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Tarpon cemetery caretaker scares up some quiet work

The tangled, dark corners of Cycadia Cemetery used to provide perfect nighttime cover for young couples in a romantic mood.

That was before Bill Mahaffey Jr. moved into the graveyard.

"When I first came out here, my hair was long and I had a beard. A couple pulled in the back over there and I knew they were going to park and have some fun," says Mahaffey, grinning at the memory.

"So I walked up and put my head in their window and said, "Hey. How're you doing?' I'm not going to tell you what that man said, but he was gone."

Mahaffey's penchant for pranks has come in handy since he began living in the city cemetery 13 years ago to guard against vandalism. Now, kissing couples and troublemakers rarely visit the 27-acre cemetery on Tarpon Avenue.

At night, slate headstones bask in the red glow of vigil candles burning on the graves. The occasional street lamp illuminates a path through the graves.

But mostly it is dark and peaceful. Mahaffey, 44, is the keeper of that peace.

"Since I've been here, we haven't had no problems, knock on wood," Mahaffey says from the front porch of his trailer, a stone's throw from the nearest grave. "It's kind of weird, but I enjoy it."

Mahaffey, a North Carolina native who grew up in Tarpon Springs, has been a city public works employee since 1981. He has spent most of that time working on a crew that maintains the cemetery, where many of the city's founding families are buried.

Late night vandalism at the century-old cemetery in the mid-1980s encouraged the city to look for someone willing to live there. According to local lore, Mahaffey was the only one who wanted the job.

He also was dependable, and city officials knew he would make the best of living in a cemetery, said Russell Armstrong, a retired cemetery employee who supervised Mahaffey for 12 years.

"He likes to have fun," said Armstrong, 70. "He is a good-natured young man."

Blond and soft-spoken, Mahaffey comes off as shy. But the caretaker doesn't spook easily.

A scream piercing the dark outside his trailer on a recent night was just a calico kitten that has taken a shine to Mahaffey.

The rustle he hears from his porch is just a flock of geese gathering near a pond.

What about the thump on his roof heard in the living room?

"Acorn," he says.

At 5 feet 6, Mahaffey's not a big man. But his stealth, excellent hearing and knowledge of the cemetery's 27 acres make it difficult for trespassers to sneak by him.

Not long after he spooked the romantic couple, Mahaffey said he saw two men driving into the cemetery after a night of drinking. After nearly plunging their car into one of the cemetery's ponds, the men parked and got out, Mahaffey said.

"I took off across the cemetery," he says, re-enacting a sort of crouching walk he used to sneak up on the men. "I hit both of my hands on their trunk and screamed. Those two guys took off."

His victims flee and have unbelievable stories to tell their friends. But Mahaffey says he has never seen anything all that unusual at the cemetery.

There was the time he sat along a brick wall about 2 a.m. and was joined by the ghosts of his three grandfathers. But they talked only among themselves, not to him, and then disappeared as he walked toward a street lamp, he said.

"I went home and went back to bed," said Mahaffey, who has lived at the cemetery all but four of the past 13 years. "I've been out here a long time."

Humming, his hands jammed into the pockets of his jacket, Mahaffey makes his way through the cemetery on a late-night walk, pointing out historic graves while managing not to trip over even the smallest headstones in the dark.

He stops for a moment.

"You're being watched," he tells a visitor. "See him? The man in black, left of the light?"

Mahaffey points to the left of a candle flickering on a grave. Sure enough, a dark figure appears there.

Or maybe it is just a tree trunk.

"He's probably digging up a date for the party," Mahaffey says, laughing. "I usually have a good time scaring people out here."