Indiana lawman digs into a mystery of empty graves.

Haunted by dark suspicions, an Indiana lawman digs into a mystery of empty
     graves. (Michael Nelson)
 Alan Richman
 People Weekly  v29 p69(3) March 14, 1988

     On midnight of the occult holiday known as St. Agnes's Eve, when the
clouds were low over Hendricks County and scuttling through the sky in a
buffeting wind, Lt. Michael Nelson, 39, churchgoer and family man, drove the
back roads in an unmarked police car. Scanning isolated churches and abandoned
graveyards, he was looking for satanic ceremonies, hoping to find a clue as to
why bodies seem to be disappearing from this corner of rural Indiana even
faster than working farms.

     Turning into an unlighted, muddy lane, he extinguished the headlights.
Ahead of him was a copse where dog bones and candle drippings were found in
September, suggesting a ritual mutilation. To his right was the 19th-century
Weaver-Dillon graveyard, obscured by brush, where one adult grave was found
empty and two infant graves were disturbed last year. A faint, eerie whine
carried across the tangled woods, and the air smelled of fresh, damp earth.

     Nelson took a light-enhancing night scope from a case and scanned the
fields. No cult festivities were evident this night, and as the wind died it
became apparent that the whine was coming from tra ctor trailers roaring by at
ungodly speeds on nearby Interstate 74. The smell of fresh earth emanated from
fertile cornfields, not spades reaching into hoary graves. Pulling back onto
the blacktop, Nelson headed toward an old house once inhabited by a woman who
decapitated her girlfriend. In the past year robed revelers were spotted on the
property. ''Frankly,'' said Nelson, a modern lawman hunting evildoers from a
more primitive age, ''this investigation scares the hell out of me.''

     He began his inquiries in September, when a tip came into the Hendricks
County sheriff's office that a body had been taken from a rural graveyard
called Hadley Yards. Once his investigation became public knowledge, other
excavations were reported. It soon appeared that ever since 1986, grave robbers
had been working Hendricks County as industriously as door-to-door Bible
salesmen did in more orthodox days.

     Within the county's 417 square miles are 126 recorded graveyards, most of
them family plots. Not all the graveyards have been checked, so difficult are
many of them to reach, but at least six of the oldest burial places have been
dug into and, according to Nelson, the bones of as many as 15 adults have been
removed. No witnesses have come forward. The only known living descendant of a
suspected victim is Hugh Weaver, 72, a distant relative of Abia Dillon, whose
grave was found empty last year. ''It's just not very nice to think about,''
said Weaver, who refused e ven to look into the empty hole where Abia once lay.
''I didn't have the guts.''

     Whoever may be carrying off the remains of the county's early settlers is
surely not part of the mainstream of Hendricks County, which Sheriff Roy
Waddell, 49, describes as ''basically a rural, well-to-do, conservative,
bedroom community.'' Located just a few miles west of Indianapolis, the county
is mostly corn and soybean fields, peeling barns, tired farmhouses and spiffy
commuter subdivisions.

     Nelson suspected that the grave robbers might be looking for jewelry until
he decided that jewel thieves would not carry off entire skeletons. He
considered other explanations, including a black market in bones for medical
schools, but realized schools would prefer fresher specimens. Finally he set
out to educate himself about the occult. From his readings, which constitute a
best- seller list of the bizarre, he learned that some religious cults prize
old human bones, believing the spirits of the deceased reside in them, and that
some value the dirt from the graves of unbaptized infants.

     Nelson's hunch, however, was that the grave robbers were involved in
satanic worship, and these suspicions were corroborated by a former cult
priestess who agreed to an interview with him. (She now has a desk job instead
of a cult position -- the pay is better, the hours regular, and she no longer
has to fornicate with barnyard animals.) ''Satanic cults are the only thing
that makes sense to me,'' the woman told him after hearing the evidence. ''If
they took an entire skeleton, they might cremate it in a sacrificial manner.''
She recommended that Nelson look for these ceremonies at abandoned or
little-used churches, particularly on occult holidays, and assured him that he
would have little difficulty identifying the participants: They would be
wearing robes or frolicking in the nude. ''This is not a traditional
investigation,'' Nelson sighed.

     Nelson's wife, Phyllis, 41, a former sergeant with the Indianapolis
airport police, now working for a private security firm, supports his belief
that satanic cult members are robbing graves. Nelson's superiors are not
convinced. Recently the sheriff ordered him back in uniform and placed him on a
patrol shift, in effect ending the investigation until new information is
forthcoming.
     Sheriff Waddell has been playing devil's advocate in Nelson's
investigation. He points out there is nothing but a few deep holes to suggest
that bodies have been disturbed. He also notes that in the 28 years he has
lived in Hendricks County, he has never seen a sign of satanic activity, and he
hates the idea that outsiders might think the place is ''full of devil
worshipers.'' Asked how long a visitor would have to hang around in order to
see such local color, Sheriff Waddell replied, a little coolly, ''Probably
forever.''

     In fact, evidence of satanic activity in the county seems to exist largely
in the imagination -- or at least in the assumptions -- of the beholder. Years
ago, recalls Nelson, he drove up to an isolated house outside the town of
Brownsburg and observed people standing around a bonfire on a snowy night. When
he approached in his marked car, the group scattered. He won't go so far as to
say that this was a satanic gathering, but he will say this: ''It wasn't a
wienie roast.''

     John Roof, chaplain of the sheriff's department and rector of a local
Episcopal church, doesn't think the grave robbings amount to more than a prank
-- ''That's as much attention as I pay to it,'' he says -- but he conceded that
about 15 years ago some sacramental vessels were stolen from an Episcopal
church and recovered in an unoccupied house decorated with satanic symbols.
There have also been reports in the county of animal mutilations involving the
dismembering of cats and squirrels.

     A number of citizens, the sheriff among them, think the culprits might be
kids, not cults, though Nelson insists otherwise. ''This is not a gag or a
prank,'' he said. If youngsters are at work, they are probably the ones who
practice perfect penmanship and keep their desks neat in school because most of
the graveyard excavations have been meticulous jobs. Nancy Petercheff, 66, who
discovered two emptied graves on her farm, said, ''Somebody worked hard, and
somebody knew how to do it.''

     Whoever these somebodies are, they are having a wicked effect on the home
life of the Nelsons, for Phyllis and Michael do not sleep nearly as well as
they did before the investigation started. About a month ago Phyllis woke up in
the middle of the night and said to Michael, ''Do you hear that? It's a man
moaning.'' He didn't hear a thing, but that didn't mean he was enjoying a
restful night. ''I read before I go to bed, different subjects that might apply
to the case, and I think that's the wrong thing to do,'' he said. ''What I read
about, I dream about. One night I woke up thinking they'd gotten me.''

     Nelson believes that if he can proceed with the investigation, modern
police methods will prevail over those who live by superstition and depravity.
If the price he must pay is not resting easily, he knows that Abia Dillon,
David and Joanna Stout and the others who may have been taken from their graves
are no longer resting at all.

         COPYRIGHT Time Inc. 1988