July 22, 2008

Police Find Remnants of Stolen Statue

By Troy Graham, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Jul. 22--Cherry Hill police yesterday recovered the remnants of a bronze statue that thieves stole from the former Garden State Park racetrack and sold for scrap.

Primitive, the 12-foot statue of an American Indian riding a galloping horse, had been reduced to more than 1,000 pounds of pieces.

"You can't put Humpty-Dumpty back together again," said Cherry Hill Detective Sgt. Joseph W. Vitarelli. "The value is gone. It's like . . . if you cut up the Mona Lisa. It's sad this piece of art is gone."

The pieces were found in a crate at the Camden scrap yard where the thieves sold them. Vitarelli said he did not want to identify the scrap yard because it was not clear the employees knew what they were buying.

"It was cut up in very small pieces," he said.

Police also charged three more men in the theft yesterday -- Brian McMullen, 33, of Sicklerville; John Silcox, 36, of Mount Ephraim; and Joseph Lesniak, 32, of Pennsauken. All three were charged with theft and conspiracy and released.

On Saturday, police arrested Ian MacDonald, 33, of Audubon, in the theft.

Over the weekend, police, working on a tip from a source, recovered the head of the rider buried behind a Mister Softee stand in Pennsauken.

Vitarelli said he could only guess that the men wanted to keep the head as a trophy. "Who knows?" he said.

The statue was one of two, known collectively as Athletes of Race, installed in the racetrack's paddock in 1988. The sculptor, A. Thomas Schomberg, also produced Philadelphia's Rocky statue.

The racetrack closed in 2001, and developers have been transforming the site into a retail and housing complex.

The statues had been left there in an undeveloped field, and it was unclear if they would have been reinstalled. The developer, Turnberry Associates, had offered $50,000 for the safe return of Primitive.

A call to Turnberry's public relations department was not returned yesterday.

The theft was reported July 14, but Vitarelli said the statue might have been stolen two weeks before that.

The thieves used a backhoe stored near the statues to knock Primitive off its base and break it into large chunks, Vitarelli said.

Then they loaded the pieces onto a truck and later used some sort of tool to cut them into even smaller pieces, he said.

The theft came at a time when the high price of metal and a battered economy have driven thefts of anything metal -- including flagpoles, gutters, manhole covers, and, apparently, bronze artworks.

Primitive, a $500,000 statue, was worth $3,900 in scrap, police said.

As of Sunday, the second statue of Athletes of Race remained unsecured, Vitarelli said.

"It's just difficult to imagine $1 million of statuary sitting out in a field," he said.

Schomberg, the sculptor, said the statue could be restored because bronze is a "forgiving metal." But he said replacing the stainless-steel rod that ran through the horse's body, enabling it to stand on one foot, could be more difficult.

He also said he didn't think jail would do the thieves any good -- he would rather see them put to work on restoration.

"When I heard they caught somebody, quite honestly, I felt very sad for them. Times are hard," Schomberg said. "I hate to see somebody sacrifice their freedom for something like this. . . . It's just sad all the way around."

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 856-779-3893 or [email protected]


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