Grave Reminders

For years, unsettling, eerie things had happened in the Carven home. When locals finally told the family their Bishopville house was built on a razed cemetery, they decided it was grounds for a lawsuit.

Cover Story

March 04, 2001|By Sarah Pekkanen | By Sarah Pekkanen,Special to The Sun

On the afternoon of Jan. 11, 1995, Deborah Carven set out to un-cover the truth. For months, she'd heard rumors about the house she and her husband, Tom, owned just outside Ocean City: There was something hidden beneath it. Something that could explain all the unsettling things that had happened since they'd moved in a decade earlier.

Like the television set suddenly flicking on.

And the odor of pipe smoke wafting through the dining room.

And the apparition her youngest son Timmy saw in his room at night.

At first, the Carvens had sought ways to explain the unexplainable. They bought another television set and when it began to turn itself on, they resigned themselves to owning quirky appliances. They learned to ignore the pipe smoke. They bought their son a nightlight and predicted he would grow up to become a writer of ghost stories.

Then one day, an elderly neighbor made an offhand comment that Deborah took as a joke -- until another old-timer who'd lived in the area for decades brought up the same eerie subject.

The possibility nagged at her mind until that January afternoon when she couldn't stand not knowing any longer. She grabbed a shovel, walked into her front yard and started digging. She was in a hole up to her knees when the shovel struck something. Lifting it out with her bare hands, she could see it was a small bone -- probably from an animal, she told herself, even as dread filled her body.

She dug deeper. Another bone.

Sifting the cold earth through her fingers, she touched something hard, and bent down for a closer look.

She leapt from the hole, a scream caught in her throat.

It was the handle of a casket.

When Deborah and Tom Carven look back at everything that has happened since that January day -- at the lawsuit and angry neighbors, the sleepless nights and worry for their two sons -- they wish they could change one thing. Not where they live, because they love their community and their home, still. They wish they didn't know.

Twenty to 30 bodies may be buried in their yard, according to legal depositions from farmers who once worked the land. Not so long ago, a small family cemetery was seen in the area that eventually became the Carvens' property. One day, the tombstones disappeared.

If the development where the Carvens live has become a nightmare for them, it once was an old man's dream.

His name was Louis Hickman, and he was something of a local legend: a tough-as-nails farmer's son who dropped out of school at 13 and became a savvy businessman. When Hickman saw a 200-acre vegetable farm in the Eastern Shore town of Bishopville, he imagined a place where families could build homes, where children could ride bicycles along gently traveled streets, where neighbors could share lawn mowers and gather for barbecues. He gave his pet project a happy name: Holiday Harbor.

Deborah and Tom drove by the property in the early 1980s and knew instantly it was the perfect spot to realize their own dream. They'd been married just a few years but had known each other forever. Their fathers had been friends, and Deborah's family had spent some Christmas Eves at Tom's parents' home in Belair. Deborah and Tom even looked like they belonged together, both dark-haired, attractive and athletic. They agreed on most things, and Holiday Harbor was no exception. It was a 10-minute drive out Route 90 from Ocean City, where Deborah works for the Coconut Malorie Hotel, and a quick commute to Tom's job as a recreation specialist at the Sussex Correctional Institute in Delaware.

The flowers springing up alongside new homes, the freshly paved roads, the serene stretch of St. Martin River -- Holiday Harbor seemed an oasis in the middle of urban chaos, a place to raise a family.

Deborah's parents pitched in and bought them a plot of land. Deborah and Tom began building in 1986. Their dream home would have a big brick fireplace in the living room and a terra- cotta-tiled sunroom. Their bedroom would overlook the river. Tom put up drywall and insulation as he read from a how-to book; Deborah laid linoleum and sewed curtains. Because of the river and the danger of flooding, they couldn't dig a basement. The playroom would go on the first floor instead.

When was it that they first began to notice something wasn't quite right about their perfect home?

When certain lights kept blowing out, or their heavy wooden door slammed in the middle of the night -- not once, but two or three times -- or when T.J., their oldest son, complained that things in his room had been moved?

Then little Timmy, who was only 3 or 4 at the time, began talking about "the old man down the river."

"He comes into my room at night," Timmy told his parents. The old man, he told them, only wanted to sit in a corner and reminisce about his life, but Timmy became so frightened he refused to sleep in the dark.

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