Conn. cemetery caretaker arrested for neglecting graves

Friday, December 7, 2018
Jean Stott tries to find the exact spot where a family member is located after the tombstone had been moved at Park Cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut. A mass desecration of graves at the cemetery has devastated dozens of families while police determine whether to file criminal charges. Authorities said gravestones and human remains at Park Cemetery in Bridgeport were moved to make way for the newly dead.
Christian Abraham ~ Associated Press

BRIDGEPORT, CONN. -- A picture of a cemetery in ghastly disarray emerged Thursday as the longtime caretaker of a graveyard in Connecticut's largest city was arrested and officials described in new detail shocking discoveries that included human bones and casket pieces scattered about.

About 130 graves were disturbed at the 57-acre cemetery and included those of Civil War veterans, Bridgeport authorities said. Gravestones and remains had been removed to make way for the newly dead, while some new graves were stacked on top of old ones, separated by a layer of dirt.

"What we found right away was a lot of disturbed dirt, garbage, headstones that were overturned and ... bone fragments that were later confirmed to be human remains, and pieces of old caskets that date back over 100 years," police Capt. Brian Fitzgerald said at a news conference.

"We were finding gravesites from some soldiers that were close to 100 years, in some cases over 100 years old, mixed in with new burial plots from 2011 on," he said.

At one point during hearings he held in recent months, Probate Judge Paul Ganim said Thursday, "There were literally bags of bones that were picked up by witnesses that were brought in."

Relatives, in the absence of government oversight of the cemetery, have meanwhile taken upon themselves the monumental tasks of trying to establish whether everyone is buried where they should be, decide what to do with newer remains buried atop older ones, identify the unearthed bones and fragments and restore order to the burial ground.

"It's absolutely just unbelievable that people did this, and they've been doing this for a while," said Cheryl Jansen, whose great-grandparents and other relatives are buried at Park Cemetery.

People with relatives buried at Park Cemetery had complained about conditions over the years to police and other local officials, Jansen said. Ultimately, it was her legal filings over the past year that led police to search the cemetery in September and arrest former caretaker Dale LaPrade on Thursday.

She turned herself in to Bridgeport police and was charged with felony interference with a cemetery -- a crime state's attorney John Smriga said he had never been prosecuted before. LaPrade was released on a promise to appear in court Dec. 18.

Relatives of those buried at Park Cemetery praised the arrest.

"Justice has been done," said Jean Mattox, of West Haven. "You can't just run a cemetery without doing the right thing. That's where you lay your loved ones to rest in peace. That place is a mess out there. Hopefully she knows what she has done."

Mattox said her mother's gravestone had been moved a short distance away and placed above another person's remains.

Jansen, whose relatives' graves were not disturbed, said it appears that the board hasn't existed since the early 1980s and that oversight was eventually left to LaPrade and her husband, Daniel.

It isn't clear why Daniel LaPrade was not arrested.

Meanwhile, Jansen and others have formed a new board with the goal of restoring the cemetery -- and the trust of the families. The work will be painstaking, she said; the LaPrades kept poor burial records since the 1980s that need to be "deciphered."

Relatives are not certain where the money will come from, he said, but they hope for grants and donations.

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