A life-size statue of Ronald McDonald was stolen from a home for families of sick children, pried loose from a bench in an apparent prank.

The 4-foot tall red-and-yellow plastic resin figurine, which was bolted to a bench outside a Ronald McDonald House, was a favorite subject for children and families before it turned up missing Tuesday.

"It's despicable, it really is," said Pamela Fenimore, executive director of the Ronald McDonald House. "It goes beyond being funny. It really isn't funny when you consider the kids and the families that get enjoyment out of it."

The nine-bedroom house serves children and families from upstate New York and Vermont who come to Burlington for medical treatment. It's one of 270 in 30 countries worldwide.

The statue was vandalized last week by an unknown person who apparently tried to cut its head off.

The damage was discovered Friday, but it's unclear whether it was done by the same person or people who managed to undo the four bolts that held it in place and make off with it sometime Monday night, leaving behind a small brass plaque that reads: "Always here for a hug. Love, Ronald."

"This was thought through," said Fenimore. "It's no spur-of-the-moment, let's-take-him-away kind of thing."

It's not the first time the smiling McDonald's Corp. icon has met with foul play.

In Stewartstown, Pa., one turned up missing in January after being stolen from the yard of a former employee who had repaired it and used it as a lawn decoration.

In 2001, a Ronald McDonald was stolen from a Ronald McDonald House in Billings, Mont.

Police Lt. William Ward said he believes the statue didn't go far in Burlington, a lively university town with three colleges and a vibrant nightlife scene — and no stranger to pranks.

Someone, somewhere knows something about it, he said.

"People see someone walking down the street with a Ronald McDonald in their hands and they figure there's probably a (legitimate) reason for it," he said.

Whoever's responsible could face felony grand larceny charges if caught, he said.

"It's likely someone playing a practical joke," said Ward. "The timing is awkward, though. It's more the kind of thing you'd see in (fraternity) initiation week in the fall, or during spring initiation."