Articles from the “News Star” about Ms. Howard’s Campaign

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Suicide, murder victim’s grave may have been found
by Robbie Evans, The Monroe News-Star, March 28, 2007

A six-month search to find the grave of a Jonestown, Guyana massacre victim from Monroe may be over.

Earlier today Mary Pearl Willis’ niece, Lela Howard of Culver City, Calif., met with representatives of the city of Monroe and the Louisiana Cemetery Board at Monroe City Cemetery to look for the grave.

Following a two-hour search that included discussions with relatives and eyewitnesses, Howard believes her search is over.

“This is wonderful because I believe in my heart we’ve found it,” said Howard, who flew to Monroe this week to conduct the search. “My plan now is to expedite a request to excavate the area. I don’t want to leave Monroe until I see them break ground.”

Howard said she wants the remains exhumed so she can ensure they are those of her aunt.

Willis was a member of the Rev. Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple and one of 900 victims in the November 1978 mass murder-suicide that Jones ordered.

Howard’s quest to find the grave began in October after she contacted Monroe’s Public Works Department to find out if any restrictions existed on putting a headstone on Willis’ grave. She was told the grave could not be found and nothing could be done to about it.

She filed a complaint that same month with Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s office because the city failed to document the location of Willis’ grave.

Blanco’s office forwarded the complaint to the state Cemetery Board, which is responsible for handling cemetery complaints.

A Monroe Cemetery Board member observed Wednesday’s search.

Howard was able to narrow the search area with the help of her cousin, Isaiah Woods of Monroe. Woods attended Willis’ funeral in January 1979 and was able to identify the site by the existence of two trees and a concrete border several feet from the burial site.

“It’s in this area,” Woods said, pointing to the area where Howard had placed a small brick to mark the gravesite. “I was at the funeral and I remember this concrete (border).”

Even Monroe’s Herbert Harris joined in the search. Harris has lived behind the cemetery on Grammont Street for 63 years. He noted that Willis was likely buried where the search was being conducted because funerals in the late 1970s were held in the vicinity of Monroe Brick, which was across Grammont Street from the cemetery.

“I had not been keeping up with the story, but I’ve always tried to help people out,” Harris said. “This is an older area, but a little newer than other parts of the cemetery.”

Harris also said he had spoken Tuesday to a woman in Atlanta who attended Willis’ funeral and that she had also confirmed the location.

Monroe Public Works Director Tom Janway said the problem with locating Willis’ grave stemmed from the fact that the city kept no plot records at the cemetery before the early 1980s. Although graves before 1980 are difficult to find, gravesites of people buried after that time are documented on a plot map.

“We have good records from the early 1980s forward,” Janway said. “After the early 1980s, we can track the graves and won’t have similar problems.”

Niece’s grave search may be near an end
by Robbie Evans, The Monroe News-Star, March 29, 2007

A six-month search to find the grave of a Jonestown, Guyana massacre victim from Monroe may be over.

On Wednesday, Mary Pearl Willis’ niece, Lela Howard of Culver City, Calif., met with representatives of the city of Monroe and the Louisiana Cemetery Board at Monroe City Cemetery to look for the grave.

After a two-hour search that included discussions with relatives and eyewitnesses, Howard believes her search is over.

“This is wonderful because I believe in my heart we’ve found it,” said Howard, who flew to Monroe this week to conduct the search. “My plan now is to expedite a request to excavate the area. I don’t want to leave Monroe until I see them break ground.”

Howard said she wants the remains exhumed so she can ensure they are those of her aunt.

Willis was a member of the Rev. Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple and one of 900 victims in the November 1978 mass murder-suicide that Jones ordered.

Howard’s quest to find the grave began in October after she contacted Monroe’s Public Works Department to find out if any restrictions existed on putting a headstone on Willis’ grave. She was told the grave could not be found, and nothing could be done about it.

She filed a complaint that same month with Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s office because the city failed to document the location of Willis’ grave.

Blanco’s office forwarded the complaint to the state Cemetery Board, which is responsible for handling cemetery complaints.

A Monroe Cemetery Board member observed Wednesday’s search.

Howard was able to narrow the search area with the help of her cousin, Isaiah Woods of Monroe. Woods attended Willis’ funeral in January 1979 and was able to identify the site by the existence of two trees and a concrete border several feet from the burial site.

