in Owings Mills.

Batton said workers there were "very cooperative" and gave the officer the statues to return to the owners.

Gary Zeeman, the shop manager for Maryland Recycling, said his workers bought the statues, recorded the sellers' names and addresses as required by law, and set the pieces aside in case police came calling.

"These items were so unique that we didn't want to scrap them, thinking they might turn up in a police report," Zeeman said. "We hold off with recycling things as long as we have to, until we get notification from the police that it's OK."

Zeeman could not recall how much was paid to the men who brought in the three statues. But he did say that the price of bronze, which peaked in 2008 at about $3 a pound and then plummeted, has leveled out at about $1.35 a pound. At market price, that would've fetched the thieves about $135 for both monkeys.

Zeeman said it's a constant struggle to distinguish what is legitimately pawned as scrap and what has been stolen. He said homeowners frequently bring in old metal objects that at first glance appear to be expensive heirlooms. Contractors gutting houses arrive with truckloads of metal. So do people who steal from homes, vacant rowhouses or properties under construction.

"We can't determine if stuff is stolen or not," Zeeman said. "We can only assume, but we can't prove it. I can't sit there and accuse a customer of stealing stuff."

But he said certain items "definitely raise a red flag." For example, a bronze monkey.

Zeeman said of the stolen statues, "They were not your ordinary scrap."

Oppenheimer said that while touring San Francisco in 2009, he and his wife walked by the store with the monkey statues "20 times" before deciding to buy them.

"We are not spontaneous," he said. "But we liked them and decided we had to have them."

The couple bolted them to a bench and decorated them in holiday themes: a witch, Count Dracula and a monster for Halloween, for example, complete with gravestones. The bench is in a small gravel garden in front of the house but secluded from the street.

Oppenheimer said he and his wife talked about the possibility that the statues could become targets for thieves, but "we didn't think something would happen to them. We didn't think anybody would want them."

This week, the bench remains empty, with all three monkey statues out for repair. Oppenheimer said the two that were taken were ripped from the bolts, and the thieves tried to take the third, See No Evil, damaging the bottom.

Leaving that one behind didn't matter much. "That monkey couldn't see anything anyway," Oppenheimer said jokingly. "He can't be a witness."

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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