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Graves suit stays alive

The Baltimore Sun

Witches hanging from tall trees. Jack-o'-lanterns leering from porches. A sign amid a swirl of leaves that reads "Ghoulish Greetings."

It's getting spooky along Lakeside Drive, a leafy lane that climbs a gentle slope in a rural part of Howard County. But one house near the top of the hill is noticeably decoration-free. For the family that lives there, the past four years have been, they claim, nightmarish enough.

Seventeen years ago, James and Linda Rhee bought the two-story home with the stately white columns in the Brighton Pines subdivision. They raised two children there. But 13 years later, they learned they might have been living their own version of the horror film Poltergeist all along.

In 2004, they say, a man called out of the blue with a frightening claim: Your backyard is home to a cemetery nearly 300 years old.

The man, according to the Rhees, said the people who built the house removed the headstones, leaving the remains of 26 people in the ground.

"They did not take it well," says Michael Coyle, an attorney for the Rhees, who are suing the original developer, Highland Development Corp., along with Fisher, Collins & Carter Inc., a surveying company, and two individuals, alleging "fraudulent concealment."

Earlier this month, the state Court of Special Appeals ruled that the suit, which had been dismissed by a lower court, could go forward. "It's a landmark case," Coyle says.

The Rhees have declined comment. The defendants deny the allegations.

But in Brighton Pines, the story has sent chills up the spines of neighbors.

"If that actually happened - that's just wrong," says Lynne Waxman, whose property abuts the Rhees'. "Everyone, no matter who, deserves the respect of a final resting place. And the Rhees should have known."

According to public records, Highland Development, based five miles away, oversaw construction of Brighton Pines, including Lakeside Drive, in the mid-1980s. The Clarksville subdivision sits just east of the Triadelphia Reservoir. The lots are spacious, the rolling lawns dotted with trees.

In 1986, Highland sold Lot 20, including the two-story brick house, for $119,000. Five years later, the original owner sold it to the Rhees for $385,000.

They were content with the place until that fateful phone call, which came from a man "having a crisis of conscience," Coyle says.

The story alleged in the suit would rattle the bones of any homeowner:

The caller, whose name is not divulged, told the Rhees he had been there when the house was built, and that as developers worked, they found an old cemetery on Lot 20. It seemed to be abandoned, but it contained 26 headstones, some dating to the 1700s.

Rather than notify the county, the complaint said, Richard Demmitt, owner of Highland Corp., and two others acting at his direction dug up the headstones. Coyle says that the workers tossed them in a dump truck and carted them away.

Further, the complaint said, they removed all references to the cemetery in work sheets they submitted to the state and county, and redrew building plans so that no construction could occur atop the grave sites.

A second witness later came forward to back the claims, Coyle said in an interview.

County land records include no mention of the cemetery. Joetta Cram, a local historian, said such a burial ground, if it did exist, was likely a family plot for homesteaders, though so many generations later, it can be impossible to track down names.

As of yet, no excavation has occurred. Coyle said he would bring in experts to conduct soil tests in the event of a trial. It might be difficult to find traces of bodies, however. Wood coffins were the norm in the 1700s and embalming was not common.

The scenario may be less ghoulish than the one depicted in Poltergeist, the 1982 horror classic in which a family unwittingly buys a house that sits on an old graveyard.

"You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn't you?" Steve Freeling, played by actor Craig T. Nelson, screams at a developer as corpses pop out of the ground in the film's climactic scene. "You left the bodies and only moved the headstones!"

The area in question sits yards from the house, not under it. But James Rhee took the message no less hard, Coyle says, since he's among the many people of Korean descent who regard interred remains as sacrosanct.

"It was extremely upsetting for [the family] to be invested in a home that desecrates the remains of anyone who has passed," Coyle says. "For 90 percent of us, it would be upsetting. For Koreans, it's worse."

Speaking for the other side, attorney Angus R. Everton wrote in an e-mail response to a reporter's inquiry that the defendants "have vigorously denied that they removed any headstones, or had any knowledge that a cemetery existed on the site."

The core of the Rhees' legal argument is that if the cemetery existed, the developers had a duty to disclose it - not just to the original purchasers of Lot 20 but to later ones as well.

The initial purchaser, who now lives in Ohio, said he never knew of a cemetery or sensed mischief afoot. "No poltergeists," he said, asking that his name not be used.

Nonetheless, Coyle says, any original deception is passed along, "and it affects subsequent purchasers."

The county Circuit Court dismissed the suit last year, ruling that the defendants had no such duty to subsequent buyers. The state appellate court reversed the finding, sending the case back.

Coyle says it's the first time a Maryland court has found a real estate developer accountable for such disclosure to subsequent buyers.

As the case proceeds, it could evoke issues as amorphous as specters in a bog. The idea of desecrating the dead may repulse most people, for example, but is it against the law to do so?

In Maryland, the answer seems to be yes. The appellate judge who authored the latest opinion, Sally D. Adkins, wrote that state's criminal laws prohibit "the destruction, damaging, defacement or removal of an 'associated funerary object' ... in a cemetery," and defines any such act as a misdemeanor punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

It's permissible to move headstones and exhumed remains in Maryland, but only with written authorization from the state's attorney in the relevant county - and only if they're moved to an extant cemetery and installed properly. Neither happened in this case, the plaintiffs say.

There are other murky questions. How much less is a property worth, for instance, if it's found to contain human remains, even if they're centuries old? Adkins suggested in her opinion that the presence of a cemetery could constitute a "material defect" due to "defective subsurface soil conditions." The "stigma," too, is likely to affect value, the judge wrote.

Coyle declined to discuss what damages the Rhees might seek. The house was assessed this year at more than $900,000, state records show.

As the evenings grow colder and Halloween arrives, folks in Brighton Pines don't seem to know whom to believe. They describe the Rhees as a private but very nice family, and Richard Demmitt - who lives just a few doors away - as a good neighbor.

All agree, though, that if the defendants did as alleged, it was a monstrous error.

"I don't care if those people lived 300 years ago," says Natalie Reed, who lives across the street from the Rhees. "Their lives are like ours - worthy of respect."

Reed claims she once lived in a house full of ghosts and is, as always, looking forward to Halloween night. More than 200 trick-or-treaters normally come to call.

But she doesn't think the Rhee case has bedeviled Lakeside Drive. Her TV used to flicker on and off all the time, she recalls, but she blames the cable company.

"We have Verizon now," she says. "We're safe. They're poltergeist-free."

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