“It’s in this area,” Woods said, pointing to the area where Howard had placed a small brick to mark the gravesite. “I was at the funeral and I remember this concrete (border).”

Monroe’s Herbert Harris saw the activity at the cemetery and joined the search.

Harris has lived behind the cemetery on Grammont Street for 63 years. He noted Wednesday that Willis was likely buried where the search was being conducted because funerals in the late 1970s were held in the vicinity of Monroe Brick, which was across Grammont Street from the cemetery.

“I had not been keeping up with the story, but I’ve always tried to help people out,” Harris said. “This is an older area, but a little newer than other parts of the cemetery.”

Harris also said he had spoken Tuesday to a woman in Atlanta who attended Willis’ funeral and that she had also confirmed the location.

Monroe Public Works Director Tom Janway said the problem with locating Willis’ grave stemmed from the fact that the city kept no plot records at the cemetery before the early 1980s. Although graves before 1980 are difficult to find, gravesites of people buried after that time are documented on a plot map.

“We have good records from the early 1980s forward,” Janway said. “After the early 1980s, we can track the graves and won’t have similar problems.”

Woman finally finds aunt’s grave
by Robbie Evans, The Monroe News-Star, March 30, 2007

Lela Howard’s quest to find the grave of her aunt who died in the 1978 Jonestown, Guyana massacre/suicide came to a quiet end today in a corner of the Monroe City Cemetery.

After a six-month search to find the grave of Mary Pearl Willis, it took less than a half-hour to excavate a site believed by Howard and city officials to be Willis’ final resting place. Howard, along with the assistance of local funeral home owner the Rev. Rodney McFarland, positively identified Willis’ casket following the excavation by Monroe Public Works crews.

Howard, of Culver City, Calif., had arrived in Monroe earlier this week and with the help of relatives and eyewitnesses of the funeral was able to pinpoint a location in the cemetery where the grave was.

“It’s done,” said an emotional Howard, pointing to her aunt’s grave. “She’s there and she will be recognized from now on.”

Willis was a member of the Rev. Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple and one of 900 victims in the November 1978 mass murder-suicide that Jones ordered. When she was buried in January 1979, a head stone was never placed at the site to mark her grave.

Since the city didn’t keep plot records on where graves were located in the cemetery until the early 1980s, Howard and city officials had been unable to locate Willis’ grave — until Friday. Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s office even became involved after Howard filed a complaint with her office.

The complaint was forwarded to the Louisiana Cemetery Board, which sent a representative to help locate the grave earlier this week.

Howard worked with City Attorney Nanci Summersgill Friday in a hurried effort to go through the proper channels to have the grave excavated. The effort included getting permission for the excavation from some of Willis’ other relatives.

As workers shoveled the last few inches of dirt from a portion of the grave, Howard broke down in tears. McFarland, who oversaw the excavation, looked at the color and the side of the casket.

“This is the one you described,” McFarland said.

Before the excavation, Howard had described the casket as a light blue-type color with a steel strip on the side. McFarland confirmed that the color was nearly similar and that a steel strip had been welded around the casket to seal it.

Howard, with the help of her son Chris Demirdjian, knelt down and briefly touched her aunt’s casket. Trembling, she then reach down from the dirt unearthed from atop the casket and picked up a small plastic flower with pink petals that lay on the ground.

After the dirt was placed back over Willis’ grave, Howard placed the small flower atop the grave.

“I have her headstone ordered and I’ll be back next month to place it on her grave,” Howard said. “Nobody’s going to walk around her grave again without knowing who’s there.”

Woman finds aunt’s grave
by Robbie Evans, The Monroe News-Star, March 31, 2007

Lela Howard’s quest to find the grave of her aunt who died in the 1978 Jonestown, Guyana massacre-suicide came to a quiet end Friday in a corner of the Monroe City Cemetery.

After a six-month search to find the grave of Mary Pearl Willis, it took less than a half-hour to excavate a site believed by Howard and city officials to be Willis’ final resting place. Howard, along with the assistance of local funeral home owner the Rev. Rodney McFarland, positively identified Willis’ casket following the excavation by Monroe Public Works crews.

Howard, of Culver City, Calif., had arrived in Monroe earlier this week and with the help of relatives and eyewitnesses of the funeral was able to pinpoint a location in the cemetery where the grave was.

