Ghost tories about Michael Brown's grave were already going strong when Charlie Martin was elected mayor of Springfield in 1988, just five years after the 15-year-old Holden boy died in a car accident north of Hammond.
Variations and embellishments attached to the story over the years, but the gist of it was always this: Michael Brown was walking home along a back road after a day of hunting when he was killed by a hit and run driver. When his body was discovered there were no clues, and his death would have remained unsolved if Michael's spirit hadn't intervened.
Shortly after his headstone was erected nn some stories say that it was later the same day nn Michael's mother returned to his grave in Springfield Cemetery and found a drawing had been carved on the back of the headstone. It depicted the accident and even named the driver, Wilkerson, and his passengers. Based on those clues, police confronted Wilkerson and he confessed.
The tale had all the right elements for a good ghost story, and local teens and SLU students have been passing it along for years and challenging each other to spend time in the graveyard. The story spread widely and can be found on the Internet at www. freakopedia.com as "investagated and reported" by Rex Z, who claims to be a new resident of Springfield. Some say it was on "Unsolved Mysteries" at one point, but no one can name the date and the producers say it isn't so.
Mayor Martin laughed at the spooky goings on, as did other adults with good sense, and he would have considered them harmless fun were it not for the trash left behind by partying thrill-seekers nn candlewax on the headstone, wrappers from snacks and fast foods, crushed beer cans and dozens of cigarette butts nn traces that became increasingly hard to ignore.
In 1997, about two years after his own son had died, Martin and his wife were visiting his grave when they were approached by Mary Anthony, Michael Brown's sister. Vandals had knocked over her brother's headstone, and she needed help lifting it back onto the coping. The Martins asked her if there was any truth to the stories, and she said that they were completely false. She'd been telling people that for years when she encountered them at Michael's grave, she said, but they didn't seem to believe her.
Mayor Martin added his voice to the denials then, but got no better results. The visitors kept coming, wearing a path through the grass of the cemetery and desecrating not only Michael's grave but also others nearby. After the police made a few drug busts there, aldermen considered locking the gates, but instead passed an ordinance against loitering in the cemetery between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. Since then, they've issued 15 to 20 citations a month, Martin said, but the night visitors have kept coming, and legal visitors come in the daytime as well.
Reporters approached Martin several times over the years, but he had forgotten Anthony's name and never pursued it until he was contacted this year. With a little research, he discovered that Gertrude Wilkerson, Michael Brown's mother, had ordered his headstone from Louisiana Memorials. He contacted her and suggested a meeting with local media to debunk the myth. She was reluctant at first, fearing,that "if you put a lot of light on something that's nonsense it just gets worse." But she came, and Mary Anthony came with her.
"I moved out to Los Angeles in 1987," Wilkerson said, "And before I left, we found candles and candy and such, but I never realized it was such an issue. I remember thinking that Michael loved people and found good in everybody, so he was probably sitting up there having a ball."
But when Wilkerson returned to Holden in 1996, she discovered that her daughters, Anthony and Pamela Hoover, had been shielding her from the worst of it.
"I went four or five times a year and two out of three times I would go, I would find people there," Anthony said, "And I always found litter. … I would put angels out on the coping and they would be broken. … I had to buy about 80 pounds of potting soil a year to fill in."
With evident contempt for the people who have been desecrating her son's grave, Wilkerson said, "I'll probably never stoop so low as to let them bother me. I don't believe in ghosts or goblins or anything. This is just so far-fetched because everything about his death was on TV, so there's no hidden secret. They can pull the accident report in Amite.
"I don't know how this could start. … There might be someone. … God forbid that the person I'm thinking of started this to get attention, but whoever did this, I forgive them."
The only truth to the story is that the headstone was originally put in place without the drawing on the back, but that only happened because of a mixup. Louisiana Memorials, apologized, picked it up and added the drawing as ordered, Wilkerson said.
Leslie Moonves, the business owner, remembers it well. When contacted about it at the main location in Walker, he was glad to set the record straight.
"They gave me a drawing on a brown paper bag," he said. "I traced onto the the mask on the stone, cut it out and blasted it, just like I always do. When I heard the stories, I told people the truth, but I didn't know what else to do about it. One of my men even ran into a tour bus over there while he was setting up a monument. He told them the true story, but they didn't believe him."
Despite persistent denials by everyone in a position to know the truth, the people keep coming and Wilkinson has little hope that her statement to the media will change things.
"She (Mary Anthony) took a lot of abuse from this and it left her really scarred," Wilkinson said. "I'm doing this for some kind of closure on it nn and whether this does it or not, it's the truth."