Grave Reminders

On the afternoon of Jan. 11, 1995, Deborah Carven set out to un-cover the truth. For months, she'd heard rumors about the house she and her husband, Tom, owned just outside Ocean City: There was something hidden beneath it. Something that could explain all the unsettling things that had happened since they'd moved in a decade earlier.

Like the television set suddenly flicking on.


And the odor of pipe smoke wafting through the dining room.

And the apparition her youngest son Timmy saw in his room at night.


At first, the Carvens had sought ways to explain the unexplainable. They bought another television set and when it began to turn itself on, they resigned themselves to owning quirky appliances. They learned to ignore the pipe smoke. They bought their son a nightlight and predicted he would grow up to become a writer of ghost stories.

Then one day, an elderly neighbor made an offhand comment that Deborah took as a joke -- until another old-timer who'd lived in the area for decades brought up the same eerie subject.

The possibility nagged at her mind until that January afternoon when she couldn't stand not knowing any longer. She grabbed a shovel, walked into her front yard and started digging. She was in a hole up to her knees when the shovel struck something. Lifting it out with her bare hands, she could see it was a small bone -- probably from an animal, she told herself, even as dread filled her body.

She dug deeper. Another bone.

Sifting the cold earth through her fingers, she touched something hard, and bent down for a closer look.

She leapt from the hole, a scream caught in her throat.

It was the handle of a casket.

When Deborah and Tom Carven look back at everything that has happened since that January day -- at the lawsuit and angry neighbors, the sleepless nights and worry for their two sons -- they wish they could change one thing. Not where they live, because they love their community and their home, still. They wish they didn't know.


Twenty to 30 bodies may be buried in their yard, according to legal depositions from farmers who once worked the land. Not so long ago, a small family cemetery was seen in the area that eventually became the Carvens' property. One day, the tombstones disappeared.

If the development where the Carvens live has become a nightmare for them, it once was an old man's dream.

His name was Louis Hickman, and he was something of a local legend: a tough-as-nails farmer's son who dropped out of school at 13 and became a savvy businessman. When Hickman saw a 200-acre vegetable farm in the Eastern Shore town of Bishopville, he imagined a place where families could build homes, where children could ride bicycles along gently traveled streets, where neighbors could share lawn mowers and gather for barbecues. He gave his pet project a happy name: Holiday Harbor.

Deborah and Tom drove by the property in the early 1980s and knew instantly it was the perfect spot to realize their own dream. They'd been married just a few years but had known each other forever. Their fathers had been friends, and Deborah's family had spent some Christmas Eves at Tom's parents' home in Belair. Deborah and Tom even looked like they belonged together, both dark-haired, attractive and athletic. They agreed on most things, and Holiday Harbor was no exception. It was a 10-minute drive out Route 90 from Ocean City, where Deborah works for the Coconut Malorie Hotel, and a quick commute to Tom's job as a recreation specialist at the Sussex Correctional Institute in Delaware.

The flowers springing up alongside new homes, the freshly paved roads, the serene stretch of St. Martin River -- Holiday Harbor seemed an oasis in the middle of urban chaos, a place to raise a family.

Deborah's parents pitched in and bought them a plot of land. Deborah and Tom began building in 1986. Their dream home would have a big brick fireplace in the living room and a terra- cotta-tiled sunroom. Their bedroom would overlook the river. Tom put up drywall and insulation as he read from a how-to book; Deborah laid linoleum and sewed curtains. Because of the river and the danger of flooding, they couldn't dig a basement. The playroom would go on the first floor instead.


When was it that they first began to notice something wasn't quite right about their perfect home?

When certain lights kept blowing out, or their heavy wooden door slammed in the middle of the night -- not once, but two or three times -- or when T.J., their oldest son, complained that things in his room had been moved?

Then little Timmy, who was only 3 or 4 at the time, began talking about "the old man down the river."

"He comes into my room at night," Timmy told his parents. The old man, he told them, only wanted to sit in a corner and reminisce about his life, but Timmy became so frightened he refused to sleep in the dark.

If the first inklings took root then, they were overshadowed by happy times. There was the day Timmy took his first wobbly ride on a two-wheeler, and when the whole family -- even Maggie, the golden retriever -- piled into the laundry room where Tom marked their heights on a wall. There were countless mornings when Deborah lingered over a cup of tea and stared out at the landscape she'd created with shrubs and flowers transplanted from her mother's garden.

Digging in the garden. That was when she'd first seen bits of old red brick embedded in a certain area of her lawn. She didn't think anything of it at the time.


