Burrowing into a mystery: Who stole flags from veterans' graves in N.Y. town?

Hudson, N.Y. cemetery woodchuck
Surveillance video shows a woodchuck near flags in a Hudson, N.Y. cemetery. The town was outraged at the repeated theft of the flags before cameras unmasked the culprits.

(CBS News) HUDSON, N.Y. - It's a case of star-spangled larceny that mystified a New York town. CBS News burrowed into it, "On the Road."

The crime scene is a cemetery in Hudson, N.Y. -- in a special section reserved for Civil War veterans. The evidence: the remnants of what used to be rows of flags.

It happened just before the 4th of July. Local TV and newspapers started reporting on the dozens of flags stolen, ripped right off the flag poles.

It really riled this community.

Residents said they were "very, very angry" and "disgusted."

"It's so disrespectful what they've done to our veterans," one resident said.

After the incident, cemetery caretaker and Army veteran Vince Wallace called a news conference and announced a reward: "About 500 bucks for the arrest and conviction of the dirtbag who did this."

Other veterans volunteered to replace the flags. But just a few hours later -- it happened again, this time in broad daylight. Three thefts in one week.

"They have no respect for the living veterans or the deceased veterans," a resident told CBS News.

It really did seem like the vandals were taunting both the veterans and police, who at this point decided enough was enough and set up an undercover sting.

They hid motion-activated cameras and it didn't take long for them to get their man (so to speak).

He's kind of short, and furrier than most people expected.

"So we're pretty sure now its woodchuck related," Wallace told CBS News. "Woodchucks -- groundhogs."

Wallace says he doesn't know how many are involved or what they'd want with flags.

"They were just gone off the site," he said. "Which is another big mystery, where did they go?"

To answer that question, Vince has turned to his inner Caddyshack, rigging up a flag with fishing line. That didn't work.

So we decided to try and get to the bottom of this. With a camera on a stick I probed for answers -- and, sure enough, caught the critters red, white, and blue-handed. There was a dirt-soiled flag, down in one of the woodchuck burrows.

For their part, the veterans who put up the flags are now doing something they never did in battle: They surrendered, taking down all the flags, temporarily.

"We're engaged in developing a flag holder that would hold the flag a couple feet off the ground," Wallace said.

It will be taller than a woodchuck. A lot taller.

I would suggest he offer an olive branch -- but they'd probably just eat that too.

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  • Steve Hartman
    Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.