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How did bones from Aurora cemetery end up in West Chicago dirt pile?

Pictures bones casket parts thStadtfeld found while digging dirt pile West Chicago. Police were initially called investigate but quickly determined

Pictures of bones and casket parts that Stadtfeld found while digging in a dirt pile in West Chicago. Police were initially called in to investigate, but quickly determined the bones were historical. It was later revealed that the bones had been dug up from an Aurora cemetery and dumped in West Chicago. | courtesy of Kathy Stadtfeld

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Updated: February 14, 2013 6:05AM

It’s never really a good day to find human bones.

But Sept. 23, 2012, was pleasant enough. It was mostly sunny, a bit crisp. A nice Sunday for a hike.

For Kathy Stadtfeld, that meant a chance for one of her favorite hobbies: scavenging. She liked to find bottle caps, interesting pieces of glass, bits of wire, then turn them into jewelry or small pieces of art. Her living room is full of animal skulls that she had found, cleaned and put on display.

On the afternoon Sept. 23, the 51-year-old headed out to a wooded area not far from her home, near Washington Street in downtown West Chicago. The area was good for treasure hunting: near the railroad tracks, in an area that few people walked.

Early in the day, she came across a milk bottle from the early 1900s. She trudged along, using her walking stick to push aside leaves and branches, in search of another little gem. She came out of a small wooded area behind a West Chicago Public Works building and spotted piles of soil in an open field just north of the woods.

Most of the piles were too compact for digging around, but one was still fresh. It took only a few seconds before the first bone showed up. Thinking they’d found deer bones, Stadtfeld and a friend poked through the pile. More bones kept coming out: rusted color ribs and femurs.

It wasn’t long before Stadtfeld spotted a tooth with a filling in it. And there was a bracket that seemed to be from a casket. And bits of leather.

“Then I was like: Oh my God. We found human remains,” she said. “At some point I said: we’ve got to stop digging. It was kind of scary — and then it was kind of sad.”

Discovery of the bones began a long hunt for Stadtfeld that eventually led her back to an Aurora cemetery and a man who died in Minnesota more than a century ago.

Not a crime scene

Once Stadtfeld had dug up the bones, she headed straight for the West Chicago Police Department, about a half-mile away. She handed the front desk officers part of a human skull, a section of jaw with three teeth and casket handrails, and told them where she’d found them. Police returned to the field and called the DuPage County coroner’s office. During the subsequent search, investigators found at least 77 bones along with buttons, casket parts and bits of a boot.

Officers proceeded cautiously, taping off the area while several investigators scanned the field. Stadtfeld returned to watch them work.

It didn’t take very long to figure out that this was probably not an unsolved murder. In a West Chicago police report, Detective Robbi Peterson uses the phrase “very old” three times.

“We all agreed that the site we were observing was not a crime scene,” Peterson wrote. “It appeared the dirt pile contained the remains of a burial site that may have been inadvertently dug up and transported here.”

The next day, West Chicago police began considering the possibility that the Public Works Department, while working on a broken water main, had scooped up the bones. The look of the casket handle and the style of the shoe indicated the remains were more than a century old.

But as they checked into that report, a man came to police with an admission: he knew who put the bones there and he knew where they were from.

He was, he said, the one who scooped them out of a grave.

A rare mistake

According to police reports, the man said he had contracts with dozens of local cemeteries to dig graves. Of course, when you dig, you often end up with soil that has no home. Sometimes the grave digger would give the dirt to another cemetery. The grave digger would also share with the West Chicago Public Works Department. When he had extra dirt, he’d donate it to the city to be used for various projects. The grave digger called this dirt swapping a very common practice.

The problem was that in older cemeteries it was not uncommon to hit a burial site. The oldest grave sites in some cemeteries are often unmarked or misplaced; the record keeping simply wasn’t very good. And prior to 1930, vaults were not required.

If the digger noticed remains had been pulled up, they were immediately returned to the site. But occasionally bones did get moved. According to police and coroner reports, that’s what had happened here: while digging a grave at an old Aurora cemetery, the digger had scooped up the bones — and then dropped them in West Chicago.

The grave digger was apologetic and embarrassed, according to police and coroner’s reports. (He declined to speak to The Beacon-News.) He volunteered to return the remains at no charge.

DuPage County Coroner Pete Seikmann said accidental un-burials are rare: he’s only dealt with accidentally dug remains twice in 36 years.

“Once we saw it was historical, it wasn’t really a coroner’s case anymore, but we followed through because you just have to,” he said. “If it was your mom or dad or grandparent, you’d want them to be back where they belong.”

Man behind the bones?

For the police, the grave digger’s “confession” closed the case. The coroner’s office, too, closed the case when the remains were returned to the cemetery. There was no crime; it was an accident.

But Stadtfeld wanted to know more. She kept calling police and the coroner’s office to follow up. She filed Freedom of Information requests for the police and coroner reports. She heard rumors the bones were from an Aurora cemetery, so she scouted out some of the oldest for possible matches.

“I thought it was really sad that someone’s remains could end up here, in a city lot,” Stadtfeld said, recently, when she revisited the West Chicago site. “I kind of found a connection with this person.”

Through her records and some footwork, she was able to trace the records back to West Aurora Cemetery, along Wilder Street just north of downtown, which opened three years before the city was founded.

Like many older cemeteries, West Aurora Cemetery struggles with maintenance. The graveyard is run by a combination of board members and volunteers. Through the interest on a sizeable trust, the members pay to cut grass (16 to 18 times a year), pay state fees, hire security and remove fallen tree limbs.

Today, there are only a few burials at the cemetery each year. But that’s not the problem that led to the bones landing in West Chicago. The hitch was that although there are 3,900 people buried in West Aurora, 1,700 have no markers. On 8 acres of land, nearly half the graves are unknown.

“That’s what happens in all these old cemeteries: You start to dig and you don’t know what the hell you’re going to come up with,” said West Aurora Cemetery caretaker Bob Lindoo.

On her own in late October, Stadtfeld found the freshly dug grave at West Aurora. It matched with the headstone of Thomas Newland, who died in 1904. She began to study the genealogical records and found that Newland had died at his sister’s home in Minneapolis, and the body was returned to his hometown for a 1904 burial in the West Aurora Cemetery.

Stadtfeld felt at peace. She had a name.

Was it positively Thomas Newland that had been dug up? No one can ever know for sure. But Stadtfeld felt she had done her part to put a name to the remains.

“It’s sad because it can happen. If I wouldn’t have found them (the bones) eventually they would have been bulldozed over, spread out and never found,” she said.

“But it’s also a bizarre story. Since I’m out walking around, I’ve often thought what would happen if I came across a body. But I was always thinking of a missing person, not bones that were more than 100 years old. It’s been interesting for me. It’s been one of those stories that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”

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