For years, Joseph and Darleen Felt worried about how to return the granite cross and urn to the graves from which they had been taken.
The Prince William County couple knew the items were stolen out of a Capitol Hill cemetery by members of a cult who used gravestones and human bones in satanic rituals. They wanted to get them back where they belonged. But with historic Congressional Cemetery in disarray, no one seemed able to help.
Then, earlier this year, Darleen Felt died. Seeing the brass marker laid upon her grave site, near the woods and meadows where they loved to take long walks, Joe Felt, 72, renewed his resolve to restore the urn and the cross to their rightful places.
Last week, he successfully launched that journey. Cemetery employees now have the urn safely in hand and are looking for the marker it came from. And the rough-cut granite cross will soon be back on the grave of a married couple who died in the 1930s, Julia E. and George S. DeNeale.
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More than 20 years have passed since the day Joe Felt was pushing his grandson in a stroller along a dirt road near his house in Haymarket and the boy called out and pointed. Felt looked up and saw something glinting in the woods: A five-foot-tall silvery cross.
It was caught in a vine, suspended well above Felt’s head. He stood on tiptoes to pull the cross down and looked curiously at its ornate, delicate carving and Latin inscription. He rolled it carefully home, balanced atop the stroller, and told his wife and then the police about it and other cemetery relics lying in the weeds nearby.
A police search of the area yielded more than a dozen gravestones and well-worn old markers, such as a small statue of Jesus as a child cradling a lamb.
And police found a bag full of human bones and skulls.
Felt saw the news stories that followed: Members of a satanic cult had stolen the skulls and other items from vaults and graves in Congressional Cemetery, and then, worried that the police were closing in on them, threw them out of a pickup truck into woods where they thought no one would find them.
Six churches in the area had been robbed, with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Bibles, crosses and vestments stolen. Under a man’s bed in St. Mary’s County, police found satanic books, crucifixes and nine tombstones.
The thought of graves being desecrated was troubling to the Felts, regular churchgoers. But it wasn’t easy to right the wrongs.
Felt’s son returned some of the items to the cemetery, but on a winter afternoon, in a clearing further back in the woods, Joe Felt came across more: the granite cross and a smooth pink-granite urn.
The Prince William police again took possession of the items. But cemetery officials apparently never claimed them. Years later, Felt got a letter warning that the department would auction off or discard the relics if he didn’t pick them up within 10 days.
So he brought the cross and the urn home and began calling the cemetery himself.
Congressional Cemetery, on the southeastern end of Capitol Hill, was founded in 1807. Senators, a vice president, composer John Philip Sousa and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover are among those buried there, along with laborers who helped build the Capitol and middle-class Washingtonians who died in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The cemetery eventually fell into decline. Its 30-plus acres were overgrown with poison ivy and dotted with cracked and toppled monuments. It was frequented by drug users and vandals.
Felt spoke several times with John Hanley, who was then the cemetery’s supervisor, about how to reunite the cross and the urn with the grave sites they had once marked. Then Hanley stopped returning his messages.
Again, Felt and his wife saw news stories: Hanley had been arrested and charged with stealing money from the cemetery, pocketing more than $175,000 from the checks people were writing for gravestones and the like. He was convicted in 2000 and sent to jail.
The Felts set the cross and urn in their mossy front yard, near some chrysanthemums, to keep them from getting broken by grandchildren racing around on bikes in their garage. Darleen Felt kept worrying about getting the relics back where they were intended to be. But at that point, there was no paid staff to call.
Then Joe Felt read in the newspaper that residents of Capitol Hill were pitching in to help restore the cemetery, which the National Trust for Historic Preservation had named one of the country’s most endangered historic sites. Felt tracked down a volunteer who agreed to come pick up the pieces — but never showed. Felt found another. Same thing.
Darleen Felt died in January. A few months later, the cemetery was in the news again. Felt read about the restoration of a vault at the cemetery, how the grounds were now well maintained, and how the staff at the cemetery were making efforts to document each grave site.
Once more, he made a phone call. This time, someone showed up.
On a hot afternoon last week, Daniel Holcombe, the grounds conservation manager, walked across Felt’s lawn, shook his hand and knelt by the pink granite urn. “That’s awesome,” he said.
Easing it over, he showed Felt how the iron pin that had attached it to the gravestone had rusted away, making it easy to break off.
Then he picked up the speckled gray granite cross and poked his finger in the hole in the bottom to see whether lead or lime mortar had been used to seal it. He said the piece was distinctive, which might make it easier to figure out where it was supposed to go.
“I’d assumed it would be marble — another marble cross, and we’d never be able to find the right grave,” Holcombe said, before opening the trunk of his car, laying out a towel and nestling the cross and the urn inside.
“They’re actually in great shape. I’m thrilled,” he said.
Felt was happy too, thinking of his wife. “She always wanted me to get them back,” he said. “We wanted them back where they belonged.”