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Mom Finds Son After 15 Years In 'John Doe' Grave In Tennessee

10:41 PM, Aug 5, 2013   |    comments
  • Mom find son in 'John Doe' Grave after 15 years (The Tennessean)
  • Sylvia Nolan's son, LeRyan Nicholson, disappeared in 1998. Through anguish, prayers and her family's detective work, she discovered in March that he had been killed and buried as 'John (19) Doe' in a pauper's grave 3 miles from her home. Dipti Vaidya / The Tennessean
  • LeRyan Nicholson, (Photo: The Tennessean)
    
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Written by: Brian Haas, The Tennessean

In a graveyard filled with those who died with no money and sometimes no family, he died with even less.

His gravestone simply read, "John (19) Doe."

He was the 19th unidentified man buried in the Bordeaux Cemetery. He lies in plot #555, a grave overlooking the Whites Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. And around him lie 1,001 others who died penniless and, in some cases, unmourned.

WATCH: Mom Finds Son In 'John Doe' Grave After 15 years

They're just a few of those buried in Nashville's paupers' graves. And the city says the numbers have been growing.

Names and dates of most of the 10,000 buried in Nashville's paupers' graves in cemeteries throughout the city are most likely lost forever.

Among those who died penniless this year: a country music writer who kept Johnny Cash's number in his Rolodex, the mother of a disabled adult daughter who cannot care for herself and a man whose death was mourned only by the social workers who helped him at the end of his life.

"No telling how many stories are in those graves," said Sylvia Nolan, a lifelong Nashville resident.

One of them, she just found out in March, is her son. His story spans 15 years of heartache, loss and mystery - one in which the answers lay just 3 miles away from her home in an anonymous grave.

One where a police mistake in 1998 may have needlessly prolonged her pain.

He was a reserved boy who found release from a hard life in North Nashville in sports. He was a budding track star, nicknamed "Flagpole" because of his skinny frame, who wowed coaches at Pearl-Cohn High School with his speed. He was a young man whose mental illness may have led him to the end of his short, tragic life, in a burnt, rolled-up carpet on a dead-end street.

When his body was found, nobody knew who he was. He was just "John (19) Doe."

Today, thanks to DNA testing, we know his name was LeRyan Nicholson.

"I've been looking for him and I don't know. Honest to God, I didn't know. I just prayed. One night I just prayed, it was his birthday ... last year. And I said, 'Lord give me closure because I'm so tired of pain,' " Nolan said. "But I didn't want this kind of closure."

"The least of these my brethren"

Two miles north of where Nolan lives, Carol Wilson unlocks a gate in the 2400 block of 18th Avenue to a 27-acre, fenced-in field of well-mown grass surrounded by tall horse apple and elm trees.

Wilson heads up Nashville's Indigent Burial Program. She makes sure those in Nashville who die poor or without families are given a respectful burial. The job has demanded more of her time in recent years than ever before.

"This is where it started," she says looking at the lonely field. "Way back."

This field is thought to hold the remains of more than 10,000 people going back to at least 1798. But only a handful of grave markers exist in what is now called the Davidson County Cemetery. The few that do, are marked only by a softball-sized chunk of rock with a brass plate denoting the row and plot.

C.2. B.7.

The most visible landmark in the field is a large memorial stone, erected June 11, 1950, by "Christian Friends".

"In memory of all who sleep here: Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me," the marker reads.

Today, the cemetery is locked up. You have to make an appointment if you want to visit.

No one quite knows why, but there's only one full grave marker there. Wilson walks over to it and pauses.

"Temeka S. Ward, Oct. 24, 1978-Jan. 1, 1979."

"Only a couple of months," she says. "I just find it so amazing. A baby, the only marker that is visible."

The same year little Temeka was taken from her parents, a boy was born to Sylvia Nolan, who lived in the Jo Johnston Avenue area in North Nashville. She was young and didn't have a lot of money. But she had a big family to help take care of her.

On Oct. 5, 1979, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. She named him LeRyan. LeRyan Nicholson.

"It was wonderful. It was the best day of my life," she said. The memory of his birth mad her laugh. "He came right out. He was ready to come home."

Mental illness takes over

Home for Nolan today is a modest brick apartment right across from Pearl-Cohn High School. She spends most of her time cleaning her apartment, when she's not working for Goodwill. It helps keep her mind off things.

But on really nice days, she often can be seen sitting in her front yard, gazing across the street at the school where her son once studied and ran track. She looks at the faces of the children there, frozen at the same age LeRyan was when he disappeared.

Two words run through her head as she wonders what she could have done differently.

"I'm sorry."

Nolan struggled with being a young, single mother at the John Henry Hale public housing project. Money was tight. It wasn't the safest place in town.

As LeRyan got older, he became a fierce protector of his little sister, Ameera El, and his stepsister, Candace Williams. He was quiet but sweet.

In high school, he came out of his shell. There, he found sports.

"He was a great runner," said Billy Fellman, principal at The Academy at Hickory Hollow and a teacher and coach at Pearl-Cohn High School in the 1990s. "As a freshman, he won the city championship in the mile and half-mile, top five in the district and region as a freshman. He was just a natural talent."

And then, one day, during his sophomore year, he stopped going to school. He began to grapple with mental illness. In his late teens, he moved out of his mother's home and stayed with other relatives.

"It was like he was confused as he was talking. It didn't make a lot of sense. Jumping from one thing to another, not completing a thought," Williams said.

In what would have been his senior year, LeRyan entered Job Corps. It was a voluntary boot-camp-like training program in which he would earn his GED and get vocational training. But when he returned from it in late 1997, his mental demons were worse.

