Body snatching, the more apt term for corpse theft, reached its height between the 17th and 19th centuries, when a whole industry emerged around stealing corpses from graves and selling them to medical schools. The reason for this was not far-fetched. More medical schools were opening, and they all needed corpses for practicals. At the same time, executions, which used to be the go-to source for corpses, were dropping.
Relatives of the deceased employed elaborate methods to prevent the theft of their relative’s corpse. They fortified the grave, reinforced the casket, and maintained watch at night. A British government act also made body snatching illegal in 1832. However, all this only reduced corpse theft but did not stop it.
Body snatching still happens today, though not necessarily for monetary gain. Why, then, will a person steal a corpse these days? Read on to find out.
10 Heriberto Lazcano
Before his death, Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano led one faction of the infamous Los Zetas drug cartel in Mexico. The cartel tops the chart in terms of brutality. Its members, who are ex-military rangers, have even been accused of feeding their enemies to tigers they keep in their own private zoos.
Lazcano was killed in a shoot-out with Mexican marines in 2012. The marines never recognized him and, thinking he was just another lower-cadre cartel member, took photographs and fingerprints before dumping him in a funeral home. The body was stolen from the funeral home very early the next morning.
Not long after, the photographs and fingerprint tests revealed that the killed gunman was the wanted drug lord. This surprised Mexican authorities, who thought Lazcano was in Guatemala. Besides, there was no hint that the person killed was a drug lord, let alone the wanted Lazcano.
He did not move around in a heavily protected convoy, as would be expected of a cartel leader. Only two men were with him as at the time he was killed. Years before his death, Lazcano built a tomb where he hoped to be buried. However, the stolen body was not buried there.
9 Gladys Hammond
In October 2004, the trio of Jon Ablewhite, John Smith, and Kerry Whitburn stole the body of Gladys Hammond from her grave. The theft was part of a campaign against Darley Oaks Farm, Newchurch, Staffordshire, UK, which bred and sold guinea pigs for research. Since September 1999, the three men, operating under a group called Save the Newchurch Guinea Pigs, had been campaigning against the farm, urging them to shut down and stop selling guinea pigs for research.
The men used sickening and illegal methods to achieve their aim. They frequently harassed and threatened business partners, workers, and members of the Hall family, who owned the farm. The methods of harassment varied and included, but were not limited to, death threats, fake bombs, hate mail, and outright blackmail.
The theft of Hammond’s body fell under the blackmail category. Hammond was related to the Hall family, and the men had offered to return her body on the condition that the family closed down the farm. Smith later revealed the location of Hammond’s corpse to the police.
For his part, he got two years’ imprisonment, while his two partners got 12 years each. Whitburn’s girlfirend, Josephine Mayo, got four years for involvement in the campaign. The Hall family also closed down the farm.
8 Unnamed Person
Now for an interesting case of unintended corpse theft.
At around 1:30 AM on February 12, 2017, Bobby Joe Washington was walking past a mortuary in Riverside, California, when he found a van parked outside with the keys in the ignition. Then he did what any thief would do. He quickly jumped into the van and drove off. However, he soon realized that the van contained a dead body.
So he did what any gentleman thief would do. He turned the van around and returned it to the mortuary, where he stole another van parked outside. Washington threw whatever gentlemanly mannerisms remained in him into the wind when he nearly ran over an employee who tried to stop him from stealing the van.
The employee called the cops, and Washington was caught after a ten-minute chase. He was charged on four counts: two for car theft, one for assault, and one for evading police. He was not charged for stealing the corpse.
7 Tassos Papadopoulos
Tassos Papadopoulos was the president of Cyprus between 2003 and 2008. He died months after losing a reelection bid in 2008. A year later, his body was discovered to have been stolen from its grave. The discovery immediately generated controversy, as would be expected of someone of Tassos’s status.
At one end, there were concerns that it was the handiwork of a gang hoping to earn a huge ransom. At the other, some believed it had political undertones. This was not far-fetched, since Tassos was a controversial person while alive.
Today, the island nation of Cyprus is divided along ethnic lines, between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. During his presidency, Tassos appealed to Cypriots on television, asking them to reject a UN reunification plan that was to be voted by referendum, since it supposedly divided the country instead of bringing both ethnic factions together.
Every rumor concerning the theft of Tassos’s body was partly laid to rest when his corpse was found inside a grave in a nearby cemetery. Justice Minister Loucas Louca stated that the theft was strictly for ransom, with no political undertones. Tassos’s family denied ever paying a ransom and stated that no one even contacted them for one.
6 Julie Mott
The body of 25-year-old Julie Mott mysteriously went missing between the late afternoon and early morning of August 15 and 16, 2015. Moss had died about a week earlier, and her family had contracted her memorial service, embalming, and cremation to Mission Park Funeral Chapel & Cemeteries in San Antonio, Texas.
Moss’s memorial service was held at a Mission Park funeral home on August 15. Her body was left there after the service and was supposed to be transported to another one of Mission park’s locations the next day. However, it was missing by the time the funeral home opened the next morning. Moss’s casket had been tampered with, but there was no evidence of a break-in at the funeral home. The security alarms were not triggered, either.
