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Headstone discovered in St. Petersburg yard launches a quest for answers

St. Petersburg Police Department A family clearing debris from their yard on 88th Avenue N in St. Petersburg found this headstone. Clues point to the man being buried in Gulfport.
Published Jul. 31, 2018

Lyudmila Sytsevich's husband and two sons were clearing debris in their back yard Friday when they found something unexpected.

There, beneath broken glass and a lot of dirt was a headstone. It read simply: "WILLIAM HENRY MATTHEWS."

Is was followed by a date of birth, NOVEMBER 22, 1924, and a date of death, NOVEMBER 8, 1952. In between was the word "FLORIDA," the abbreviations "S1" and "USNR," and this: "WORLD WAR II."

The discovery touched off of a mystery, one that has left Sytsevich and her family a little unnerved.

What was a headstone doing at the house they bought a year ago when they moved to Florida from California? Who was William Matthews? And more importantly, where was his body?

"It was scary," the 54-year-old said.

Not knowing who else to tell, the family called their pastor for guidance. He wasn't sure what to do, so he called police. The police spooked them, saying they should stop working until they found out if someone was buried there.

"Maybe his body can be here, maybe not," Sytsevich, a native of Ukraine who speaks limited English, said the officers told them.

A sergeant from the St. Petersburg Police Department turned to ancestry.com, a genealogy website, for clues. Eventually, the sergeant found out Matthews served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and that he likely had been buried at Lincoln Cemetery, said St. Petersburg police spokesperson Yolanda Fernandez.

The revelation was head-scratching. The headstone was discovered on 88th Ave. N. The cemetery is at 600 58th St. S. How did the marker travel 11 miles?

"We're wondering how in the world it ended up there," Fernandez said.

Vanessa Gray, who tends the graves at the historically black Lincoln Cemetery in Gulfport with other volunteers, said it's hard to know how the tombstone got to the other side of town.

It might have been because Matthews' family didn't have money to actually place the headstone, so they just kept it at home and forgot about it or left it behind.

"We don't know what happened back in those days," Gray said. "We can't make assumptions."

Lincoln Cemetery was one of the few places where black people were allowed to bury loved ones during segregation, Gray said. The 9-acre cemetery had been neglected for years — with weeds, brush and rubbish everywhere — before Gray acquired it in February 2017. She has since been cleaning it and taking care of it, and identifying who is buried in each grave site.

Despite the lack of upkeep, Gray said it's the first time a headstone went missing and turned up someplace else. She was surprised to hear the news when she got the call Friday.

"A headstone ending up in someone else's back yard is honestly really crazy," she said.

She called a genealogy expert who investigated the veteran. After checking out the 1940 Census, the expert found the name of William Matthews' mother.

Ola May Matthews was buried at Lincoln Cemetery herself. After looking at records, Gray also realized there was a handwritten application to bury her son at Lincoln. The paper indicated the son and the mom's services were carried out at McRae Funeral Home.

Almost everything puts William Matthews at Lincoln. The police officers told Sytsevich and her family that his body was buried at the cemetery, not at their back yard.

Gray said she's waiting for the funeral home to confirm the exact location in the cemetery where the son was buried. If that's not possible, Gray said she would still like to find a way to honor him, perhaps by including him in their Memorial Day services.

"I believe everyone has a right to be honored and have their place marked," she said. "We're happy to be working on this."

Contact Jimena Tavel at jtavel@tampabay.com. Follow @taveljimena.

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