HOUSTON - One week after flood waters lifted the coffin of a Houston woman from an historic African American cemetery, a widower has filed suit demanding better cooperation from the church and the funeral home to put his re-lived nightmare to rest.
A coffin containing the remains of Carolyn Joyce Fobbs-Lee rose to the surface last Tuesday morning at Riceville Cemetery along Keegans Bayou in southwest Houston. The flood carried the coffin about 50 yards before it came to rest on a concrete hiking and biking trail next to a guardrail along the bayou.
Richard Lee says he got a call last Tuesday from a deacon from Riceville Mt. Olive Baptist Church that his wife's casket had surfaced and asked him to come to the cemetery to identify her. Fobbs-Lee was two weeks shy of her 57th birthday when she succumbed to lung cancer and was buried at the cemetery in 2007.
"I was distraught. I was just out of my mind. I couldn't believe this happened. I thought that I had put her to rest and I thought I had put this all behind me," Richard Lee said in an exclusive interview with KHOU 11 News. "It reopened the wound I had."
The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences took possession of the remains last Tuesday afternoon, confirmed Mrs. Lee's identity, and Mr. Lee did not have to personally identify the body.
"I'd like to know how did it happen, why did it happen," Richard Lee said. "And I want it to be resolved. I want my wife put back in her grave in her resting place."
Lee and his attorney Annie McAdams say they alerted Riceville Mt. Olive Baptist Church that they planned to visit the gravesite with their own funeral expert this past weekend but were met with resistance by church deacons at the cemetery Saturday who denied them access until the attorney put her cell phone and its camera away. The vault lid had been put back in place and McAdams was not able to have her expert look into the now empty vault to determine if it was the proper type for the flood-prone bayou location.
"From the initial examination we believe the water did fill the vault and press up the vault top which should have been sealed and should have been likely what we believe to be a different vault," said McAdams.
McAdams and her expert allege that the cement vault used to protect the casket was not sealed properly and might not have had the required holes in the bottom to let water go in and out and keep the casket in the ground in the event of a flood. Monday, Lee filed an injunction asking that all evidence be undisturbed until a full investigation of the gravesite and surrounding graves be conducted. They allege that other graves may have the same problem.
"To stop any further alteration of the gravesite as well as the surrounding gravesites and also to let us get out there and find out what happened," said McAdams. "And we want to make sure that everybody that's buried there has the proper vaulting so this never happens to another family."
The court filing also accuses Robinson Funeral Home of negligence and sets the stage for a potential monetary reward for Mr. Lee.
Meanwhile Richard Lee says he reluctantly sought legal counsel because he and his wife were active members of the Riceville Mt. Olive Baptist Church, he still calls the church home, and they were married at the church 37 years ago.
"It's a loving place to be and anybody looking for a home that's where they need to be," he said of the church that owns the cemetery.
Lee also plans to be buried at the historic cemetery. His name is already on the grave marker next to the name of his late wife.
"Because we both love Riceville. And we both want to be there at Riceville."
Robinson Funeral Home, contacted at their offices in Silsbee, Texas and Riceville Mt. Olive Baptist Church have not responded to requests for comment.
Mrs. Fobbs-Lee was originally from the Silsbee area and her first funeral service was held there.
Meanwhile Geo. H. Lewis & Sons Funeral Directors heard about the incident and has offered their services at no charge to re-bury Fobbs-Lee in her original resting place once the legal discussion is over.
"We are honored to take part in returning Mrs. Lee to her final resting place and hope that this small act of humanity in some way brings comfort to her family," John B. Onstott with Geo. H. Lewis & Sons said in a written statement.