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A father's frustrating search: Where is his son buried?

ARLINGTON -- It was a late summer day in 2009, and Billy Maples Sr. and a cemetery groundskeeper walked to the burial site of Billy Maples Jr.

Maples Sr. went to the left of the oak tree and stopped. The groundskeeper at Cedar Hill Memorial Park went to the right of the oak tree and stopped. Both wanted to know why they were standing where they were.

The groundskeeper held a plat showing Maples Jr.'s burial plot in one location; the father had memories of a different spot. Not more than 20 feet separated the two places. But it's difficult to know who is right. Maples Jr., killed in an auto accident in Haltom City, was buried in 2005 as a pauper in an unmarked grave.

The father's purpose in visiting the cemetery more than two years ago was to add a headstone.

Since then, Maples Sr. has sought some way to prove that he is right.

So far, he has been stymied by a lack of concrete evidence to dispute the cemetery's records and by a long search for an attorney who would agree to help him.

It's all added up to a wrenching exercise in frustration.

"This is a nightmare," he said.

"I can't go to my grave without putting a headstone where my son is buried. In this day and age, there is no reason in the world why anyone should be buried with absolutely no marker. It just shouldn't be done."

No one, at least until Maples Sr., had ever come to Tarrant County Human Services with a similar problem.

"This is a novel case," said Gerald Smith, director of the department, which is in charge of the county's indigent burial program.

As much as Smith wants Maples Sr.'s concerns addressed and questions answered, he said, there is little he can do.

Tarrant County Human Services has no authority to intervene and compel Cedar Hill Memorial Park to move dirt, he said.

That's because the cemetery has provided the county with records that show where Maples Jr. is buried, Smith said. That location is just not the one that Maples Sr. remembers.

"It's between the cemetery and Mr. Maples," Smith said. "The location and inventory of the site is over the authority and record-keeping of the cemetery. He would need a court order to go forward with an examination."

The general manager of Cedar Hill referred all questions to the cemetery's owner, Wilson Financial Group in Houston. Scott Woodley, a vice president with the group, said he is "working with Tarrant County to resolve the problem" because he maintains that the county owns the burial plot.

"I have no further comment," he said.

On average, close to 500 people are buried annually as paupers at county expense. Some of the bodies were never claimed at the Tarrant County medical examiner's office. Most of the time, though, people are buried there when their families cannot afford funeral expenses.

By getting discounts from funeral homes and cemeteries, the county pays an average of $1,400 to prepare and bury a body. The state does not require a marker and the county does not pay for one, so the bodies are buried in unmarked graves.

In most cases, the cemetery sends the location -- area, lot and space -- to the county with the invoice for payment, Smith said.

But this case isn't that simple. Maples Jr.'s grave isn't "lost." The location is just in dispute.

Several relatives who were present at the grave site the day of the burial and the following days say the cemetery is wrong. Maples Sr. wonders whether the cemetery plat was turned upside down when his son's burial was recorded. Unfortunately, no one has photographs from that day.

"I know my son is not where they say he is," Maples Sr. said.

"We watched him being put in the ground."

Maples Sr. sought help from an attorney for roughly two years. In most cases, attorneys wanted thousands of dollars in retainers, which Maples Sr. couldn't provide.

Or they weren't interested in the case, he said. He found one attorney who accepted a $1,000 retainer, but nothing happened.

This year, he sought help from Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, a legal services corporation that represents poor people in civil, probate, consumer and family law cases. Legal Aid attorneys do not provide criminal representation.

Cynthia Gustafson, a staff attorney with Legal Aid, said the office is examining how it can help and what kind of legal brief it could write.

She hopes to resolve the matter without involving a court.

"Nobody knows exactly what we need to do because it hasn't come up before," Gustafson said. "It's not an exhumation. We just need to disturb the earth a little bit and check the vault."

Legislative remedy?

The least intrusive way of solving the dispute is to move dirt off the grave site where the cemetery says Maples Jr. is buried, Gustafson and Smith said. If the identification marker on the concrete vault is a match for Maples Jr., then Maples Sr. is wrong in his memories.

He may then be billed for the work performed by the cemetery.

If the identification marker does not match, it stands to reason that the cemetery will have to check the spot where Maples Sr. says his son is buried.

It would also raise thorny questions about the cemetery's record-keeping.

But Smith said he is not ready to consider that.

"If this step is performed, we hope it will give the answer that will ease Mr. Maples' mind," he said. "But there's not an answer of 'what next?' right now. It would be like peeling an onion. Each layer will present a new set of questions and option development."

Maples Sr. said he is grateful for the help of Gustafson and Smith.

"They've bent over backwards to help me as much as they can," he said.

But he believes that a state remedy is in order. He would like legislation that would force counties and cemeteries that bury paupers to use markers, "even something as simple as a brick with a number etched into it."

Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547

Twitter: @CVaughnFW

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