Detroit police find wrong bodies buried in graves in Plymouth cemetery

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Detroit police deputy chief Marlon Wilson addresses the media Wednesday over efforts to identify unknown homicide victims during a press conference at Public Safety Headquarters.

Detroit — As part of an ongoing quest to identify unknown homicide victims, Detroit police officers last month exhumed seven bodies from a Plymouth cemetery — but police officials said Wednesday six of the bodies they dug up didn't match the graveyard's records.

Investigators on Tuesday served a search warrant at United Memorial Gardens Cemetery to obtain records in an effort to determine where the unknown homicide victims are buried, and who was buried in six of the seven graves that were exhumed June 19.

"It's extremely concerning," said Detroit police deputy chief Marlon Wilson, who held a press conference at Public Safety Headquarters to discuss the exhumations that were part of "Operation United," which aims to identify homicide victims going back to 1959 using DNA.

"That's why we served a search warrant yesterday: To get the records of the remains we weren't able to identify on June 19," Wilson said.

Wilson said he wasn't at liberty to disclose information about the one exhumed body that matched the cemetery's records.

Michelle Jackson, office manager at United Memorial Gardens, said she wasn't aware there were bodies buried in the facility in graves that didn't jibe with the cemetery's records.

"We don't know anything about that," Jackson said Tuesday. "The police came to look for bodies to do a DNA match, but that's all we know."

Jason Moon, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees cemeteries, said in an email: "LARA currently has an open investigation regarding the establishment, and I cannot comment further at this time."

Wilson said Wednesday that the cemetery could face administrative sanctions, and possibly criminal charges, depending on the outcome of LARA's investigation. He added cemetery officials have cooperated with police.

Detroit police are working with the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office, Wayne County prosecutors and the FBI on Project United, in which police are exhuming the graves of unknown bodies and cross-checking them with Jane or John Doe homicide victims, or people who were reported missing and never found.

Police hope to identify the unknown homicide victims through advances in DNA technology.

The first phase of the operation was in May when police exhumed graves at Knollwood Park Cemetery. Both Knollwood Park and United cemeteries were contracted with Wayne County to bury unidentified bodies.

LARA officials in December suspended new activity at Knollwood after inspectors found more than 300 improperly stored infant and fetal remains in multiple crypts.

Wilson said Detroit officers were aided during their cemetery searches by "scientists from the FBI." During the June 19 search, the agents determined the exhumed bodies didn't match the cemetery's records.

"We were able to understand (that the bodies didn't match) based on the description of the victims," Wilson said. "The (FBI scientists) utilized their expertise, and six of the seven (bodies) weren't the right ones."

So far, there have been no DNA matches in the effort, police officials said.

"It's very difficult work, but our members are dedicated," said Wilson, who added the effort is spearheaded by Sgt. Shannon Jones, who for years has headed the police department's missing persons bureau.

"It's essential we identify these victims for the families, and so we can close these cases and move forward," Wilson said.