Nolan tried to get him help, taking him to Vanderbilt. He went on medication. He picked up smoking. His hair started to turn gray, even though he was only 18.

"That's when the nightmare started," Nolan said. "He was just not the same anymore."

LeRyan continued bouncing from relative to relative until the spring of 1998. In April of that year, he left home and didn't come back.

Nolan filed a missing persons report on April 12, 1998, but police were not optimistic.

"They said, 'We'll look for him.' But by him being grown, they said to me ... that he probably wanted to go out on his own," Nolan said.

She never heard from her son again.

'A mistake was made'

In May 1998, Metro Social Services got a new order. Invoice No. 2023 was for $235. The instructions on the invoice were straightforward.

"DROP OFF IN GRAVE 555."

A few weeks earlier, an unidentified man was found at the dead end of Mary Street, right next to the Mt. Bethel Baptist Church Christian Center. On April 13, 1998, a resident there reported finding the smoldering remains of someone.

The body had been rolled up in a carpet, dumped against a fence and set on fire. It was burned beyond recognition.

The man had been murdered.

Sgt. Gary Kemper, who now heads Metro's Cold Case Unit, said detectives worked feverishly. They developed persons of interest, even went out of state to conduct interviews.

But the case went cold in 2001. They never identified "John (19) Doe."

They never put two and two together when LeRyan Nicholson went missing April 12, 1998, only to have the burned body of a young man matching his description show up the very next day.

"They just didn't follow up correctly. A mistake was made," Kemper said. "When you look at it now, it's hard to understand why."

While police overlooked the possible connection between the missing man and the sudden appearance of an unidentified murder victim wrapped in a burned carpet, LeRyan's mother was looking everywhere for her son.

"I looked at the homeless shelter. I looked at and called hospitals. I looked everywhere for my baby, my son," Nolan said. "The years went on. I would look at some of the people on the road, to kind of picture him as he aged, to see, is that my son? You know, almost causing wrecks, looking."

For her, life stood still.

"I couldn't be a good sister. I couldn't be a good member of the church. I couldn't be nothing. Thinking, years and years and days and nights. I couldn't enjoy Christmas or holidays," she said. "It just closed me out from the world."

Every year, on LeRyan's birthday, Williams and El would talk about their brother. Was he alive? Was he in a mental institution somewhere, confused and afraid?

In 2012, on what would have been LeRyan's 33rd birthday, Williams stumbled upon a government website called NAMUS. The site contains nationwide databases for missing persons, unidentified remains and unclaimed bodies.

Williams searched around the time LeRyan went missing. She got an immediate hit, that of a young man whose burned remains were found at the end of Mary Street.

John Doe.

Williams called Metro police, who obtained Nolan's DNA and compared it to a sample taken in 1998 when John Doe's autopsy was performed. And then, one March day in 2013, Nolan got an answer after 15 years of waiting. It wasn't what she wanted to hear. But it was an answer.

"They told me they already buried my baby, my son, without me," Nolan said. "They said, 'We can put a name to him now.' "

Putting a name to him also breathes new life into the murder case, said Metro police detective Danny Satterfield, who is taking the lead.

"In working a homicide, there's nothing we can do for that victim," Satterfield said.

He grew quiet, barely speaking above a whisper. His voice cracked.

"But what we can do for that family is find out what happened and who's responsible. And we don't give up."

But there was still the matter of the grave.

A prayer for a son

Danny Hubble figures he has dug more than 500 graves in his career. As a team leader for some of Metro Parks' laborers, he began helping to bury Nashville's poorest when the city opened Bordeaux Cemetery in 1985.

The first person buried there also was a murder victim.

On May 17, 1985, Gordon Charles Lambert was put to rest there. He had been found dead in an alley near 501 Fifth Ave. S.

Like many indigent burials that Hubble has done, Lambert didn't have any family present. Sometimes, Hubble was the only person at the burials.

In those cases, he would pull out his pocket Bible and read some verses.

Hubble dug his last grave in 2006, when the Bordeaux Cemetery filled up. Since then, the city has paid the Hills of Calvary Cemetery along Ashland City Highway to handle indigent burials.

But this year, on May 30, Hubble returned to Bordeaux Cemetery to do something he had never done. A gravestone needed switching. A gravestone he probably put there, 15 years ago.

Nolan, along with Wilson, head of Metro's Indigent Burial Program, and two parks employees walked through the freshly cut grass. There, Hubble stood at the ready with a long spade in his hand.

Nolan stopped and looked down.

"John (19) Doe."

Quietly, Hubble and his colleagues pried the old gravestone from the ground. They hefted a brand-new stone - a simple square with a name and dates - out of its shipping container and lowered it with a small thud.

"LeRyan Nathaniel Nicholson, 1979 - 1998."

Hubble didn't need his pocket Bible. He pulled everyone into a circle and the words just came.

"I'd just like to take a moment, Lord, and just thank you so much for gathering here, Lord, and letting us bring closure to this gentleman's passage," Hubble said. "He can be recognized as being one of us, Lord, and we know his name, Lord, and we know he's here, and we know you know his name, Lord, and we just thank you so much, Lord. In thy name we pray."

"Amen," Nolan said.

She stared at his fresh new gravestone. It wasn't the answer she wanted. But it was closure.

Nolan bent down. She cleared the fresh dirt from the name and patted the headstone, as if it were LeRyan's face.

"Momma's here. Momma's right here," she said quietly. "And we got your name."

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