Mismanagement alleged at Mount Auburn cemetery Official denies taking $41,000 and records

February 11, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Virginia Clark can show visitors the delicate, brown-stained pages listing the names of former slaves, lawyers and doctors who were buried as long ago as 1890 at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Southwest Baltimore's Westport neighborhood.

But the thick binders holding the records for the 125-year-old burial ground on Waterview Avenue are blank for one period -- from 1982 to mid-1987, when William A. Green, the beleaguered owner of a Howard County pet cemetery, served as superintendent for the 33-acre Mount Auburn.

And with Green facing increasing civil and criminal problems -- stemming from his alleged mismanagement of the Rosa Bonheur pet cemetery in Elkridge, as well as various real estate deals -- members of Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church, who run Mount Auburn Cemetery, are getting nervous.

Church leaders allege that Green stole at least $41,000 from the church and that he hasn't responded to their repeated efforts to get back burial records they believe he still has.

In a phone interview last night, Green, of Sykesville, denied he owes the church $41,000 or that he has any of the cemetery's records.

"I do not have any records of Mount Auburn," he said. "I have no idea who I gave them back to. Whatever I had, I gave to the church. I have no interest in that cemetery. This is totally unfounded. I spent a ton of money on that cemetery."

The standoff has left such survivors as Alita Greene -- who lives across the street from the cemetery and has at least seven relatives buried there -- upset.

"We thought Bill Green was going to be the savior of Mount Auburn," Greene said. "He promised to clean it up, and we thought he'd make it a showcase cemetery like his pet cemetery on Route 1 with all the pretty flowers lining the gravestones of each pet.

"It turns out he never delivered on his promises and he took off with the records of a very historic cemetery."

A Howard County circuit judge ordered Green on Jan. 31 to pay about $20,000 to aggrieved pet owners for grave markers he never delivered and for giving pet owners ashes from the wrong cremated animals. Commercial and Farmer's Bank of Ellicott City foreclosed on the property last week after Green failed to pay his mortgage.

Green faces a criminal trial Feb. 28 stemming from his dealings with the pet cemetery. Seven of his development corporations also face at least 12 lawsuits from about 30 creditors.

Mount Auburn Cemetery has not been without troubles of its own. It has a history of neglect, vandalism and mismanagement.

Since Green last served as superintendent of the cemetery, there have been at least four caretakers of the site. Church leaders say even now they are searching for someone to cut the grass.

With a clear view of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge over the Patapsco River, the cemetery is a field of leaning monuments, tilted and overturned tombstones. Weeds engulf statues of angels; old grave markers sink into the ground. Grass sprouts through the cracks, and potholes pit the road through the cemetery.

Two years ago, more than 200 volunteers gathered to clean up the site. But with fewer than 20 burials a year, says the pastor of Sharp Street Church, the Rev. Bruce Haskins, the cemetery is not "income-generating."

Among those buried at Mount Auburn -- known by historians as the "City of the Dead for Colored People" -- are runaway slaves who had escaped through the Civil War-era Underground Railroad; William Asbie Hawkins, the first black to run for the U.S. Senate; and Joseph Gans, the first black lightweight boxing champion of the world.

Their gravesites and some others are fairly well maintained. Family members either send money to the church for someone to cut the grass or cut it themselves.

But without burial records for 1982 to mid-1987, church leaders fear it could become increasingly difficult for survivors to find their relatives' burial sites.

"I've looked out my window and seen people trying to look for their graves just roaming around, not sure exactly where they are," Greene said. "It's going to become harder and harder to find who you're looking for without some kind of guide other than a tree or bush."

Attorney Ransom Davis, who represents Sharp Street Church, said church leaders reneged on the 30-year contract with Green in 1987 after he failed to maintain the cemetery. According to the deal, Green was to pay the church 15 percent of his income from burials.

But Edgar Draper, a former member of the cemetery board, said Green still owes the church $41,000. "He'd drop off an occasional hundred dollars or so every few months to appease us, but we never could get a straight answer from him," he said.

In August 1982, Green established the nonprofit group "Friends of Mt. Auburn" to raise money for the cemetery. Six years later, the corporation forfeited its charter for failing to file its taxes, according to state tax records. Church members say they never got any money.

Church leaders don't expect to get money from him. Said Lombre Patton, 33, who has more than 10 relatives buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery: "Judging by the way he kept the bodies of people's pets, the records of the cemetery and the money are probably buried over there somewhere."

Pub Date: 2/11/97

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