Then, in 1994, the pieces of the puzzle began falling into place.

It happened because of a business decision the Carvens made. They purchased a small general store and deli, called the Bishopville Store, and Deborah gave up her hotel job to serve breakfast there. The store served as a local gathering place; her customers included farmers who'd lived in Bishopville for 60, 70, even 80 years. As the men perched on wooden chairs to await their fried bologna-and-egg sandwiches and strong coffee, a friendly banter ensued. Deborah cajoled them to watch their cholesterol levels and substitute mustard for mayonnaise; they filled her in on the gossip of Holiday Harbor.

Many of the farmers knew Louis Hickman, the creator of the development. He was one of them, after all -- a local boy who through a combination of brains and guts had pulled himself out of the poverty that plagued his family. Hickman had lovingly attended to every detail of Holiday Harbor, even building some houses with his own hands and naming the streets after his daughters and grandchildren. His imprint was everywhere.

But there was something Deborah should know, the old men whispered. When the land was a farm, it had held a small cemetery.

Red brick casings had covered the graves.

After Deborah's terrifying discovery that January day, after the police came and took away the bones and casket handle, after Tom hurried home to console her, Deborah began to feel the anger.


How could somebody desecrate a graveyard? How could somebody dupe an innocent family into living on top of corpses?

In the Carvens' minds, only one person could be responsible: Louis Hickman.

Louis Hickman, accused of bulldozing headstones and leaving the graves behind? Like something out of the horror movie "Poltergeist?"

Impossible, say his devoted daughters, Lois Wells and Rita Taylor. The women, ages 54 and 61, are wearing heavy sweaters, simple gold jewelry, and short haircuts. They're sitting side-by-side in their lawyer's office off 52nd Street in Ocean City. They're in the middle of a messy lawsuit, and they need to be careful about what they say.

Technically, Wells and Taylor aren't being sued by the Carvens; the $1.5 million claim for fraud is against their father's estate and their mother. But they're tired of hearing his name sullied.

Maybe other people in Bishopville saw only the hard, wheeling-and-dealing exterior their father projected, but he was so much more than that. Sure, he could be domineering and tough -- as Rita discovered when he threw her in the water to teach her how to swim. And he liked to control things. Even after the girls married, he wanted prior approval on any car they purchased.


But who wouldn't be that way, given the life he had led?

He was born in 1916, and as a boy he spent most of his time hoeing strawberries. Electricity was a luxury his family couldn't afford, and after his father fell ill, so was school. He dropped out at 13, but he didn't mind. As he later told Lois when she was jotting down a family record: "When I started to high school in Berlin, Maryland, in the eighth grade, that is when I had trouble -- no money for lunch, clothes not like others, staying home to farm, skipping classes."

Though Hickman had been a sickly child and would never grow taller than 5-feet-8, his skinny body framed a fierce core. He worked backbreaking hours on the farm, then hired himself out as a carpenter for 20 cents an hour. For years, he adhered to a secret formula: For every dollar he earned for his family, he tucked away a dime for himself.

By the time he was 20, he had saved $350, enough to buy 33 acres of land. His parents were furious, he told Lois, but there was no stopping him.

Then the young man who had spent seven years collecting dimes did something extraordinary: He walked into the Baltimore Trust Company in Delaware and borrowed $650 more. He bought lumber to build chicken houses and worked late into the night by the glow of lanterns propped on barrels. The feed man trusted him enough to extend him credit, and within two years Hickman was turning a steady profit.

He could have stopped there -- owning a piece of land and earning a decent living was a badge of honor in the hardscrabble community. But Hickman was still hungry. The feed man must have liked what he saw in the hard-working young farmer, because one day he invited Hickman to open up his own branch of the feed store. Suddenly, Hickman was $100,000 in debt -- and with a wife and young children depending on him. And he had to figure out how to write receipts for customers when he hadn't printed a word in nearly a decade.


Through luck or sheer force of will, Hickman prospered. It still wasn't enough. He heard about a new car called the Tucker, and his imagination caught fire: Why not sell the feed business and build a dealership and garage? Within a year he was selling Studebakers. When a head-on collision fractured his skull and claimed most of his teeth and his right kneecap, he defied doctors who said he would never walk again. He built a second garage, and when a customer offered to trade him a plot of land on 45th Street in Ocean City for a used car, Hickman opened up a sub shop. Ever so slowly, he was building a mini-empire.

In the early 1960s, Hickman began his most ambitious project: The transformation of the 200-acre, waterfront Warrington Farm, where he and his wife, Vivian, would live surrounded by family and friends. Holiday Harbor would be his legacy.

