ST. PETERSBURG — For the first time in about 30 years, Ruth Keaton is resting in peace.
Workers on Thursday exhumed her grave at Royal Palm Cemetery South, and they matched her body to a skull that had been found in the St. Petersburg home of a former grave digger.
Her remains, including her skull, were reburied. Her nephew Mark Keaton placed a heart-shaped wreath on her headstone.
"It's a great relief," he said afterward. "I am definitely feeling a weight lifted off of my shoulders."
Meanwhile, Gary S. Thomas, 60, the retired grave digger who kept the skull for decades, said in an interview that, "I'm sorry this ever happened. It's a shame that it happened like this. You don't think anything's ever going to come of it, you know what I mean?"
Thomas said some of his co-workers were digging a new grave 25 to 30 years ago when the skull became exposed from an older grave right next to it.
"So they grab the skull, and they had it, and they ended up bringing it over to me because I was known as 'the Gravedigger'," Thomas said. That was his nickname in a motorcycle gang.
"I didn't think much about it," Thomas said. "I just hang on to it. Kind of cool."
At times, he said, he kept it on a shelf in his living room. Lately it was in his bedroom. None of the guests who saw it ever told him it was the wrong thing to do, he said.
"I wasn't involved in anything trying to be mean or malicious or anything like that," he said.
But when sheriff's deputies came to his house on Wayne Street near St. Petersburg recently to investigate a disorderly conduct charge against some friends of his, they noticed the skull.
Detective John Spoor said he was asked to look into the case. The Medical Examiner's Office determined it was a human skull. With help from Thomas and a friend, Spoor was able to find the grave, get the name, and even locate a local relative.
"I'm very happy the Sheriff's Office was able to assist in this case," Spoor said, sweaty from assisting with the dig. "It makes me feel good."
Keaton's nephew, 52, of St. Petersburg, came to observe the work. Although he never met his aunt, who died in 1948, he said he knew his father loved her. He said he brought the wreath out of respect for her.
Keaton said the situation was very odd, but he thanked the deputies and anthropologists for working to solve the mystery, and said he holds no malice toward Thomas and the others involved.
"I forgive them," he said. "I'm a Christian, and the Bible says to forgive."