Burial mixup probe devastates Detroit widow: 'It's like he just died'

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News
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Detroit — Mary Williams cried Monday as her husband's casket was lifted out of the ground at Gethsemane Cemetery, where he apparently was buried with three other bodies more than five years ago.

Williams said she is mortified to find that another man's headstone was on the grave plot of her husband, Allen, who died of a heart attack at age 55 in January 2016.

Mary Williams sits outside Gethsemane Cemetery where she says her husband's body was dug up with four others in the plot.

"I'm distraught. It's like he just died," she said. "I don't know if his body is actually in there. That's the next big problem."

As the grieving Detroit resident watched, Detroit police officers, FBI employees and others on Monday began the grim task of digging up 20 gravesites where authorities believe bodies may have been mistakenly buried, based on complaints from families.

Williams arrived at the cemetery at 9 a.m. Monday and said she wanted more than assurances from authorities that the casket bearing her husband's name contains his remains. 

"That's not enough," she said. "I want to know if his body is in the casket."

Williams said she will move her husband's body to another cemetery as soon as she can afford to do so.

During a news conference at the Detroit Police Department's 9th Precinct headquarters, police discussed an expansive probe into complaints of possible mixups in burials at the cemetery on the city's east side.

"The police department is working with the city of Detroit to make sure there is closure for families," spokesman Dan Donakowski said.

The investigation stems from a complaint earlier this year that a deceased person was not buried in the gravesite purchased by his relatives.

The FBI Evidence Response Team and others dig Monday at Gethsemane Cemetery, Mausoleum and Crematory in Detroit.

The city set up a hotline that took calls from people concerned about the burial of their loved ones' remains from April 29-May 17.

The hotline received 52 credible complaints, Donakowski said. Of those, 20 were valid enough to be further investigated, he said. 

Exhumations began Monday and could continue through Wednesday, he said. "Over the next couple of days, we're shooting for 11 exhumations." 

Seven exhumations were completed by midafternoon Monday. Police determined that six of the burials were found to be proper, except for the one that stemmed from the original complaint that sparked the investigation, Donakowski said.

A Gethsemane Cemetery staff member who answered the phone at the cemetery Monday said there would be no comment regarding the investigation.

Detroit News photographer Dan Mears contributed.

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