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LESSONS FROM THE AFTERLIFE

Teenage skull thieves clean up a cemetery that they vandalized.The teens vandalized a private cemetery said to be home to spirits.

Nick Macchione wanted the skull.

On his knees, he reached inside the broken crypt and felt around the bones and rotting clothes until he grasped it.

When he couldn't get it out, court documents say, his friend Seth McCarty grabbed a chunk of broken concrete and pounded until the heavy lid protecting the old wooden casket gave way.

Moments later, Macchione stood in the dark cemetery holding aloft the remains of a Hernando County man who went into the ground more than 100 years ago.

They took photos. Then Macchione took the trophy to his home in Ridge Manor, according to statements by both Macchione and McCarty in court records. Hoping to rid the skull of its foul odor, Macchione dropped it in a 5-gallon bucket of bleach inside a pigeon coop.

The two teens, accompanied by two friends, were not involved in any sort of Satanic ritual or occult practice the night of June 13, investigators say. It was a spur-of-the-moment act inspired by rumors swirling on the Internet that spirits haunt Spring Hill Cemetery, a historic resting place for African-Americans dating back before the Civil War.

Thrill seekers and ghost chasers tell of mysterious orbs of light, babies crying, dogs barking, ethereal images of a lynched man hanging from a tree, even an old shed holding a device they say the Ku Klux Klan used to grind up lynching victims.

Pam Thomas of Brooksville, who has family members in the cemetery, brushes aside such lore. "There's nothing haunted here but the people who disturb the graves," she said.

But Alyce Walker, the 82-year-old caretaker of the graveyard, which is tucked back in the woods off Fort Dade Avenue west of Brooksville, doesn't completely dismiss the notion of unsettled spirts.

"All of it may be possible," she said, mentioning the lynching of a distant relative there in 1842. "But I'm concerned about 2009. That's no reason to trespass and desecrate someone's grave."

In 1994, Ms. Walker recalled, someone removed the lid from her aunt's grave. "You could see her legs," she said. Other vandals have broken headstones or moved then around.

"Let them rest in peace," she said. "Treat it like a cemetery, not a haunted house."

- - -

The incident unfolded over three summer nights.

On June 11, Macchione visited the cemetery with his mother, Karen Macchione, and a friend, he told sheriff's Detective Ignacio Velez. The trio were looking for light orbs but instead found the broken crypt. Mrs. Macchione "freaked out," her son said, and warned the teens not to go near it. "It's against the law," she said, according to her son.

The next night, Macchione, 17, returned, this time with McCarty, 19, and two other teens. Ignoring his mother's warning, Macchione stole the skull, he admitted to Velez.

Deputy Joseph Tibor was patrolling the cemetery the next night when he saw an empty car and the broken tomb. Then McCarty and two others walked out of the woods.

They had been searching for the grinder, they told Tibor, who replied that the machinery was part of an old irrigation system for nearby groves, not something that once pulverized bodies.

Tibor noticed the teens' shoe prints matched those in the soft sand by the crypt and pressed them for an explanation. Eventually, they admitted being there the night before, when the skull was stolen.

Detective Velez tracked down the skull in the pigeon coop, and reached Mrs. Macchione and her son by cell phone at a Tampa Bay Rays game. He told them to come to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office the next day.

After further investigation, charges against a third teen were dropped. No one else was charged.

Several weeks later, investigators went to the cemetery with Clifford Hasty of Brooksville, who identified the grave site as part of his family's plot. Could be a great-grandfather, he said; time and weather had eroded the marking on the concrete lid.

He asked that the skull be returned to its resting place as soon as possible, without any further involvement of the Hasty family.

At the moment, Mr. Hasty's skull is in state custody, awaiting the grave robbers' court date.

- - -

On Saturday, Macchione and McCarty were back at the cemetery. This time, it was daytime and raining, and they were not alone.

Relatives and friends of those interred periodically gather for work days at the 3.8-acre site. The dozen or so at the site Saturday noticed the two white teenagers working, and some connected the dots.

Prosecutor Erin Daly had seen a recent item in the St. Petersburg Times about the cleanup. She told the teens' attorney that it would be a good idea for them to participate.

Macchione and McCarty are due in court Thursday. They face single counts of disturbing the contents of a grave or tomb, a second-degree felony that carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. Macchione, though 17, will be prosecuted as an adult.

The two have admitted their crime to investigators, and now they await their punishment, which they should learn Thursday. Daly said she isn't looking to hammer the teens for what she called a "young and foolish act," but "they need to know how serious and disrespectful this is toward the deceased."

Daly could recommend that Circuit Judge Jack Springstead order community service, probation and restitution for the costs of returning the skull to its grave, and repairing the damaged crypt. The big carrot she holds is asking the judge to withhold adjudication as convicted felons, which means the crime would not appear on their records.

Daly said she will base her decision on Ms. Walker's evaluation of the teens' efforts Saturday morning and whether she thinks they showed any genuine remorse.

McCarty, who carried moss and limbs while hanging back from the families working there, declined to comment Saturday.

Macchione picked up weathered flower arrangements. While he is ready to "man up" for his crime, he said "a lot of people need to 'fess up for what they did.'"

Later, he spoke to Ms. Walker and admitted that what he did was "a stupid thing."

Ms. Walker is more interested in heading off any more incidents. She is trying hard to get security lights and a gate erected at the site. She wants the heavy weeds and underbrush along the rear fence cleared away.

As for Macchione and McCarty, she wants them to go online, to the same sites that drew them to the cemetery, and post messages telling other people that the cemetery is private property and to stay away.

She wants to see a printout of their warnings. And she wants it done soon.

Halloween is approaching, she said, and that attracts vandals and ghost chasers to the graveyard like moths to a flame.

All she really wants, Ms. Walker said, is for people to respect the cemetery. "Like Aretha Franklin says, just a little respect. You want me to spell it out for you?"

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