Last month, New York’s “Obit Bandit” was sentenced to prison for robbing the homes of the recently deceased. But while strategically stealing from people as they attend a funeral may be cold-hearted and cruel, it’s not a new criminal enterprise.
In 2008, a burglar in Missouri who specialized in hitting the homes of grieving family members was arrested for 30 such Kansas City-area robberies. The thief, Dane Johnson, was tried on 10 counts and convicted. At the time, Platte County prosecutor Eric Zahnd said, “It’s hard to imagine a more cruel and heartless burglary scheme than this one.”
But you don’t have to imagine it. Because just a year earlier, three men were arrested in Reno, Nevada, for the same crime. When the ringleader of the crew, 19-year-old Richard Charles Hery, was busted, he had robbed six homes and was believed to be responsible for seven more. His tactics were simple: He’d scan the local obituaries for fresh targets, and from there, he’d “case” their homes. By relying on details about the deceased from their obits, he’d predict what sort of valuable goods they may have possessed. If the deceased was listed as an avid gun lover, for instance, then Hery might expect to find expensive guns that would keep most of their value on the black market.
Detectives working the multi-state case were able to track Hery down to Salt Lake City and then anticipate his arrival in Tucson, where he was arrested by local law enforcement who’d heard Hery planned to rob homes there, too.
Which brings us back to the Obit Bandit.
In 2018, police in New York and Connecticut were baffled by a string of six home robberies that began the year prior in Westchester County, New York, close to the Connecticut border. Someone was breaking into the homes of recently deceased people and robbing them while their family members were away at the funeral.
Once the family returned from the service, their grief would be compounded by the shock of finding their home ransacked, jewelry and priceless objects from their deceased loved one gone.
The investigating officers dubbed the funeral burglar the “Obit Bandit,” and in order to catch their perp, they followed the pattern and then laid in wait for them to strike again. Specifically, on May 1, 2018, police set up surveillance on the home of a retired police detective who’d recently passed away. As expected, the Obit Bandit showed up to rob the place, and officers recognized the silver SUV from surveillance footage.
The driver turned out to be Latonia Stewart, a 30-year-old single mother of two. She’d even brought along her infant daughter for this latest robbery. When the cops stopped her, they spotted stolen jewelry in her car and saw that her phone had an open tab with an obituary on it. She was arrested on the spot.
When police later searched her home in the Bronx, they discovered a set of burglary tools along with more stolen jewelry, silverware, watches and other valuables and heirlooms. After searching through obituaries and finding homes on Google Maps, Stewart would drive the 34 miles to affluent Westchester County. Once there, she’d use a sledgehammer to break glass doors and windows open, enter the premises and take whatever she wanted.
During her trial, Westchester District Attorney Mimi Rocah reminded jurors of Stewart’s alleged crimes and worked to constantly place them in context. “It’s absolutely appalling that people mourning the loss of a loved one were specifically targeted and taken advantage of in such a cruel and heinous manner,” she said, adding that Stewart, “on one of the worst days of their lives knowing they wouldn’t be home, stole their jewelry, valuables, letters and other keepsakes a spouse would cherish while grieving their loved one.”
After Stewart rejected a plea deal and opted for a jury trial, she was convicted in November on six counts of burglary and criminal possession of stolen goods, both felonies in New York, and sentenced to up to 13 years in prison.
As they’re wont to do, the New York tabloids made a big deal of Stewart’s trial. But again, if history is any judge, we’re just a Zillow entry away from a new Obit Bandit moving into the neighborhood.