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Officials ask for help identifying stolen headstones

January 22, 2018

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — Got time on your hands? Want to help solve a local mystery?

The public is being asked to help identify the few remaining grave markers that have yet to be identified from a criminal case last year. Other memorials in the case have already been traced to local cemeteries.

The markers were discovered inside the house of Matthew Jason Millwood, 49, during an April 2017 Rogue Area Drug Enforcement Team search of his home on Southwest Isham Street in Grants Pass.

In total, police seized 15 headstones or pieces of headstones, as well as drugs and guns. Millwood was sentenced in December to just under two years in prison for crimes that included the unusual charge of “abuse of a memorial to the dead.”

“I’ve never seen in my career someone who goes and steals headstones,” said newly retired Grants Pass police Detective Pete Jenista, who recently handed off the case to the Josephine County Historical Society.

Millwood claimed in court records that he was a caretaker, but Jenista said he wouldn’t give any more details to police as to why he had taken the markers or where they all came from.

Police were able to trace most of the grave markers to nearby cemeteries, including Pleasant Valley Cemetery near Hugo, Sloan Pioneer Cemetery near Wilderville, Rock Point Pioneer Cemetery in Gold Hill and Granite Hill Cemetery just west of Grants Pass. The origins of some remain harder to track, however.

That’s where officials hope the public can help.

“Normally we would have these maintained as evidence, but the District Attorney said to take photos and return them to see if we can’t get them back where they belong,” Jenista said. “If they aren’t restored to their proper places, the Josephine County Historical Society will be the stewards of that property.”

The remaining markers have indeed been turned over to the Historical Society in Grants Pass, which has so far been able to trace two of the remaining markers: brass placards belonging the Cameron Family that were taken from the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery, off of Foothill Boulevard.

“We tracked down their obituaries, too, but really we’re taking photos of everything we find to see if they can be matched with our inventory,” said Pat Heumann, research coordinator for the Historical Society.

The inventory she’s referring to is the brainchild of Jean Boling, who used to volunteer for the Historical Society before moving to Idaho. Boling possesses possibly the largest and most in-depth inventory of grave markers and sites for Josephine County cemeteries.

“I’ve always been hooked on cemeteries,” Boling said. “It’s fascinating how people handle their dead. So I started this database years ago to track where everyone is.”

With photographs sent from the ladies at the Historical Society, she found the Camerons quickly with the names and dates provided on the metal placards found at Millwood’s residence. They were husband and wife and both interred side-by-side at the Odd Fellows Cemetery.

When a marker has a full name a date range, it’s easy to connect to a plot or to a family.

Where things get tricky however is with the remaining stones, which have only initials and in some cases no birth or death dates.

Boling is sure these are footstones rather than headstones, meaning they may belong to family plots or some other area of the older half of Granite Hill Cemetery. Footstones usually have only initials.

“I’m almost sure they came from there,” Boling said. “There’s one plot up there that I never got photos of, but I’m pretty sure that’s where these old stones came from.”

Complicating matters further is that Boling says it’s typical for the initials on footstones to be first and middle names, rather than first and last names.

Either way it will still require someone with time and energy to go and check the sites, something that the cash-strapped Josephine County Parks Department, which is responsible for Granite Hill, can’t do.

“There is no way I could even begin to have staff make any kind of determination,” said County Parks Director Sarah Wright. “You’re dealing with a cemetery that has zero funding.”

And the footstones could theoretically have come from any number of historic cemeteries, Wright said, many of which are in the same boat in terms of resources to track down missing markers. Couple that with the fact that some sites are so old they don’t have proper records.

However, that’s what it will take at this point. If some graves are missing markers, Boling says they can be cross-referenced to those with the initials in the inventory.

The initials on the stones are as follows: FT, GL and RR.

A couple other markers were completely blank, either because they were broken off of larger memorials or because the families didn’t have the resources to provide more information of the loved one who was buried there — wherever “there” was.

Anyone with information can contact the Josephine County Historical Society at 541-479-7827.

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Information from: Daily Courier, http://www.thedailycourier.com

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