Nighttime burglar ransacks Treme funeral home, steals hearse _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--New Orleans police on Friday afternoon recovered a hearse at Jackson Avenue and Prytania Street that was stolen in the predawn hours from the Charbonnet Labat Funeral Home in New Orleans, La. Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. An uknown man broke into the Treme funeral home late Thursday night and stole money and electronics before making off with the vehicle. The burglar remained unknown Friday.

Some people know the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home for its antique horse-drawn hearse or sometimes unique presentations of the dead, such as “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, the Treme Brass Band bass drummer, whose embalmed corpse was propped up next to a prop streetlight by the staff at the Treme institution.

But at least one man thought of the 131-year-old funeral home as a place to find a stash of quick cash, electronics and a guaranteed — if totally conspicuous — getaway car in the dead of night.

Louis Charbonnet III, the fourth generation of his family to run the funeral home, spent most of Friday trying to figure out what, exactly, was missing after the unknown burglar jimmied open a side door Thursday night and made off with myriad items.

Among them: a black Cadillac hearse with Charbonnet’s signature purple light on its roof, sets of keys, perhaps as much as $1,000 in cash, checks and various other items, including TVs, a keyboard, computers and sound equipment.

Charbonnet estimated that he lost $10,000 to $15,000 worth of electronics. The steering column of a van was destroyed, apparently in an effort to hot-wire it.

The hearse was found later Friday afternoon, ditched a few miles away at Jackson Avenue and Prytania Street. Most of the items that the burglar had stuffed inside it appeared to have been removed.

Charbonnet was left to wonder who the intruder was. The man was captured on surveillance camera, but Charbonnet said he didn’t recognize him.

A contractor working on a home behind the funeral parlor said he recognized the burglar as a homeless man to whom he’d offered work. That man didn’t show up to the job Friday morning.

Somehow, he seemed to know precisely where to find much of what he wanted inside the funeral home. He knew what rooms to hit, which desk drawers to open and which cabinets to break into.

Charbonnet said he can only assume someone told the burglar what was where.

“I almost want to think someone told him where to go,” Charbonnet said. “How would a robber know?”

The burglar took his time once inside. He got in about 9:45 p.m. and was recorded prowling around and ransacking some rooms until about midnight. “He had some time in here,” Charbonnet said.

The video shows the man stood before several of the embalmed corpses, tucked into their coffins, seemingly to pay his respects — sort of.

At one point he stood before the body of trumpeter Warren “Porgy” Jones, who died last week and will be buried Saturday. After a few moments he opened the lower half of the lid, apparently checking whether there was any jewelry on the corpse’s hands.

“He was respectful but at the same time disrespectful,” Charbonnet said.

New Orleans police declined comment Friday on the progress of their investigation.

While the incident was frustrating, Charbonnet said, it could have been worse.

The burglar made his way inside just about two minutes after Charbonnet left the business for his home, which is attached to it but is separated by a door.

Later, about 11 p.m., while the burglar was on the prowl inside, Charbonnet’s wife went downstairs to get a drink from a vending machine inside the funeral home.

“At this point, I almost think I’ve got to get a gun,” Charbonnet said, noting that he or his wife could have been beaten up if they had encountered the man. “It’s kind of frightening.”

While the funeral home has a burglar alarm, it is not always activated, Charbonnet said. The spontaneous nature of death leads to a near 24-7 operation with employees often coming and going at odd hours.

Charbonnet, in fact, learned the hearse was stolen when he called an employee a little before sunrise to pick it up to transport a friend who had died overnight. The employee couldn’t find it anywhere.

Ultimately, though, how the burglar knew where to find what he wanted weighed heavily on Charbonnet’s mind, and he tried to talk out any possible scenarios.

“Nobody in the community would do this,” he said. “Maybe he had help from someone in the community. ... But it would almost be sacrilegious to do that.”

Follow Danny Monteverde on Twitter, @DCMonteverde.