Couple suing over bones in yard

Homeowners say that developer knew lot included graveyard

May 03, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

When Tom and Deborah Carven began to hear rumors that their dream house in Bishopville sits on an old graveyard, they dismissed them as too outlandish to be true.

Then, four years ago, Deborah Carven decided to pick up a shovel and find out the truth. A foot and a half into the ground, she hit something hard. Then, with her hands, she dug up human hip and femur bones and unearthed a casket handle gleaming in the sun.

It was the beginning of a long nightmare for the Carvens -- one that would result in sleepless nights, thousands of dollars in legal fees and the criticism of some Worcester County neighbors who see them as villains rather than victims.

Andrea Sieg, a founder of the Ellicott City-based Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites, says it's a nightmare that could easily have been prevented -- if Maryland had stronger grave protection laws. She calls the Carvens "innocent victims" of "inadequate state law" and predicts many more victims if people do not become aware of the numbers of graves being destroyed as land is developed.

Jean Keenan, president of the coalition, says laws that aim to protect burial sites in Maryland are weak and not always well-enforced.

"Almost every county is having problems because people aren't aware of the laws," she says.

When the Carvens, both in their mid-40s, built their home in 1987, they never suspected they were building on a cemetery. Laying the foundation for the house, which they built with their own hands, they noticed nothing unusual.

After they got to know some of their neighbors, they began hearing stories about the cemetery in their yard.

"I thought, this isn't for real," says Deborah Carven, who works for an Ocean City hotel. "I thought that here I was the new kid on the block, that they had all decided just to start razzing me to break me in."

Then, Jan. 11, 1995, she dug up the bones in her back yard.

The Carvens say they haven't been able to get their house refinanced because the land has lost its value, and that they are finding it impossible to sell because no bank will issue a mortgage.

Deborah Carven won't say how much it cost them to build the house, but she says it would now cost $182,000 to build a similar house, not including well, septic, landscaping, driveway and property.

The developer, Louis J. Hickman, is deceased, but the Carvens have sued his widow and his estate for $1.5 million. The case has not gone to court.

The Carvens say the developer knew about the burial site, which they think once spanned 1 to 3 acres and contains 10 to 30 graves.

No known written records exist of the burials because the property was part of a large estate. But Deborah Carven says neighbors have testified in depositions that Margaret Bishop -- wife of town founder Littleton R. Bishop -- was buried there in 1853. She has also heard the last burial there, in the 1940s, was of a boat captain with the surname Buck.

The lawyer for the developer's wife denies allegations of wrongdoing -- even denies the existence of a graveyard on the site.

"We're denying that their house was built on a graveyard," says James Almand of Ocean City, adding that the Carvens have harmed themselves by filing suit.

"They've kind of tainted this property by going public with the allegations," the lawyer says. "That's unfortunate."

Vivian Hickman, the developer's widow, could not be reached for comment.

Edward H. Hammond Jr., a lawyer for Worcester County, says the county does not check for gravesites before issuing building permits, but assumes the developers are following state laws that prohibit building on known burial sites.

"We don't really inquire if there are some graveyards," he says. "We just look at it to make sure it drains right and the water runs down."

But the coalition's Sieg said that system is flawed because developers, in their zeal to make money, are not always aboveboard when they discover graves on otherwise valuable property.

"We are not anti-growth in the coalition," Sieg said. But, she added, "We cannot be a moral, ethical society if we are going to destroy human graveyards. It's as simple as that."

The Carvens say they have accumulated more than $10,000 in legal fees trying to get compensation from the developer's estate. They say some neighbors won't talk to them because in a town as small as Bishopville, everyone knows everyone and friends and family of the developer believe they're causing a fuss and stigmatizing the neighborhood.

"Everyone thinks it's our fault," says Tom Carven, a recreation specialist for Delaware state prisons.

"People are very tight-lipped," his wife says. "These people in this area, they go back together a long time, and unless you are a local person a lot of people aren't willing to stick their necks out for you."

Rick Wells, who works in the Worcester County planning office and is related to the developer, says he's not happy about the Carven situation -- the graves and the suit -- but would not comment beyond that on the advice of Almand.

Deborah Carven says she hardly gardens anymore, though it's one of her favorite hobbies, because she's scared of what she might dig up.

Since finding the graves, the Carvens have begun to suspect that their dream house is haunted.

Things that before seemed like no big deal -- noises in the night, or their television flickering on and off for no apparent reason -- weigh on them, they say.

Most disturbing is that their youngest son, who will turn 13 this week, has repeatedly seen an old man in the corner of his bedroom. Before Deborah Carven dug up a grave, she interpreted that as a young boy with an active imagination.

Afterward, she wouldn't let her son be alone in the house.

"We want out of the neighborhood," she says. But she sees little chance for that unless they win their lawsuit, which goes to trial in October.

"We don't have money to move anywhere."

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