‘I stole them from a graveyard’

Christopher Kelley is accused of stealing gravestones from the Rebekah Community Cemetery near Dufur, Oregon and placing them in the backyard of his home in Sellwood. (Dec. 2013, PPB)
Christopher Kelley is accused of stealing gravestones from the Rebekah Community Cemetery near Dufur, Oregon and placing them in the backyard of his home in Sellwood. (Dec. 2013, PPB)

SELLWOOD, Ore. (KOIN) – Chris Kelley just moved out of the house he owns in Sellwood and moved into a friend’s house. Kelly’s backyard looks different now than it did a few weeks ago.

Among the plantings and the shrubs were headstones and grave markers Kelley allegedly stole from the Rebekah Community Cemetery in Wasco County, near the eastern Oregon town of Dufur.

There was Edwin Albaugh, an Oregon pioneer who was 29 when he died in 1891. Oley Brown was only 8 when he died in 1905.

When Edwin Quinn died in 1885, he was only 2. The back of his marker is inscribed: “Tread softly, for an angel band doth guard the silent dust, And we can safely leave our boy, our darling, in their trust.” His 4-month-old brother, Little Will, died in 1893.

All their gravestones were found in Chris Kelley’s yard, investigators said.

But they wouldn’t have found them, at least not yet, if Tom Illk hadn’t called police.

“I’ve known Chris all my life,” Illk told KOIN 6 News.

Kelley, who has been a TriMet bus driver for 20 years, invited Illk to his house a few months ago and said he saw three gravestones in Kelley’s yard.

Christopher Kelley, Dec. 2013 (Multnomah County Sheriff's Office)
Christopher Kelley, Dec. 2013 (Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office)

“I said, ‘Chris, where did you get this?’ and he pulled me aside, not wanting the neighbors to overhear, ‘I took ’em.'”

He said Kelley told him he went to eastern Oregon to get rocks for his garden.

“He says, ‘I stole them from a graveyard,'” Illk said.

He said he told Kelley, 53, to take them back, but a month later he said the gravestones were still there — plus one more.

“If I hadn’t done this, his back yard would have been full of them,” Illk said. “I know that, I know that in my heart. So I felt that was the only way after pleading with him to stop.”

Wasco County Sheriff Deputy Tim Hall traveled to the cemetery and found “several graves sites with missing headstones,” his affidavit states.

Barb Thomas, who is in charge of the cemetery, gave Hall plot maps. He learned there was no record of whether the headstones had just gone missing or had been missing for years, court documents state. Thomas confirmed to KOIN 6 News the thefts had happened but declined to speak about the matter citing privacy concerns for the families involved.

Hall used the website findagrave.com and located photos of all the headstones that were reportedly discovered on Kelley’s property, court records show.

The secret indictment filed Nov. 15, 2013 reveals Kelley “unlawfully and knowingly” stole the gravestones between July 1 and July 31, 2013. Each headstone is valued at $1,000 or more, court documents state.

Portland police arrested Kelley, but he’s facing charges in Wasco County for four felony counts of first-degree theft and four counts of abusing a memorial to the dead. Anyone convicted of abuse of a memorial to the dead could face a $50,000 fine and restitution.

His attorney, Daniel E. Russell, entered a not guilty plea to all counts. Kelley’s next court date is scheduled for January 27, 2014. Russell has not returned calls from KOIN 6 News seeking comment.

When KOIN 6 News tried to speak with Kelley at the house where he’s now living, the only thing he said was, “I’d really rather pass.” His unnamed friend told KOIN 6 News to leave his property.

Until after the case winds its way through the legal system, TriMet cannot take any action against him. He remains behind the wheel of a bus.

KOIN 6 News reporter Brent Weisberg contributed to this report.

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