Can you see now, Lois and Rita say, why the lawsuit brought by the Carvens, expected to go to a jury trial in July, is so painful for them and their mother?

It's awkward enough that they all live in the development, that they see one another at funerals and bridal showers, that Rita's son is the principal of the high school attended by the Carven boys, and that acquaintances have been dragged into the lawsuit.

Worse, things are being said about their father, who could do anything -- pilot airplanes, build fishing boats. He even won election three times as a Worcester County commissioner.

He was worth millions, but he and Vivian lived in a modest home and he saved rusted screws in old jars. He always smelled of Old Spice. And he loved children. After he suffered a stroke in 1996, he couldn't speak. Yet when Rita's daughter was feeding her new baby once, he managed to force out a single sentence: "Is he getting enough?"


But there's more, and this is why Lois and Rita say they'd be stunned to learn that their father, who died in 1997, had anything to do with the desecration of a graveyard.

"He was a Christian," says Rita, "and he would honor the dead."

And yet, while there's no absolute documentary evidence of the old graveyard, the testimony against Hickman is so compelling.

Listen to the old-timers who remember:

"[Hickman] is the one that always said it was a graveyard, and that's what we always called it, and we didn't tend it up, we cultivated and plowed around it," Gardner Kitchens, then 76, who worked for Hickman at Warrington Farm, testified during a 1998 deposition.

"I always heard there was 30 head there," testified Harry Tingle, then 68, who said his grandfather helped carry a former sea captain to his final resting place at the farm's cemetery.


And, perhaps the most damning bit of evidence: Included in a police report is a statement by a man named William Danaher, who stopped by the Bishopville Store one morning in January 1995 and listened as Hickman talked about graves that used to exist "around where he farmed in Holiday Harbor. Specifically, I recall his comment that he would hurry his chores as dusk approached because the graves 'spooked' him," Danaher told police.

There was another person present during that conversation, too: Deborah Carven.

That same afternoon, she took the shovel into her front yard and began to dig.

The next time she saw Hickman, she stared him in the eye and said, "You're no longer welcome in my store."

He turned and walked out without a word.

It's a little before 11 p.m. on the last Saturday in February and Lou Gentile is sitting in a striped armchair in a corner of the Carvens' living room, sipping black coffee. He's clad in black, too, from his loafers to his wide-collared shirt to his thick head of hair. The crucifix around his neck is gold.


Gentile's deep voice is calm, even weary, and his thick hands rest at his sides without fidgeting, but everyone else in the room seems on edge. Deborah flutters around offering Girl Scout cookies while Will Storr, a young magazine reporter from London who has spent three days trailing Gentile for a story, wraps thin arms around himself.

No one knows what might happen tonight after Gentile turns out every light in the house.

Gentile is 32, a devout Roman Catholic, married, and the father of two young girls. He resembles a young Elvis, minus the sideburns. By day, he works as a heating and air- conditioning mechanic in Philadelphia. By night, he tries to communicate with spirits. Five years ago, he began training with Ed and Lorraine Warren, the investigators of the controversial "Amityville Horror" case who founded the New England Society for Psychic Research. Now Gentile conducts paranormal investigations on his own.

Gentile seems resigned to the fact that many people view him skeptically, and the Carvens were no exception. When he contacted them after his wife read about the case in the Globe tabloid in the spring of 1999, they invited him over, but deliberately kept quiet about the strange things they had experienced. Gentile astonished them by walking directly to the spot where Deborah had dug up the grave -- a spot that has been smoothed over and is indistinguishable from the rest of the yard -- and taking a photograph. In it he captured a "ghost globule" -- a small, milky-white orb that he claims shows the presence of a spirit.

Gentile's services are free. He does all this, he says, because he grew up in a haunted house where disembodied voices and black shadows terrified him. "I used to tell my parents and they'd say, 'Why don't we go to this doctor?' I had nobody to help me."

He wants to help the Carvens.


But he has to be careful: "What's going on with the Carvens can only get worse," he warns. "It can't get better. There's too many spirits. There's good, there's evil. If you try to cleanse the house, you'll make the situation worse. What you're doing is provoking them."

Tonight, then, is about gathering evidence.

Gentile carries these tools in the trunk of his black Lincoln Continental: a digital tape recorder, an old television, a video camera, a microphone, videotape and a laptop computer. But it isn't time to turn on the equipment yet, he says. Spirits like the dark hours of the night best.

