Ceme­tery in dis­ar­ray, care­taker ar­rested

Bridge­port of­fi­cials de­scribe scat­tered pieces

Hartford Courant - - Front Page - By Dave Collins As­so­ci­ated Press

BRIDGE­PORT – A fuller 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, in­clud­ing 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 lo­cated just north of down­town.

“It’s ab­so­lutely just un­be­liev­able that peo­ple did this, and they’ve been do­ing this for a while,” said re­tired lawyer Ch­eryl Jansen, whose great-grand­par­ents and other rel­a­tives are buried at Park Ceme­tery. “You never think you have to worry about your dead rel­a­tives ... but I guess these days you do.”

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.

LaPrade 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 seen pros­e­cuted be­fore. LaPrade was re­leased on a prom­ise to ap­pear in court Dec. 18.

“No com­ment as or­dered,” she wrote in a text message to The As­so­ci­ated Press af­ter be­ing ar­rested. She did not elab­o­rate.

A civil court judge in Bridge­port last week had or­dered LaPrade to stay away from the ceme­tery.

LaPrade ap­peared in court last week in a wheel­chair and told Judge Bar­bara Bel­lis, “I’ve stayed away. I’ve been try­ing to get out of the ceme­tery for 10 years. I’ve been ill,” The Con­necti­cut Post re­ported.

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. Her son dis­cov­ered the prob­lem a few months ago, when things looked out of place and he com­pared the scene to a photo taken when the grave was in the cor­rect spot.

In Con­necti­cut, the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health must ap­prove new ceme­ter­ies, but no state agency is specif­i­cally charged with ceme­tery over­sight. Park Ceme­tery was es­tab­lished in 1878, and an as­so­ci­a­tion board over­saw its op­er­a­tion and main­te­nance for decades.

Jansen had no­ticed a grad­ual de­cline since the 1990s, with junk and tree limbs pil­ing up. She won­dered where the money fam­i­lies had paid for per­pet­ual up­keep was go­ing, and went to the lo­cal pro­bate court seek­ing ac­cess to the fi­nan­cial records.

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.

Ganim, the pro­bate judge, ear­lier this year asked po­lice to in­ves­ti­gate. When they searched the prop­erty, they found fi­nan­cial records in dis­ar­ray and un­opened mail from 20 years ago. What hap­pened to the per­pet­ual-up­keep funds re­mains un­clear.

It also isn’t clear why Daniel LaPrade wasn’t 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.”

Bill Ack­ley, who has sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of rel­a­tives buried at Park Ceme­tery, said it will likely take years and hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars to fix dam­aged grave­stones and re­store the prop­erty.

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

CHRIS­TIAN ABRA­HAM/HEARST CON­NECTI­CUT ME­DIA

Jean Stott, of Shel­ton, tries to find the lo­ca­tion of a fam­ily mem­ber in Oc­to­ber af­ter the tomb­stone was moved at Park Ceme­tery in Bridge­port. Of­fi­cials de­scribed in new de­tail Thurs­day dis­cov­er­ies that in­cluded hu­man bones and cas­ket pieces scat­tered about.

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