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DA rules out wrongdoing in grave removals

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

After launching its own investigation into the transfer of graves from a historic site, the Clayton County District Attorney's Office has concluded that Stephens MDS, the landfill company responsible for the move, has not moved any graves illegally.

District Attorney Tracy Lawson issued a summary report on March 24, stating that "Based on our investigation, we find no violation of [the] Official Code of Georgia ... concerning [the] removal of graves at the Union Bethel Cemetery site."

In the report, she said investigators with the District Attorney's office:

· Visited the grave site on three separate occasions;

· Located key landmarks and headstones;

· Received a notarized affidavit from Jeff Gardner, the archaeologist overseeing the transfer of the graves, "stating that no graves appear to have been removed from the cemetery site since 1993."

Shawn Davis, spokesperson for Stephens MDS, said the report shows that the company has handled the reinterment of the grave site properly. "This letter from the district attorney, closing the investigation, removes any doubt that the cemetery has been tampered with over the last several years," he said. "The District Attorney's Office didn't conclude their report based on the archeologist's findings, they went to the site. They [the graves] have not been moved, they have not been dug up in the middle of the night, they are there today."

For several months, the Clayton County NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and some members of the community, have accused Stephens MDS of illegally removing graves from the Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church Cemetery. The historic grave site, off Lees Mill Road, in the middle of landfill property, is assumed to contain at least 311 African-American graves dating from the late 19th, and early 20th centuries.

On Jan. 6, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners issued Stephens MDS a permit to relocate the cemetery. According to Lawson, several people protesting the grave site's relocation demanded that the her office investigate the matter during the board's Jan. 6 regular business meeting.

"On the seventh [of January], we started the investigation, making sure that there were no violations of the applicable criminal statutes," she said.

Lawson said her investigators located burial markers for "D J 1888," "D.L. Elliott," and "James Brooks," three headstones mentioned in a 1993 survey by Gardner. They also studied a 2001 video given to the District Attorney's Office by Tonya Lee Willis, a vocal opponent of the grave site's relocation.

Lawson said investigators observed progressive aerial photos of the grave site, as well, and found no noticeable differences in the graves since 1993.

"We gave no opinion as to whether the board should grant it [the permit to relocate the graves]," said Lawson. "Our job was to insure that the criminal-law violations had not occurred, and we are satisfied that they haven't occurred."

Lawson said that malicious removal of a dead body from a grave site is a felony, and that failure to follow proper permit procedures for the disinterment of graves is a misdemeanor offense.

Dexter Matthews, president of the Clayton County NAACP, argued that Gardner's accounts were biased because he was paid by Stephens MDS to oversee the grave-site relocation. He also expressed concern that several of the BOC's sitting members have accepted campaign donations from John D. Stephens, owner of Stephens MDS, and that the company's legal counsel, Crandle Bray, is a former BOC chairman.

"That's the problem I have with Clayton County ... everybody seems to be on the same side," said Matthews. "We want somebody independent to verify that the graves were [not] moved. What I take from them is that they took everything that Stephens said and believed it."

Lawson said that Gardner "understood the gravity of the situation."

"This man is laying his professional career on the line with the information that he gave us," she said. "He understood the importance of us being very certain that they [the graves] were all there. If it is proven that he gave us untruthful information, it will be dealt with." Gardner could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Lawson added that her office maintains the right to observe the progress of the grave site's relocation to Carver Memorial Gardens on Upper Riverdale Road.

On Jan. 5, Betty Bowden, 72, the great-granddaughter of Steve Dixon, the man who once held the original deed to the Union Bethel AME Church, filed a complaint in Clayton County Superior Court against Stephens MDS. As of Wednesday, Judge Albert Collier, the presiding judge in the case, had not yet ruled on the matter.

Bowden, who maintains that her relatives were chased off of the land where the church once stood, said she will continue to fight the grave site's relocation.

"If we have to march all the way to the White House, we are prepared," she said. "This just can't go away. It's not right what they are doing."

Davis said that Stephens MDS is waiting until the Superior Court's ruling to relocate the grave site. "Out of an abundance of caution, no work will be done until the case is fully dismissed," he said. "We anticipate with the district attorney's finding of no wrongdoing, the judge will dismiss the current litigation. Once the case has been dismissed, we will announce a schedule for professionals to remove the graves, and we will have a public viewing area while the work is taking place."