Editor's note: Contact7 seeks out audience tips and feedback to help people in need, resolve problems and hold the powerful accountable. If you know of a community need our call center could address, or have a story idea for our investigative team to pursue, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (720) 462-7777. Find more Contact7 stories here.
DENVER -- When you're visiting a grave at Fort Logan National Cemetery, you don't expect to be victimized by a thief.
But that's what happened to Sharlene Custenborder on August 29.
"I had just finished babysitting my grandkids and thought I'd go see John," she said.
John Custenborder, a Vietnam veteran, died 11 months ago, and was laid to rest on the east side of Fort Logan.
Sharlene said she parked her car on the cemetery’s New Mexico Street and walked up to John’s grave.
She said she sat down and started talking to him, telling him about the kids.
Sharlene told Denver7 that she remembers John for a lot of things, among them, his generosity.
“You could ask him to do anything for you,” she said, “and he would.”
Walking Among Headstones
Midway through her visit, she noticed that she wasn’t alone.
"I just happened to look over my shoulder," she said, "and there was a woman walking through the headstones...she didn't have a purse and there was no other car around and I went, 'hmmm, maybe she's lost.'"
It was only as she was leaving the cemetery that Sharlene realized her phone was missing.
She traced her steps back and forth.
“I sat down thinking maybe it fell out of my pocket,” she said.
When she couldn’t find it, she went back to her car, and that’s when she realized several other items were missing.
“(The thief) took my billfold that my niece had just made me, my driver’s license, credit cards and overnight bag,” she said.
She added that the thief also took some items of sentimental value.
“They took John’s driver’s license and his VA card,” she said. “I can replace everything else, but I can’t get those two things back, and I always carried them with me, and a picture of us on a little Polaroid.”
Sharlene said she also had father’s memorial announcement in her billfold.
“That was from 20 years ago,” she said, “but I’ve been carrying it all this time.”
Now, it too is gone.
Lock your car doors
When Sharlene went to the cemetery office to report the theft, she noticed a note posted on the wall warning visitors to lock their car doors.
She said the thief racked up more than $1,500 worth of bills on two of her credit cards.
Investigators obtained photos showing a woman using one of Sharlene’s stolen credit cards.
They shared those photos with Sharlene.
“I saw the pictures and thought, ‘that’s the lady from the cemetery,’” she said.
While many people might harbor ill-will toward a thief, Sharlene said she doesn’t.
“Everybody feels violated,” she said, “but I thought, if (the thief) needed it, it’s okay. I know that’s not the right attitude, but I forgive her for what she did.”
She later added, “She doesn’t know how close to my heart she stabbed.”
Sharlene said she went public with her story because she wants others to know what happened, and because she would like to get back what was stolen.
When asked why a thief would target people mourning at a cemetery, Kevin Williams, Fort Logan’s assistant director, said, “I think it’s an easy target. People feel comfortable coming to a National Cemetery. They don’t think they need to lock their doors, because who would do something like that in a place like this?”
Williams told Denver7 that thefts peaked in early summer, then tapered off.
“We’re seeing an uptick on weekends,” he said.
Last June, a chaplain, who was taking part in an honor guard ceremony at Fort Logan, began walking to his car after the ceremony, but couldn’t find it.
It had been stolen.
“We encourage people to lock their doors,” Williams said, “and hide your valuables, because people are taking advantage of, and are stealing from, people who are grieving here at the cemetery.”