Reporting Michele Gillen
South Florida Crime
MIAMI (CBSMiami.com) — Jessica Williams is the caretaker to one of the oldest African American cemeteries in South Florida, where community pioneers have been laid to rest. But recently, criminal acts have been disturbing the bodies resting at this cemetery which houses 538 burial plots at in Miami.
CBS4’s Chief Investigator Michele Gillen spoke with Jessica Williams about recent body thefts.
“And when you came upon finding one of these coffins broken into what did you think?” Gillen asked Williams.
“I cried. I cried. I cried. Then I cried,” Williams said.
Her tears are mixed with outrage and despair.
“I just want them to stop because it’s not right, it’s just not right. These people are here and they’re resting. They are resting. They don’t need to be bothered with, you know, they really don’t,” Williams said.
Williams is the niece to the ailing matriarch Elyn Johnson who’s family founded this landmark. And now, Williams is speaking out in desperation.
“And so when I came over here I seen this casket open,” Williams said.
“Are you scared?” Gillen asked
“Very much so. Very much scared,” Williams replied.
Life at the cemetery has become the stuff of the nightmares.
“The most recent break -in was right here. They took all the bones,” Williams said. “All of them.”
Break in’s to tombs, the thefts are horrible to describe. Coffins holding the remains of children are being broken into and robbed.
“The whole top was off and you could see the casket. And I freaked. I freaked out, I screamed,” Williams said. “I have pictures on my phone from the casket when it was first open. I don’t think this baby lived more than a month, a month, and they went in the plastic and took the baby’s head… Just the head. That’s what they do with these kids, with these babies, that’s mostly what they do. They just take the skull.”
Williams said she filed a police report.
In the past year– at least 6 tombs have been broken into and some body part or bone stolen, and in one case an entire body.
“Yes, the whole body was gone. Yeah. The whole body,” Williams said.
Williams has called the police to report the thefts and they have documented the problem. But they have not been able to stop or solve the break ins. So, Williams has turned to the community and the media for help.
Gillen brought in security specialist Wayne Black to size up clues — and questions.
“You’ve investigated so many different types of crimes. Breaking into a coffin and stealing bones is a crime?” Gillen asked.
“It certainly is. And possession of human remains in South Florida depending on the situation may be a crime too,” Black said. “Were they taking them for the jewelry? Are they taking the remains to sell? Is it a satanic ritual? If they break in here and steal bones and remains, why? What’s the reason? A cult? A satanic ritual?”
An expert in Afro Cuban religions, author and anthropologist, Mercedes Cos Sandoval says the skull is considered the part of the body with the most power – that those who practice in black magic believe they can use for good or evil.
“It could be voodoo,” Sandoval said. “They control the head of a person they feel they can control the soul.”
Williams said she was shocked when she found one of the coffins had all the bones missing.
“I screamed all the bones were gone. When I saw this picture, I screamed,” Williams said.
“This is a reason to have a meeting with police,” added Wayne Black. Williams said she spends her days chasing off strangers.
“When you see someone you can tell they don’t have family here,” Williams said.
And she takes photographs of possible suspects.
In this one- two women who Williams says have no relatives buried here. One is seen carrying a plastic bag, while the other is holding “a machete,” Williams said. “And the other lady had a bag. I asked where are you going? You got a machete in your hand?”
Pressing the woman on why she was at the cemetery, the woman answered Williams.
“She says to me her baby is sick,” Williams said. “I thought normal people go to the hospital. I ran her off.”
At first glance Black sees why the historic cemetery-which has seen better days…is a magnet for trouble- whether driven by money or the occult.
“Well, part of it is the fence is broken down,” Black said. “They’ve stolen your weed eater so you can’t even weed properly. The foliage is growing down over causing natural hiding places.”
Tombs mixed within the remains of some very important black families, some buried here in the 1950’s. Sadly, not all the coffins can be traced and so the now missing can’t even be reported to their heirs.
“And their families, we don’t know where they’re families is at,” Williams said.
“So this family doesn’t know that their loved one’s body is somewhere in the world we don’t know where?” Gillen asked.
“Exactly. Exactly. I don’t even know how to get in contact with half these people’s families. I wish I did. I really wish I did,” Williams said.
Black said that when crimes like these occur, they hurt a community.
“There are multiple victims. The living victims are the family members of those who are buried here,” Black said.
In the meantime, Williams waits.
“They’re not stopping and I can’t take it,” she said. “I have to stay on patrol. Not guard, patrol How can they sleep? I say how can they sleep?”
CBS4 News has requested an update on the body theft investigation from Miami-Dade police and is awaiting a response.