At the center of the incident were Mission Park Chapel & Cemeteries, Beyer & Betel, and Julie’s ex, Bill Wilburn. Wilburn and Moss had broken up two years earlier, but he was still obsessed with her and had remained at the funeral home after everyone had left.
Mission Park was also found to have been subcontracting most of the funeral services to Beyer & Betel, even though it initially denied it. Beyer & Betel had unfettered access to Mission Park’s facilities and often worked without supervision. In fact, body loss was not unusual to both businesses. They had been sued in the past for mixing and losing bodies.
5 Unnamed Girl
Mohammad Anzaar buried his unnamed daughter one and a half months after she was born. Distraught, he and some relatives interred her at Aishbagh graveyard in Bazarkhala, Lucknow, India.
They returned the next day to pray for the girl, only to find her grave dug up. A cloth used to cover her corpse was found nearby, but the body was missing. Indian police suspect the theft was the handiwork of sorcerers who raided the grave at night.
4 Mike Bongiorno
Mike Bongiorno was a popular Italian game show host before his death in September 2009. He was given an elaborate state burial, which was attended by close friend Silvio Berlusconi, then Italy’s prime minister.
Then the body was stolen.
The motive of the robbers was unknown, although it is suspected that they wanted to extract ransom money from Bongionro’s wife. Two men contacted Bongiorno’s family claiming they had the body and demanding a ransom, but they were later found to be fraudsters hoping to make some quick cash.
Bongiorno’s body and casket were found in a ditch 16 months later, about 80 kilometers (50 mi) from the tomb in which he was buried. His body was undamaged, although it was obvious that the casket had been thrown from a bridge.
Aneela Afzai was six months pregnant when she gave birth to a baby boy inside a car in 2014. The prematurely born boy, who she named Eamon, died just four hours later. Aneela buried Eamon in a graveyard, and it remained so until two months later, when her grandmother called to tell her that Eamon’s grave had been dug up and that his body was missing.
Aneela did not inform the Pakistani police about the the theft. Instead, she left the grave open, hoping the thieves would have a change of heart and return her baby’s corpse. However, that seems unlikely. Corpse theft is common in Pakistan, where people raid graves for black magic. In fact, Aneela believes this is the reason her baby was stolen.
2 Enrico Cuccia
Enrico Cuccia was a top Italian investment banker and founder of Italian bank Mediobanca. He also had controlling shares in several other big businesses and was very popular within Italian business circles. He died in June 2000 and was buried in a tomb, where his body was later stolen.
The theft was elaborate and well-planned. First, the robbers tactically moved the heavy stone covering the tomb. Then they stole the coffin and corpse before returning the stone. The theft would have gone unnoticed if the housekeeper, who made weekly visits to the tomb, hadn’t noticed that the tombstone was cracked.
The theft raised one obvious question: Who stole the body? Some said it was the Italian Mafia, while others blamed it on some satanists. Others just pointed fingers at Cuccia’s business partners.
Corpse theft is not totally alien to Italy, where bodies of rich people or their relatives are sometimes stolen for ransom. In 1987, the Mafia stole the body of rich businessman Serafino Ferruzzi and requested a $7 million ransom payment. His family refused to pay, and the body remains missing today.
This time, the thieves demanded for a ransom of about $3.5 million. However, Cuccia’s body was found two weeks later. No ransom was paid. The theft was not the handiwork of the Mafia, as was speculated, but of some amateur grave robbers. Two men were arrested, although police believed a minimum of four people were involved.
1 Chen Jinglan And Sun Yunren
Chen Jingan died on Feb 26, 2017. Two days later, she was buried in a farm close to her village in Juancheng province, China. However, her body was stolen by Liu Changling—who ran a funeral service—and sold to a customer in the neighboring Juye county, Shandong province.
The theft was exposed when the funeral house worker preparing the body for cremation realized he was working on a woman, even though her identity card listed her as male. He called the police, and they realized that the body was not that of the deceased. The discovery revealed the existence of a profitable corpse trade between grave raiders in Juangcheng province and buyers in Juye.
The government of Juye had demanded the compulsory cremation of all dead people. However, many families preferred a regular burial to cremation. To bypass this, some families turned to buying corpses and cremating them in place of their relatives while secretly burying their late family member.
Investigations revealed that Chen was just one of the three cadavers Liu had dug up and sold within a week, between February 24 and March 2, 2017. On February 24, 2017, he had dug up and stolen the body of Sun Yunren, which he sold for 13,000 yuan. The customer dressed Sun (a man) as a woman and cremated him in place of his mother.
Liu confessed his expertise in detecting fresh graves and the gender of the deceased. The latter, he said, was done by either observing how the friends and relatives of the deceased cried at the burial and, when he was not present, how the nails were hammered into the coffin. This did not explain why he kept delivering the bodies of the wrong gender, though. He got nine months’ imprisonment for the thefts.