Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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These alleged thieves give new meaning to the term grave robbers.
Bensalem police have arrested two of the three people they say staked out cemeteries in Bucks and Montgomery counties between February and April and stole purses from unoccupied cars while people visited graves.
Police departments in seven communities believe the trio – Pamela Hummel, 30, of Morrisville, Jose Leon, 44, no fixed address, and Nathan Phillips, 29, of Bristol — is responsible for at least 15 thefts and nearly $5,000 in losses and unauthorized use of credit cards.
Hummel and Leon, who are currently in Montgomery County prison on similar charges, were video arraigned Friday before Bensalem District Judge Leonard Brown on multiple counts of theft, conspiracy, identity theft and receiving stolen property. Brown set their bail at 10 percent of $150,000 each.
Bensalem has issued an arrest warrant for Phillips, who faces similar charges, according to online court records.
The police investigation into the purse thefts is continuing, but so far, the three suspects have been linked to thefts at cemeteries in Glenside, Cheltenham, Lower Moreland, and Horsham in Montgomery County and Bensalem, Middletown, and Lower Southampton in Bucks, according to a probable cause affidavit. The estimated total in losses and unauthorized purchases is roughly $4,600, police said.
Middletown police alone reported six purse thefts at Our Lady of Grace cemetery off Route 1 since February. Visitors at Resurrection in Bensalem and Sunset Memorial Park in Lower Southampton were each targeted twice, police said.
Police noted the thefts had similarities: most involved unlocked cars and the stolen credit cards were used to buy gas, food, cigarettes and other items at drug, retail and convenience stores. Victims and witnesses also placed a beige-colored sedan missing hubcaps at the theft scenes.
Police developed the three as suspects after reviewing surveillance footage at stores where the stolen credit cards were used, according to the affidavit.
The suspects had a pattern of visiting the same Trevose gas station after the thefts where they used stolen credit cards, police said. The habit is what resulted in the arrests of Hummel and Leon, last month, police said.
On April 12, Lower Moreland police responded to a call of a purse theft from an unlocked car at the Forest Hills Cemetery. The victim described the suspects as leaving in a beige sedan. Police immediately staked out the Trevose gas station the suspects often visited after previous thefts.
Sure enough, a beige-colored 1999 Chevy Lumina without hubcaps pulled into the station minutes after the theft, according to the affidavit. The occupants – Hummel and Leon – matched previous descriptions from prior thefts and were detained by Lower Southampton police.
Officers found Hummel in possession of stolen credit cards, cash and a driver’s license that belonged to the victim of the theft earlier that day. She and Leon were arrested.
When police searched the car, they also found numerous sets of keys including several sets belonging to purse-theft victims, according to the affidavit.
Both suspects admitted in police interviews to the Forest Hills Cemetery purse theft – and many others, police said.
Leon admitted to 15 prior thefts, 10 in Bucks County, which were under investigation. They also identified Phillips as an accomplice, according to court documents.
Lower Moreland police interviewed Phillips on April 17 and he admitted to going to “numerous” cemeteries with Leon to steal purses from unlocked cars and using stolen credit cards at different stores.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: jciavaglia@phillyBurbs.com; Twitter: @jociavaglia;