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Body to be exhumed from 60-year-old grave in St. Petersburg cemetery

ST. PETERSBURG — People will gather at a St. Petersburg cemetery this morning to try to solve a mystery that involves a skull, a gang member named "Gravedigger," a woman who died in 1948 and — perhaps strangest of all —forgiveness.

"Cemetery, motorcycle gang, Halloween — we figured it probably would attract some attention," said Mark Keaton, who is part of the story.

It's a story that began 25 or 30 years ago, in the same grave where Keaton hopes it can be put to rest. Possibly before Halloween.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office explained it this way:

A deputy recently went to the home of a man named Gary S. Thomas on Wayne Street in St. Petersburg to investigate a disorderly conduct report.

The deputy noticed an odd curio Thomas kept on a table in his bedroom: apparently, a human skull.

So Thomas explained: He is a former member of the Satan Saints motorcycle gang, Pinellas sheriff's spokeswoman Cecelia Barreda said. Thomas, 60, used to go by the nickname "Gravedigger." And that also used to be his job description at Royal Palm Cemetery South.

According to the Sheriff's Office, a man named Robert Carpenter and two others also were working at Royal Palm Cemetery a couple of decades ago. They were digging a grave one day when the grave next to it collapsed, exposing a skull.

They took the skull and gave it "as a gift" to Thomas, who has kept it ever since, the Sheriff's Office said.

After the deputy found the skull, the case went to the sheriff's homicide unit, which contacted the Medical Examiner's Office, which determined the skull was real.

Barreda said Detective John Spoor began piecing together the mystery by finding the burial site and determining that the skull was probably that of a woman named Ruth Keaton, who lived from 1913 to 1948.

Spoor used St. Petersburg Times archives and other materials to find Mark Keaton, who is her nephew.

Barreda said she expects detectives will refer the matter to the State Attorney's Office to determine if any criminal charges will be filed.

Today the body will be exhumed. Royal Palms, which did not return phone calls seeking comment, has agreed to pay the expenses. The Sheriff's Office will be present. So will University of South Florida anthropologists.

And so will Keaton, a 52-year-old St. Petersburg man who has a degree in information technology, but is now disabled with back problems.

He never got the opportunity to meet his Aunt Ruth, but he heard his father talk about her. He knows she worked in accounting for the VA. He knows she died of appendicitis. He knows she was loved, that his father missed her dearly after she passed.

He says all this in a calm voice, free of bitterness. He said he's impressed with the Sheriff's Office for taking the time to track him down.

And he forgives the men who took her skull.

"I'm a Christian," he said. "I believe she's with the Lord and where her bones are really doesn't matter."

But he does want things put right — for the skull to go back where it belongs, into his aunt's grave. And that could happen today.

"I just want her to get reburied, and reburied with a little respect," he said. "Because I never got to know her."

Body to be exhumed from 60-year-old grave in St. Petersburg cemetery 10/28/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 29, 2009 6:41am]

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