Mystery surrounds WWII veteran headstone found at vacant property

Mystery surrounds WWII veteran headstone found at vacant property
L.T. Wimberley's actual headstone in Caruthersville, Missouri (Source: Mike Mohundro/KFVS)
L.T. Wimberley's actual headstone in Caruthersville, Missouri (Source: Mike Mohundro/KFVS)
Bonnie Foote's sister-in-law's unmarked grave site (Source: Mike Mohundro/KFVS)
Bonnie Foote's sister-in-law's unmarked grave site (Source: Mike Mohundro/KFVS)

SCOTT COUNTY, MO (KFVS) - Nine years ago, in March of 2007, WWII veteran L.T. Wimberley was buried at Maple Cemetery in Caruthersville, Missouri.

Wimberley was a veteran who served in the United States Navy and fought in WWII.

His headstone was mysteriously found on Thursday, March 31 on a vacant property in Scott County, nine years to the day he was buried.

"Who's buried here?" Bonnie Foote of Scott County asked about the headstone. "Did this need to be here? Who stole it? Why was it here?"

"Just a lot of questions."

Neighbors, family and the Scott County Sheriff's Department have no clue why it was laying where it was found, face up in the grass.

Before the veteran's headstone was found, Bonnie Foote was looking for a headstone of her own to be made and placed at the grave of her sister-in-law, who passed away in 2008.

"My sister-in-law is buried here in Sikeston, but she doesn't have a tombstone," she said.

Foote and her family have not as of yet been able to afford a headstone for her sister-in-law's grave site.

"I loved her," Foote said. "She was a good woman. Everybody wants their family to have a grave marker."

Foote lives near where her son-in-law used to live in a house on Scott County Road 539. In their yard was a small slab of granite that Foote noticed and became interested in.

"I couldn't really afford one and that one was given to me," she said.

This slab of granite was much smaller than that of the headstone of L. T. Wimberley. This piece was about 18 inches by 24 inches in size, according to Foote.

"It had never been engraved on," Foote said. "It was just a stone. I was thinking, well, that would be great for her to get it engraved and put on her grave site."

Foote wanted to do this so that her sister-in-law would receive the honor and respect she deserved in death.

Time passed, and Foote's son-in-law no longer lives on the property. The house sits vacant.

On that Thursday, Foote decided to get the piece of slab she had initially found. However, when she arrived, she discovered that it was missing.

"It was gone," she said. "The headstone was gone and I was sad."

Instead, WWII veteran L. T. Wimberley's headstone lay there, right next to where the granite slab Foote initially found was.

"The closer I got there was a white tombstone that belonged to a service man," Foote said. "It made me curious because the other piece was gone and this one was here."

Foote posted a photo of it on Facebook and called the Scott County Sheriff's Department.

"I thought, let's find the owner," she said. "Let's find the people because it would be very important, if it was my family, that it was returned."

From that point, the Scott County Sheriff's Department decided to investigate.

"I have never seen anything as far as a grave marker being removed from a cemetery and being placed at a residence," Scott County Sheriff's Deputy Danny Finley said.

"We are not sure how exactly it ended up here," Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter said.

So why was it there? How did it get there?

Those are questions that continue to baffle everyone.

"There is a mystery," Foote said. "How did it end up here?"

So, deputies with the Scott County Sheriff's Department decided to take it back to the sheriff's department, but they soon found out they would need some help, due to its size and weight.

"There had to be a team effort," Finley said. "It's a couple 200 to 300 pounds."

A neighbor riding by helped them out, hoisting the headstone up with ropes.

"How did it travel this far?" Foote continues to wonder. "And it took more than one person to load it and unload it."

From there, the sheriff's department did some research and found the family of L. T. Wimberley. They contacted Wimberley's daughter in North Carolina, and left a message.

Deputy Finley said Wimberley's daughter called her brother in Caruthersville to check to see if their dad's headstone was missing.

Surprisingly, and fortunately, it was not. Wimberley's grave marker was still there.

The headstone found in Scott County was a duplicate.

This makes things more of a mystery for the sheriff's department, Foote and to the family of Wimberley, especially Wimberley's daughter.

"She believed it was a scam at that time, but we were able to contact her and rectify that situation," Finley said. "She was really grateful that we were able to locate it and we're glad that we can reunite it with the family."

After the Scott County Sheriff's Department posted some photos on their Facebook page, many commented, including Wimberley's daughter, Beverly Wimberley-Cunningham.

"Thanks to the help of the Scott County Sheriff's Department for their quick action in finding me and members of my family. This is an exact copy of my father's stone so not sure how this happened but thankfully for the sheriff's help in locating this stone. Myself of members of my family will pick up soon."

A biography states that L. T. Wimberley, 88, of Caruthersville, died Friday, March 23, 2007 at the Pemiscot Memorial Health Systems in Hayti, Missouri. He was born on December 14, 1918 in Senath, Missouri.

Wimberley enlisted in the United States Navy on March 2, 1942 in St. Louis. He received an honorable discharge of May 4, 1942 in San Diego, California.

"Obviously this gentleman was a war hero," Finley said. "He's a veteran. He served our country."

Regardless of why the duplicate headstone was placed there, the Scott County Sheriff's Department is investigating this as a possible crime.

"It's a theft, just as anything else that was removed from anywhere would be," Finley said. "We're going to look into that from the criminal side as a theft."

Ken Swearingin, Director of the Veteran's Cemetery in Bloomfield, said a headstone like that is the property of the Federal government.

Deputy Finley said if someone stole that headstone, they will likely face a hefty theft charge and possible jail time.

Swearingin also said that any duplicate headstone should be disposed of and destroyed.

"As far as the steps for the investigation, we have to continue with where was it originally located," Finley said. "We're going to have to get the Veterans Affairs involved and go from there to see if they can give us an idea as to why it was actually here."

"Why is there two?" Foote asked. "Why was the second one released to the public, or not taken back to wherever they make these markers."

After Foote initially posted the picture on her Facebook page, Lisa Mullins, a social worker with the Department of Veteran Affairs, was contacted about the headstone and took a look at it herself.

Mullins said she contacted Wimberley's family and they said they didn't know why there was a duplicate.

Mullins said the only time a duplicate headstone is made is when one needs to be replaced after receiving damage of any kind.

So, for now, Wimberley's duplicate headstone remains a mystery, one that the sheriff's department hopes to get more information on and solve.

For Foote, her mystery still continues, as well as to who took that slab of granite that was going to be her sister-in-laws headstone at her grave.

"It's kind of sad for her to sit out there with no marker," Foote said. "And I thought I had found the answer. But maybe something else will come through. I would love to have a marker for her."

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