Gentile bides his time, smoking Kool Milds and sipping cup after cup of coffee. As usual, he slept little last night: He was investigating a case in New Jersey involving the demonic possession of a 38-year-old woman. Bad things have happened in her home, he says, and some seem connected to the number three. Evil spirits are agitated by the number three because of the Holy Trinity, Gentile says.

A while later, someone glances at the wall clock in the living room. Deborah says it broke a few months ago when the winding mechanism snapped in her hand.

It is fixed on the stroke of 3 o'clock.


Deborah is grateful this information has emerged while both of her boys are out. T.J., 17, is with friends, and Timmy, 14, is at a neighbor's -- but he'll return soon. Deborah worries about them, and not just because of the emotional strain of living in the house. Gentile thinks the spirits are attracted to Timmy.

"I've always had this weird feeling about Timmy, that there's something I had to protect him from," Deborah says. "I looked at his face when he was born, and I just burst into tears."

It's midnight, time to begin.

Gentile trains a video camera on the staircase leading to the upstairs bedrooms, then uses extension cords to attach the camera to his television in the living room. Next, he rests a microphone on a tall stand: "Noises travel upward," he explains. He places a thermal scanner on the dining room table to capture changes in temperature.

By now Timmy has come home and wandered into the living room. He's curious about what's going on, and his parents agree to let him watch.

Gentile begins turning off lights, but Deborah interrupts him because she wants to get her Chapstick. Everyone watches on the television screen as she darts upstairs. Suddenly, someone shouts, "Look!"


On the television screen a round, milky-white orb, about the size of a fist, seems to follow Deborah. But at the top of the stairs, she goes left and the orb veers right.

"That's [toward] my room," Timmy says.

When Deborah comes downstairs and asks what happened, her husband answers quickly: "Nothing."

Everyone stares at the television as long minutes pass.

Could the spirits be attracted to movement? Should someone else go upstairs?

"Not the family," Gentile says. He asks a reporter to go alone to Timmy's room. Maybe five minutes later, everyone hears the same sound: a loud, heavy noise in the hallway just outside Timmy's room, like a footstep. But no one is there.


Gentile wants more. He wants to hear the spirits' voices.

Everyone gathers again in the living room. The house is pitch black, save for the faint glow of a streetlight in the living room window. Deborah suddenly feels cold, so she wraps a white blanket around her legs. Gentile places his digital recorder on the coffee table and begins speaking, his questions separated by long, solemn pauses:

"Are there human spirits in the house?"

"Do you want us to help you?"

"Do you want this house removed from the property?"

He instructs the spirits: "Knock on the wall: Once for yes, two for no."


The room remains silent.

Gentile plays back his recording and Deborah freezes.

"Did you hear that?" she whispers.

After each of Gentile's questions, a raspy sound emerges. It sounds as if it is coming from a great distance away, fighting through static.

It sounds like it is saying, over and over again, "Yes."

Then, another sound: a sharp, clipped noise -- like knuckles rapping a wall.


Gentile repeats his questions over and over and each time he plays back his recording, it contains more rasping sounds.

Suddenly the reporter from London, who is leaning forward in a wooden chair, lets out a yell: "Something just pushed against my back."

Gentile nods sagely. The worst thing to do is show fear, he says. That energizes spirits. The best protection is a strong religious faith.

Tom moves to stand behind Deborah and puts his hands on her shoulders. Timmy is on the sofa, acting nonchalant, though later Tom will say the boy had trouble sleeping.

"At least we know we're not crazy," Tom says. "There's something here."



Is the Carvens' house haunted?

Most of the things that happened last weekend could be explained: The "ghost globules" captured on film could be the light playing tricks. The voices on Gentile's recorder could be static -- or, if you're inclined to suspect him, the result of an elaborate ruse. (A non-digital tape recorder used by a reporter picked up no such noise.) The sound of the footstep could be just an ordinary creak or groan, one that could be made by any house. The shove felt by the reporter could be an imagination working overtime, enhanced by the spooky setting created by Gentile.

Some things are harder to account for: The knock on the wall. The frozen clock. And if the voices were simply static, why did even the skeptics in the room clearly hear the word "yes" several times?

Whether ghosts exist is a murky issue, one that has fervent supporters and detractors. Two sides locked in a passionate debate.

Just like a lawsuit.

Though the case will probably go to trial this summer, the ultimate truth in the Carven case may never be known. The one man who can say for certain whether or not he destroyed a graveyard isn't talking.


Just outside Holiday Harbor, on Route 113, is a mausoleum. Louis Hickman's final resting place is several feet above ground.