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Sisters place first grave marker at Potter's Field

11:01 PM, Aug 16, 2011   |    comments
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CLEVELAND -- Potter's Field has served as the burial ground for over 16,000 indigent since 1906. 

Last week, a family laid the first headstone.

Properly known as Cleveland Memorial Gardens, but commonly known as Potter's Field, the 17-acre site sits off Green Road near Highland Hills Cemetery.

It is the final resting place for over 16,000 poor, homeless and unknown persons in Cleveland, dating back to 1906.

Hidden from the road and most passers-by, the site is maintained by the City of Cleveland cemetery manager.

While the site is mapped and catalogued, the only previous indication to the naked eye that this a cemetery is a stone, inscribed with a biblical quote in the middle of the field.

"People picnic here. They play ball here. They don't even know," said Dreama Chopak.

Last week, the first grave marker at Potter's Field was installed.

"Now we know where our brother is, and we can come visit him," said Gerri Cola.

Cola and her four sisters, Linda Novak, Lois Onesko, Wanda Wilson and Dreama Chopak, paid for a headstone and flowers at the spot where their brother, Larry Phillips, was buried in 1989.

It took twenty years just to find out he was dead.

Phillips was last seen in the late 1980s, and for a while, was thought to be living on his own away from his relatives.  

His sisters say he had a drug problem, and may have been involved with the wrong people.

But when the family hadn't heard from Phillips after a couple of years, they reported him missing to Parma Police.

His case remained cold until last year.

Detective Marty Compton, who had worked the case on behalf of the sisters for sixteen years, realized that Phillips' information was not listed in the Ohio state database for missing persons.

Compton says, back in the 1990s, when missing persons weren't recovered after a certain period of time, their information was deleted out of the system.

Today, those databases are widely used for case solving on a national level.

When Compton submitted Phillips' information again, a match came back through the NAMUS database.

"This missing person, this file that's been on my desk for sixteen years, had been found several years earlier, floating in the Cuyahoga River," Detective Compton said.

Using ID markers, like tattoos, police and Phillips' family were able to positively ID him.

"We were hoping that he'd still be alive. I just fell down on my knees, because I knew it was him," said Wanda Wilson.

It turns out, he was buried in Potter's Field in 1989, after his body was recovered.

While it's not justice in what happened to the brother they loved, Phillips' sisters find closure in knowing where he is today, and being able to visit his grave and remember him.

"There's a piece of earth they can go to now, and know that their brother's remains are there," said Detective Compton, adding that the case brings some closure on a personal level for him as well.

The five women say they are extremely thankful for the long-standing help of the Parma Police Department, and also for cemetery manager David Mitchell, who helped locate their brother's grave.

They hope other families will follow their example, and try to locate relatives at the cemetery.

Parma Police are still taking information on the death of Larry Phillips, which occured in late January, 1989.

He was known to frequent the Flats neighborhood downtown, and his body was located under the Center Street bridge on the banks of the Cuyahoga River.

Anyone with information can call Parma Police Detectives.

WKYC-TV

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