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RIDOT: State highway ‘inadvertently’ built over cemetery with nearly 1,000 bodies

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. Department of Transportation acknowledged Tuesday that the state paved a highway over a cemetery containing the remains of nearly 1,000 indigent Rhode Islanders in the 1960s, a revelation Gov. Dan McKee described as “heartbreaking.”

On Monday, a Target 12 investigation revealed the state built Route 37 in Cranston over State Farm Cemetery, where Rhode Island’s poor, sick or mentally ill residents were buried between 1875 and 1953. Separately, Target 12 uncovered evidence that 577 bodies were relocated from a different nearby state cemetery, then reburied in an unmarked mass grave nearby, in 1975 to make way for an industrial park.

Target 12 made the grim discoveries while researching what happened to the remains of Maria da Graca’s great-great-grandfather, Antonio Coelho. She was initially told Coelho was buried at State Farm Cemetery, where Route 37 was constructed. But documents obtained and reviewed by Target 12 showed his body was one of the hundreds exhumed and reburied at the mass grave in 1975.

“This is an abomination,” da Graca said. “This is really a bad mark on the state of Rhode Island. … These people were in their final, eternal resting places, and they were dug up and dumped.”

McKee on Tuesday expressed sympathy for de Graca and other relatives of those buried in the state cemeteries, saying RIDOT was “working on getting more background” about what had happened to their loved ones.

“First to the families impacted, I can see it being incredibly difficult and heartbreaking for them,” the governor said at a regularly scheduled news conference. “It’s more than reasonable to feel as though they should be upset, not knowing or not being informed at that point in time when bodies were being removed.”

In an email Tuesday, RIDOT spokesperson Lisbeth Pettengill confirmed Target 12’s findings, saying, “Captain Coelho is not under Route 37 to the best of our knowledge.”

“No graves were moved prior to or during the construction of Route 37,” Pettengill wrote. “It was during a time when regulations were far more lax than they are now. This would never happen now.”

“The road was inadvertently built over part of the cemetery,” she continued. “The original grave markers were wooden stakes driven into the ground which had rotted away leaving no markers on the graves at the time of construction.”

Pettengill said the design phase of Route 37 was conducted in 1959, seven years prior to the passing of the National Historic Preservation Act, “so no historical or environmental surveys were done which is why the road went over part of [State Farm Cemetery].” The road was built from 1963 to 1969.

Pettengill acknowledged that since RIDOT’s records indicate Coelho’s body is not one of the ones under Route 37, his remains were likely relocated to the unmarked grave.

“The bodies were not individually marked,” she said. “There was one marker for the site but it was recently stolen.”

However, she also said the transportation agency had never been the arm of state government overseeing burials, cemeteries or state almshouses.

“We are most sympathetic to the families of all the people who long ago were buried in unmarked graves,” she wrote. “But this is the extent of our knowledge and our records.” 

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.

Shiina LoSciuto and Ted Nesi contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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