“It’s done,” said an emotional Howard, pointing to her aunt’s grave. “She’s there and she will be recognized from now on.”

Willis was a member of the Rev. Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple and one of 900 victims in the November 1978 mass murder-suicide that Jones ordered. When she was buried in January 1979, a head stone was never placed at the site to mark her grave.

Since the city didn’t keep plot records on where graves were located in the cemetery until the early 1980s, Howard and city officials had been unable to locate Willis’ grave — until Friday. Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s office even became involved after Howard filed a complaint with her office.

The complaint was forwarded to the Louisiana Cemetery Board, which sent a representative to help locate the grave earlier this week.

Howard worked with City Attorney Nanci Summersgill Friday in a hurried effort to go through the proper channels to have the grave excavated. The effort included getting permission for the excavation from some of Willis’ other relatives.

As workers shoveled the last few inches of dirt from a portion of the grave, Howard broke down in tears. McFarland, who oversaw the excavation, looked at the color and the side of the casket.

“This is the one you described,” McFarland said.

Before the excavation, Howard had described the casket as a light blue-type color with a steel strip on the side. McFarland confirmed that the color was nearly similar and that a steel strip had been welded around the casket to seal it.

Howard, with the help of her son Chris Demirdjian, knelt down and briefly touched her aunt’s casket.

Trembling, she then reached down from the dirt unearthed from atop the casket and picked up a small plastic flower with pink petals that lay on the ground.

After the dirt was placed back over Willis’ grave, Howard placed the small flower atop the grave.

“I have her headstone ordered and I’ll be back next month to place it on her grave,” Howard said.

“Nobody’s going to walk around her grave again without knowing who’s there.”

For Mary Willis, a marker that lasts
April 4, 2007

A soft breeze swirled around Mary Pearl Willis’ resting place Tuesday, enough to make the afternoon pleasant.

Her gravesite alone among others seemed almost festive; there, over freshly turned earth, fading roses complemented silk flowers, all in the slim shadow of a 4-foot wooden stake. Somebody cared, these flowers suggested, and all who passed here could tell.

People do pass this gravesite, too, located in the southeastern corner of Monroe City Cemetery. Pleasant women walked nearby, tending to the graves of their family ancestors. Despite the nearby presence of ramshackle, abandoned houses — those appeared dangerous — the graveyard itself does not lack for care and attention. Grammont Street passes to the south, scant yards away.

Mary Pearl Willis, buried at this spot 28 years, did not lack for nearby company, either. Her unmarked grave, made in 1979, rested near the gravestones of older residents: husbands, parents, and veterans of two world wars. One marker bore the words, “Our darling,” and you know that the buried here were loved.

Soon, Mary Pearl Willis’ gravesite will also bear a stone, a permanent marker that will tell the world that she once lived, and that her life mattered to others. Willis’ life surely mattered to her niece, Lela Howard, of Culver City, Calif., who for many months pressed city and state officials to locate her aunt’s unmarked grave. Last week, with the help of city employees and state officials, family members and others, Willis’ casket was finally uncovered, the location was made certain, and the site made ready for the addition of the permanent grave marker.

Willis’ gravesite reminds us that even the poor — in this Easter season, maybe the poor especially — merit their space in eternal memory. Willis’ short life ended at 37 in tragedy — a Rayville native and medical worker, she died at Guyana. There, she was trying to adopt a child, but instead was killed in Jim Jones’ massacre/suicide at the People’s Temple in 1978. Her niece remembers her not through the strange circumstances of her death, but through her childhood memories of an “auntie” to whom she ran for warm embraces, her own mother’s beloved sister whose death shocked the niece she had left behind.

“This is my beautiful aunt Pearl. She was, is and will continue to be my beloved aunt Pearl,” Howard wrote recently on a web site dedicated to the Jonestown tragedy. The very image of her aunt, captured in a photo from the California Historical Society, reminded the grown Howard of her aunt’s affection.

By pressing for the gravesite location — Monroe was the town that Willis called home — Howard reminded us that no matter the years, no matter the miles, no matter the circumstances, family always calls us forward.

It has been that way for Howard. It should be that way for all of us.

A gallery of photos by the New-Star of the burial of Mary Pearl Willis appears
here.

Last modified on February 27th, 2014.
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