Huntsville police said they have now learned there should be six graves in a centuries-old cemetery behind a south Huntsville business.
Richards Cemetery at South Parkway and Hobbs dates back to the 1800s. Huntsville police want to know if it was damaged when development started on the property.
People in the area said they've seen more activity there recently than they had in years. Police said it's the second-oldest cemetery in the city of Huntsville.
Jim Thrasher says he's lived near Hobbs Road and the Parkway for years, and until earlier this week, he had no idea a small cemetery sat behind a laundromat.
"I was very surprised to see a tombstone there," he said. "Very surprised they had a cemetery there, because it had just been an overgrown lot for years and years," he added.
Police say their investigation began when a neighbor told them the land was being developed. Now, a tombstone and five stakes sit on the land. Lieutenant Michael Johnson says it's a unique situation for the department. He explained in part, why it's been a pain-staking process.
"We had to figure out how much of the land had been developed and the location where we knew the markers were and that's what we have been doing out here," Johnson said.
Police said the property owner was told in years prior when he tried to develop the land that he was not allowed to until he had permits from the Alabama Historic Commission.
Now, police say they have evidence that clearing was done on the land and the owner never got a permit from the commission. The owner didn't want to talk to WAAY 31 on camera, but has said this week he had no idea a cemetery was on the land. Police say they're now working to locate the six graves that should be on the land.
"There is most likely not the traditional type of grave that you suspect, where you have a vault and you have a casket. That's not the case here," Johnson said.
Neighbors hope the piece of history in south Huntsville wasn't destroyed.
"I hope they take good care of it. Whatever they have to do, because it's sacred ground and everything," Thrasher said.
Huntsville police shared with WAAY 31 he hasn't owned it that long, but didn't provide us with a date. We looked through land records that are kept by the Madison County Probate Judge. Handwritten books dating back to 1810 show how properties have changed ownership through the centuries. We weren't able to find when the owner purchased the land, and learned professionals sometimes have to be hired to track down the history of property that's similar in age to Richards Cemetery.
Huntsville police said they have to know the coordinates to the cemetery and are confident no business has ever been built on top of it. They said if they determine a crime did occur because the graves were knowingly disturbed, the owner could face multiple criminal charges.
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