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Last stop for felons is no field of dreams

FLORENCE — A five-acre cemetery in this small community holds the remains of shattered lives — the lives of the people buried there, the lives of those they touched and, by extension, the lives they took.

Here lie murderers by the dozens, as well as rapists, robbers and other felons. There are 457 in all, with room for an additional 440, says Carson McWilliams, warden of the Arizona State Prison Complex at Florence.

The cemetery is on prison grounds, within sight of the watchtowers but outside the main perimeter. The brown dirt of the cemetery grounds stands in contrast to the nearby farm fields, green with new alfalfa.

The inmates buried here have two things in common: They all died in Arizona state prisons, and they had no place else to go.

“One reason could be, we couldn’t find anybody in the family,” McWilliams says. “Another reason is the family doesn’t want them.”

Prison Chaplain Alwin Becker joined McWilliams during a tour of the cemetery one warm morning in April. Becker says he will sometimes spend weeks trying to track down next of kin when an inmate dies, but the task becomes extremely difficult when it’s an inmate who has served the past 20 to 30 years in prison and family members are long gone.

Most prison burials are usually lonely affairs. No friends. No relatives. Just the prison chaplain, maintenance staff and, when he can make it, McWilliams. All the same, everyone gets a proper burial, Becker says.

“This is somebody we’re putting in the ground, and we have an obligation to give them some kind of ceremony,” he says.

Becker delivers a few words, tailored to the prisoner’s religion, if one is specified. Otherwise, it’s a generic sendoff.

Sometimes friends and family show up to pay their last respects. Rosa Heath was doing time for murder when she died June 17, 2002. She was buried a few days later.

“Quite a few people showed up for that,” Becker says.

McWilliams’ first stop on the impromptu tour, however, is the final resting place of Jimmie Williams. His grave is marked with a whitewashed block of concrete, as are all the others. The marker includes his name and the date of his death, Nov. 22, 1997, which came 48 years after he began doing time. He was given a life sentence for murdering his grandmother.

His death came with mixed emotions, McWilliams says. On the one hand, he had known Williams for a long time. On the other hand, Williams wasn’t always a model prisoner.

“Let’s put it this way, his nickname was ‘Crazy Jimmie.’”

Della Meadows had a soft spot for Williams, though. She knew Williams from the 1950s and 1960s, when she was the secretary for then-warden Frank Eyman. Williams worked as a porter for Meadows. She graciously came to his burial.

“They may have invented to the word ‘gracious’ to describe Della Meadows,” Becker says.

But Meadows was more than gracious. She was a skilled historian. Thanks to her, the prisoners do not lie in unmarked graves as they once did. Before her, the plots had rotting wooden crosses with no names. Using prison burial records, Meadow determined who was where. Markers were put in place.

Six years ago, Meadows died at the age of 83 in a house fire that also claimed the life of her husband, Phil. They’re buried in the Florence Town Cemetery.

At the prison cemetery, a second section opened up in 2005, separated from the first by a low chain-link fence and some power lines. It’s still taking new arrivals, about 12 a year, McWilliams says. Maintenance workers dig new graves with a backhoe. Inmates keep the place clean.

For a brief time, remains were routinely cremated. Four cremation urns fit in one gravesite.

“We just started burying again,” McWilliams says.

He moves on, stopping at the graves of two long-time members of the prison underground. The grave markers read Rafall Barela and Cesario Sanchez, December, 2, 1910.

“They died on the same day, and were buried right next to each other,” McWilliams says.

As it happens, they died within an hour of each other. Sanchez was hanged at 10:30 a.m. and Barela 40 minutes later. They’re No. 2 and 3 on the chronological list of Arizona executions, according to the Department of Corrections Web site, where Barela is identified as Rafael.

Theodore West and Paul Hadley lie nearby. They were hung precisely at

5 a.m. on consecutive years — West in 1922 and Hadley in 1923. But they did not rest in peace for long.

In the 1920s, some scientists believed there was a correlation between the shape of a person’s head and the criminal mind. When they sought specimens from Arizona, Gov. George W.P. Hunt obliged. West and Hadley were dug up, and their heads were removed and shipped off to Philadelphia. The bodies went back in the ground.

“We never did get the heads back,” McWilliams says.

It can be difficult to pinpoint which of the inmates buried at the prison cemetery was the most notorious criminal, but McWilliams suggests it could have been Floyd Thornton, who died on July, 8, 1997. He said Thornton escaped from the Cochise County jail and murdered an elderly couple.

Those murders landed Thornton on death row. But his wife, Rebecca, got to him before the executioner, shooting him in the chest with a large-caliber handgun.

Her original plan was to help Thornton escape. He was outside with a hard-labor gang as she drove up to the perimeter fence and started firing away. But it soon became clear, Thornton was not going anywhere. He had no hope of escape, but he still ran toward the fence and Rebecca.

McWilliams surmises: “He was telling her, ‘Shoot me!’”

So she did. Prison guards gunned her down seconds later. Rebecca and Floyd were not reunited in death, as she didn’t qualify for a prison burial.

The LaGrand brothers, on the other hand, were buried side-by-side — gone but not forgotten. Their foster mother used to visit their graves, Becker says.

“She came out here to put flowers out,” he says.

In some other cemetery, perhaps, somebody is placing flowers on the grave of the bank manager they killed. Karl LaGrand died from lethal injection Feb. 24, 1999. Executed a week later, Walter was the last prisoner to die in Arizona’s gas chamber. The brothers were German citizens, and the German government protested the executions — especially Walter’s.

According to news accounts, it took him 18 minutes to die. He coughed, gurgled and strained against the chair straps. Some witnesses found his execution difficult to watch.

Now all is quiet. It’s just another marker over the resting bones of a violent past.

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