COLUMN:Kept in the dark
Officials with the Prince William school system maintain they followed the proper procedure for notifying the public about an unmarked cemetery on the site of the county's 12th high school off Route 234.
Some of the people most closely associated with the project, however, maintain they were still in the dark a month after the discovery of the grave site.
On Sept. 9, the schools placed a legal ad in the "Washington Post" regarding the removal of the cemetery, and according to schools spokesperson Irene Cromer, a flyer was posted in the lobby of the Edward Kelly Leadership Center for two months, although official were only required to post it for one month.
School officials say no one contacted the schools during the required 30-day notification period to object to the grave removal.
On the week of Nov. 11, the removal of the 13 graves commenced.
However, a number of individuals associated with Prince William County, including the library system’s genealogical team RELIC, say they had no idea that a cemetery existed on the property until a story was published in the news on Aug. 23.
RELIC had been working with the school-contracted Thunderbird Archeology group since July on various projects, including the 12th high school site, said RELIC head Don Wilson.
However, Wilson said Thunderbird never informed him of a grave site on the property. He also did not receive the GPS coordinates of the cemetery until after the exhuming of the graves had started and those numbers came from a local reporter, said Wilson.
Up until then, his department was having difficulty matching up exactly where the cemetery was on the parcel and who it belonged to. Having the GPS coordinates was important in order to determine that the property in question was owned by the Lynn family, post-1845, said Wilson.
School officials have stated that the cemetery was officially discovered in July.
Bill Olson, a member of the county’s historical commission, believes that the cemetery was discovered in 2008 after an initial phase one archeological study failed to turn up evidence.
He recently submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to determine whether a subsequent topographical survey that he believes was done later in 2008 revealed evidence of the graves.
In the school’s application to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources for permission to dig up the graves, there is no mention of that survey being done in 2008. Olson said a survey like that would’ve likely revealed the presence of a cemetery because it involves cutting down trees.
However, Olson, like many others, didn’t know about the cemetery until the news report in late August.
Once he found out, Olson said he and and county archeologist Justin Patton visited the site on Sept. 3.
During that meeting, Olson said he told members of the archeologist team that they should work with Wilson at RELIC for identification of the remains at the site.
After hearing nothing more from the schools on the matter, Olson found out Thunderbird would be at the site just a day before the exhumation process started.
Patton could not be reached to confirm the date he learned of the grave site.
The schools said the exhumation project will end next week and then the artifacts – which include a very small amount of human bone fragments – will be further evaluated with DNA testing likely being done on the bones. The removal of the cemetery was necessary, according to school officials, in order to build the high school’s football stadium.
Funeral plots at Stonewall Memory Gardens had already been purchased by Wetland Studies & Solutions, the parent company of Thunderbird.
However, a public meeting will be held before final internment takes place, according to the school’s website.
Descendants of the Lynn family, several of whom live and work in the county today, have lashed out at the school system for their perceived lack of effort to notify the family.
The school parcel is connected with former longtime School Board member Fred M. Lynn, whose name adorns a middle school in eastern Prince William County just a few miles down the road from the future school site.
Fred’s daughter Letty Lynn, who still owns and manages a commercial building in Occoquan, said she was aghast at the removal of the graves. Letty was informed of the issue by her cousin Dick Lynn on Nov. 18, a week after the exhumation had started.
“I am a total loss of words,” Letty said in a telephone interview on Nov. 20. “I really don’t know what to say. It’s a big disappointment that the county has taken this action without consulting the family. I can’t believe they couldn’t locate the family. All you have to do is do a property search and you will find lots of Lynns.”
County Supervisors Martin E. Nohe and Corey Stewart have suggested they will look into penning legislation that would require a more rigorous public notification process regarding grave removals in the future.
That’s a little too late for Dick Lynn, who said he would be amenable to moving the remains to another location on the school site, but not offsite.
“It was very shocking,” said Dick, who said he’s considering legal recourses. “It was a very low blow on Prince William County School’s behalf.”
Not all share his opinion, though.
Betty Jean Eller, who said her family married into the Lynn family several generations ago, was the former owner of the land in question before she sold it to the school system in 2007.
The 77-year-old said can’t remember whether the school contacted her about the cemetery. However, she said she wasn’t aware of a cemetery growing up on the property when her father owned the land during the middle of the 20th century. She also thinks the schools are doing the best they can in a sticky situation.
“If the Lynns did not try to keep up with their graves and people lay there rotted and they couldn’t find out [where it was before], I think they have a hell of a nerve [to come back now],” Eller said.
- Times staff writer Kipp Hanley contributed to this story.