Alleged unmarked reburials probed Laurel cemetery denies charges of ex-groundskeeper

February 05, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Prosecutors in Prince George's County are investigating whether a Laurel cemetery removed bodies, caskets and burial vaults from some graves and reburied them in unmarked areas of the property.

The investigation stems from allegations made by a former cemetery groundskeeper, Frank Della of Fairfax, Va., after he was fired in August from Maryland National Memorial Park in Laurel.

According to documents provided to investigators, interviews with former employees and a source in the criminal justice system familiar with the probe, Mr. Della told the state's attorney's office that between February 1986 and July 1990, there were as many as a dozen such reburials at the cemetery.

They involved cases in which the remains could not be identified or family members could not be found, Mr. Della told investigators.

A source familiar with the investigation said last week that the probe was "close to a conclusion," and no decision has been made on whether to file charges. Under state law, unauthorized reburials and destruction or defacement of any object associated with a burial are misdemeanors.

Mack Day, the cemetery's director of sales and spokesman, and several current and former employees have said in interviews that no such reburials occurred.

"I don't know anything about it," said Mr. Day, who began working at the cemetery in 1991. "And I don't think it could be true."

Richard Stambaugh, who supervised the cemetery's grounds crew from September 1987 to October 1991, said in an interview that there were "dump" areas at the cemetery but that they were used only for flowers and other refuse from burials.

Mr. Stambaugh said there were occasions when the crew found bodies that had been buried in the wrong place. But in such cases, he and other employees always studied the cemetery's records until they identified the remains, and then moved the bodies to where they were supposed to have been buried.

Maryland National Memorial Park is spread over more than 200 acres along Route 1 in Laurel; 97 acres have been divided into plots that are considered to be "in use," Mr. Day said. The cemetery was all-black and known as Carver Memorial Park when New York-based Hig Corp. bought it in 1957. The name changed when the cemetery was integrated.

The cemetery investigation is occurring while legislators in Annapolis are introducing at least three bills that would create a state board with the power to license cemetery owners.

Cemetery owners long have fought attempts at increased regulation, but owners acknowledge that the investigation in Laurel has become a liability, despite their efforts to portray it as an isolated case.

Hig's president, Barry Tenzer, has not returned repeated phone calls over the past two months. Mr. Day said Mr. Tenzer would have no comment on the investigation.

The reburials at the cemetery allegedly took place when employees dug graves for new burials and discovered that another body was already buried there. When they couldn't identify the remains or find the family, Mr. Della told investigators, it was "common practice" to rebury the bodies in "unrecorded dump sites."

Investigators think that in some cases, vaults and caskets were destroyed or discarded in a wooded area on the west side of the cemetery.

A visitor walking in that area as recently as last week could see, in full view, a twisted, rusted object resembling a casket top in an area where a former employee says an old casket top was discarded 10 years ago.

Prince George's prosecutors are taking the allegations seriously and are prepared to bring sophisticated ground-penetrating radar to the cemetery to plumb the soil in reputed dump sites, according to former employees and the source close to the investigation.

The investigation of Maryland National began one morning in December, when Detective Sgt. Fran Barnes of the Prince George's state's attorney's office, acting on information from Mr. Della, showed up unannounced at the cemetery.

In an above-ground mausoleum, he discovered a waterlogged casket with holes punched in it. And in the central section of the cemetery, he found two bodies in a grave where only one person was to have been buried.

One of the two bodies is believed to be that of Army veteran William H. Thompson, but has not been positively identified. The body, which was buried in 1970, has been at the state medical examiner's office in Baltimore for two weeks.

The chief medical examiner, Dr. John E. Smialek, said that because the casket had broken open and the remains exposed to the ground and water, only a few parts of the skeleton are preserved.

Dr. Smialek said his office will "reconstruct the skeleton as effectively as we can," then compare it with pictures and Army records of Mr. Thompson, who was supposed to have been buried in a grave 12 feet away.

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